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Colorado Builders Apply 'Green Building' Codes - 2002-05-14


More than half of America's annual energy supply goes to heat, cool and light the nation's homes, offices and factories. Not surprisingly in these energy-conscious times, making buildings more energy-efficient has become a national priority. Many Americans say government agencies should be taking the lead in speeding the development of so-called "green building" codes. But there is still considerable debate over precisely how those agencies should get involved.

The old-fashioned bungalows and tree-lined streets in north Boulder make the neighborhood popular. But many new buyers find these quaint little wood-frame homes, built many decades ago, to be both too small and too dark inside.

So a construction crew is doubling the bungalow's size and adding plenty of windows. David Johnston, a national expert on environmental building who is a consultant on this remodel project, emphasizes the changes are more than cosmetic.

"We're looking at a remodel here in Boulder that incorporates the principal features of green building, which are energy efficiency, resource conservation, and indoor air quality improvements throughout the house," he explains. "And it's the blend of those that are the basis of the Green Points Program here in Boulder."

Boulder is a national leader in green building codes, which mean the heating bills at this remodeled bungalow will go down, even though the house will be twice as large. David Johnston credits some other Coloradans for promoting the technologies that make energy efficiency possible: Amory and Hunter Lovins.

"Amory and Hunter are absolutely the vanguard of modern day thinking about energy in general and buildings in particular," he said.

Two decades ago, Amory Lovins suggested it is possible to get more out of our electric power, measured in megawatts, by thinking less about finding new energy sources, and more about conserving the energy already available. He and Hunter Lovins promote that idea though their work at the Rocky Mountain Institute. He calls this concept "Negawatts," as in negative watts.

"A negawatt is a saved watt," says Mr. Lovins. "It's a watt you don't need to produce because you're wringing more work out of the watts you already have."

Amory Lovins lives in an energy-saving home in Aspen. The house features large, south-facing windows that capture the sun's heat during the day. Thick, insulating walls and stone floors release that heat throughout the house at night. This passive solar design makes it possible for Mr. Lovins to grow a small indoor crop of bananas year-round, despite Aspen's alpine winters. He does it all without drawing power from the utility company. He says that in many less dramatic ways, the concept of negawatts has reduced American energy consumption.

"Our reduced energy intensity in the past quarter century is now the biggest energy source in the country," says Mr. Lovins. "It's 70 odd percent bigger than our total use of oil. It's 5 times our domestic oil output. Three times our oil imports, 13 times our Persian Gulf imports; it really deserves some more respect."

Mr. Lovins worries that only five percent of the country's new construction projects meet national green building recommendations. Meanwhile, government subsidies for fossil fuel and nuclear power development outweigh investments in energy conservation and renewable fuels.

"I wish we had a much more supportive and less antagonistic policy framework," Mr. Lovins says. "Otherwise, we will end up yet again, inventing and developing technologies that we then end up buying from abroad. Wind machines from Denmark, photovoltaics from Japan, because Congress or the White House periodically kills the programs that are very effectively getting these things to market in this country. They've done that several times now, and it seems really silly, but they're doing it again."

But many builders wonder how much government intervention we need.

"Can regulation help? Oh, gosh, I could hear a thousand people shouting at me, yes or no. . .," says Kristin Shewfelt. She directs environmental programs at McStain Corporation, a Boulder construction firm whose voluntary green building standards surpass most city requirements.

Indeed, many private builders have mixed feelings about the government's role in promoting more energy-smart building codes.

For Ms. Shewfelt, tax incentives must be used carefully and consistently. For instance, she believes a 1970s era tax credit for solar panels wasted money because solar panels weren't good enough in those days to justify a widespread promotion campaign.

"Once those tax credits disappeared, the market disappeared," she notes. "Did that create profound, lasting change or a change in value systems that drove the market to move in a different direction? I would argue that it didn't."

Because green building techniques have improved, Ms. Shewfelt says the cost of making a home 30 percent more energy efficient today is only 3 percent more than the cost of building to meet conventional codes. She feels the time might be ripe for new tax credits, as a reward to builders and buyers who make energy efficiency a priority. To educate more consumers about green building options, she would like all builders to disclose the green building qualities of their construction, much as food manufacturers must display ingredient labels on their products.

"I think the best thing you can do is put choice out in the market place," says Ms. Shewfelt. "You put choice out there and give consumers full-blown information. Cards on the table information."

Back at that Boulder bungalow, David Johnston make clear that however it comes about, America's building industry must move faster toward green building practices.

"I wish the innovative ideas of the Rocky Mountain Institute had really become commercialized in 1980 as opposed to waiting 20 years," says Mr. Johnston. "Had we built homes to that energy efficiency standard then we would not need to import oil from the Middle East today."

To spread the word, David Johnston leads green building seminars. And members of Amory Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute recently participated in a national green energy summit to promote energy conservation in federal construction and tax incentives for commercial builders. Green building proponents are confident that with enlightened public policies, their shared vision of a more energy-efficient building industry could soon become the accepted practice in towns and cities across America.

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