The National Association of Homebuilders talks the talk of caring about home energy efficiency, then fights bitterly to prevent any helpful green legislation. Will the real NAHB please stand up?
Back on March 30, a fluff piece from the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) appeared in my inbox under the heading “New Homes Increasingly Offer Efficiency, Sustainable Features.” It was a retread message generated by the public affairs department, giving lip service to the Association’s claim of support for sustainable building practices and energy efficiency.
These kinds of meaningless “news” items are actually intended to do little more than bolster the count of positive media impressions for the trade group and generate some ink that can be attributed to the organizational leadership by offering up a “quote” from the current chairman, in this case that “Our builder members are telling us that more and more buyers are looking at new homes for the efficiency in design and functionality” and that “Whether it’s improved insulation or sustainable building materials, today’s homes can reach higher energy performance and greater durability than was even possible 20 years ago.”
Sadly, what these efforts at image building often result in is not much more than another bucket of self promotion being emptied into an existing ocean of hypocrisy.
The e-release, which is designed to be picked up by the press, goes on to state:
“As more Millennials enter the housing market, they are sharing what features are most likely to affect their home buying decisions. An NAHB survey revealed that Energy Star certifications are a priority for these home buyers. In fact, 84 percent of this group is willing to pay 2-3 percent more for an energy-efficient home as long as they can see a return on their power bills.”
NAHB also surveyed home builders about the features they are most likely to include in new homes they build this year. Four of the top 10 features focused on energy efficiency: low-E windows, Energy Star-rated appliances and windows and programmable thermostats.
Some home buyers are looking for even more sustainable features, prompting an increasing number of single-family and multifamily builders to deliver green homes. Green builders incorporate energy, water and resource efficiency; improved indoor environmental quality and sustainable and locally sourced products into their projects.
An NAHB survey of single-family home builders revealed that nearly 25 percent of builders installed alternative energy-producing equipment in new construction. This includes geothermal heat pumps and photovoltaic solar panels. The current 30-percent tax credit available for homeowners who install this equipment is set to expire at the end of 2016, which makes this a good time for interested buyers to consider purchases."
This all sounds great, but if the message is genuine, then why does the organization devote so much of its staff time and resources fighting against new codes and providing support and every available resource to state and local affiliates who battle tooth and nail to prevent the adoption of more stringent regulations, especially energy codes requiring higher levels of performance, in jurisdictions all across the country?
On April 6, one week to the day after receiving the message above, another item appeared in my inbox from NAHB— only this one was sent to association members who opt in to a “news blog” and it reflected a far less favorable attitude toward energy efficiency. This time the heading read, “Guaranteed Savings from Energy Codes? Not So Fast.”
In this case, the association staff referenced a copyrighted 2014 working paper (www.nber.org/papers/w20797) prepared for the National Bureau of Economic Research by Arik Levinson of Georgetown University, which is titled “How Much Energy Do Building Energy Codes Really Save? Evidence from California,” in which Levinson concludes that “there is no evidence that homes constructed since California instituted its building energy codes use less energy today than homes built before the codes came into effect.”
The entire blog posting can be found here, but the bottom line of the blog concludes that “there are no guarantees when it comes to energy savings, and mandating new home efficiency to combat the effects of climate change or other societal improvements is not likely to result in success. The codes have served an important purpose, ‘[but] the codes will not have reduced energy use or carbon pollution relative to business-as-usual trends.’”
The problem with cherry picking a few carefully selected lines from an extensive research paper like this one (Levinson’s paper is 42 pages) is that they can be taken completely out of context and spun into whatever flavor of special interest Kool-Aid one wants to whip up in order to support their goals.
Significantly, the blog conveniently leaves out the following from the author:
What These Findings Do Not Mean
Because I recognize the potential for controversy, let me be clear about what this paper does not say. Nothing in here should be taken as evidence that energy-efficient building codes are bad policies—only that states should not be credited with saving the amount of electricity and carbon dioxide emissions promised when those codes were enacted.
One reason that new and old buildings might use similar amounts of energy today is that owners of older homes have taken steps to increase the energy efficiency of their homes: upgrading their heating and cooling systems, replacing windows, or adding insulation. If homeowners would eventually increase the energy efficiency of their buildings anyway, building codes might save homeowners that expense but should not be credited with reducing energy consumption relative to a world without the codes, at least not for long. Another reason that new and old buildings might use the same electricity today is that homeowners respond to the lowered cost of lighting and air conditioning by using more. In that case, the codes may make homeowners better off but not save as much energy as promised. In sum, what follows should not be interpreted as an indictment of building energy codes, only as evidence that their forecasted energy savings may be overstated.
The author goes on to suggest that some of the reasons for his findings may be explained by the fact that home sizes have continued to grow, that the number of energy-using devices and systems have increased, that more homes are being built in hotter parts of the state thus increasing the air conditioning loads (remember the report focuses on California) and, as already indicated, that greater energy efficiency in their homes may cause some consumers to be less responsible in their personal behaviors relative to conservation, an unintended but nevertheless unfortunate consequence.
What is deeply troubling here is that NAHB, while positioning itself and its members as champions of energy efficiency and sustainability who have the best interests of their homebuyers at heart, will simultaneously seize upon an opportunity to selectively use third party information to provide excuses for the foot-dragging sector of the industry who continue to fight against mandates of any kind, especially building energy codes.
Codes are important to the builder because they establish a level playing field on which to operate while providing consistent, predictable boundaries for the responsibilities and liabilities that the builder takes on with regard to safety and performance. But the codes do not exist primarily to benefit the builder, rather, they exist to provide protection for the consumer so that the homebuyer in any given jurisdiction can be confident that their home will be safe, comfortable and resource efficient, and that they will be able to rely on the enduring value of their most important investment.
As a member of the association for more than 25 years, and a Board member for 20 of those, I am calling on NAHB to represent its members (the majority of whom are committed to delivering the very best product possible), as well as the industry in general, with accuracy, consistency and integrity. The organization needs to stop trying to have it both ways and get behind broad-based, widely-supported efforts to assure that American home buyers are the best housed in the world, even if it means that some of their members will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century, rather than helping to contrive alibis intended to enable them to remain in the dark ages.