April 30, 2014

I’m a big fan of ENERGY STAR® for new homes.  It’s a brand that most people recognize. It encourages new home builders to build to a higher standard.  Because it is so popular, I believe is one of the most effective programs in helping us reduce our carbon footprint.  The program is well run from the technical side and from the administrative side.

At Tartan Homes we take genuine pride in being the earliest adapter of ENERGY STAR® for new homes.  From the first day of our involvement, we committed to building every home to the energy star standard.  Since then, together with Mark Rosen our ENERGY STAR® tester and consultant, we have monitored the energy star standard very closely.  Since inception ten years ago, the ENERGY STAR® standard has undergone numerous upgrades, and Tartan has implemented these changes well in advance of the transition deadline.  We have done this in order to ensure a proper implementation of the improvements in building techniques, as well as to enable us to continue presenting ourselves to the buying public as a builder of higher quality homes, that is, ENERGY STAR® registered homes.  One reason we decided to go 100% energy star is to avoid having two classes of houses under construction at the same time. It seemed like a recipe for confusion.  Which house gets extra insulation? The HRV?  We deal with enough customization and variation already.

Having said all this, I have a bit of a pet peeve with ENERGY STAR®.  In my opinion, it’s too easy for builders to call themselves and ENERGY STAR® builder.  Here’s why.

First of all, the builder does not have to build a set percentage of homes to the ENERGY STAR® standard in order to present themselves as ENERGY STAR® builders.  All they have to do is offer an energy star upgrade package, usually for $5000 or more, that purchasers can choose.  We have plenty of anecdotal evidence that some builders actively suppress the selection of this upgrade on the sales floor, saying things like “don’t worry, our homes are built to the Ontario Building Code standard, which is a very high standard”.  Yet simply by offering the upgrade they can present themselves as ENERGY STAR® builders.  This does not present a competitive marketing advantage for us.

Whenever I meet with the ENERGY STAR® people I suggest that they raise the standard.  Perhaps a builder needs 50% of their homes to be ENERGY STAR® certified before they can call themselves ENERGY STAR® builder. Something like that.
I should note here that there is an indirect relationship between the ENERGY STAR® standard and the Ontario Building Code (OBC). Everybody has to build to the minimum OBC standard.  The ENERGY STAR® standard, however is higher than the OBC.  The ENERGY STAR® home has a combination of better insulation, better windows, more efficient appliances, advanced heating and cooling technologies, and so on.  The OBC people look at ENERGY STAR® as a testing ground for better building practices.  When the OBC announce that the minimum requirements are rising, a lot of the changes come from the existing ENERGY STAR® standards.

In a general sense, most of the former 2009 ENERGY STAR® standard is now the OBC minimal standard.  Likewise, much of the current ENERGY STAR® standard will become requirements of the OBC in 2015, by which time a new and more stringent ENERGY STAR® standard will be in place. Because builders can register homes as ENERGY STAR® homes prior to construction, they can continue building and closing homes to the previous ENERGY STAR® standard, until a final obligatory transition date.  They can do this while other builders can choose to register at the current standard.  In essence, there is a broad transition period during which minimal OBC is the same as the expiring ENERGY STAR® standard.  Builders can sell and close new homes that are built to the minimal OBC, and still trumpet themselves as ENERGY STAR® builders.

You can imagine our frustration.  Currently, all of our homes are being built to the 2012 (version 12.1) standard, but we can’t use the ENERGY STAR® brand to differentiate ourselves of the builders mentioned in the previous paragraph.

When I meet with the ENERGY STAR® people I suggest to them that the transition periods are too long, and it is too easy for middle-of-the-road builders to hitch their wagons to the ENERGY STAR® brand.  The bar should be higher.