Do We Have the Will to Fix the Housing Industry?

One expert says we have the knowledge, tools, materials, and technology to do it.

House under construction
McMansion built of sticks in the middle of nowhere.

Andy Ryan/Getty Images

Ron Jones, Green Builder Media co-founder and president, says the building industry has to clean up its act. Writing in Green Builder, he notes:

"Those of us in the housing sector must adjust our frame of reference and embrace greater responsibility for the outcomes of our actions. There has perhaps never been a more urgent need to honestly reassess the impact and performance of what, where, and how we build. ... It is generally accepted that buildings account for roughly 40 percent of energy use in the United States and a corresponding 40 percent of carbon emissions generated. Yet, the industry resists all attempts to move the needle in a positive direction, instead hiding behind the skirts of “affordability,” a code word for profitability."

He is right, of course, but there are a couple of problems. The first is his conclusion: "We can do better. We have the knowledge, the tools, the materials, and the technologies. The question is, do we have the will?"

The Knowledge

Blower Door Test
A Blower Door Test, the first thing that you do.

Anobiumpunctatum on Wikimedia

The first question is, whether most people have the knowledge. I did a quick search of websites, magazines, and contractors on the question "how to reduce heat loss" to see what answers came up and what they recommend first. Almost every single site suggested wall insulation and window replacement as the first things to do. Yet we know from Harold Orr, who virtually invented the Passive House and the chainsaw retrofit, and whose word is gospel to me, about what you do first. He told Mike Henry of The Sustainable Home the biggest problem is air leakage:

"If you take a look at a pie chart in terms of where the heat goes in a house, you’ll find that roughly 10% of your heat loss goes through the outside walls.” About 30 to 40 % of your total heat loss is due to air leakage, another 10% for the ceiling, 10% for the windows and doors, and about 30% for the basement. “You have to tackle the big hunks,” says Orr, “and the big hunks are air leakage and uninsulated basement.”

Some sites were better than others, with Mike Holmes of Make It Right noting that sealing windows, doors, and gaps is the first thing to do. Only one insulation company that I found, Great Northern Insulation, mentioned the most important thing anyone should do before they start any kind of home improvement: a blower door test.

"Air leakage is simply a recipe for wasting heating and air conditioning. While many homeowners focus on insulation as a remedy, resolving air leakage issues has proven to be critical in improving energy efficiency. Every effort to reduce heat loss must include air sealing. Ask GNI how you can measure your home’s air leakage through a Blower Door test."

It is like going to the doctor and they don't do a blood pressure test. This is where you start, but nobody is interested in simple generic solutions; there is no money in caulking or sealing, the builders and contractors would rather sell new windows and equipment.

The Customer

benefits of home improvement


Then there is the second problem: the customer. They are not interested. A recent survey of 900 households conducted by HomeAdvisor, a site that helps people find trades, found only 8% of homeowners listed improving energy consumption as a top reason for doing home improvements. They write:

"This could be cause for concern, given that residential energy consumption accounts for roughly 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., and the average household spends $250 per year in wasted energy alone. Cutting back on energy consumption can make a huge difference not just on homeowners’ wallets, but also on the amount of fossil fuels that are burned each day."

But even HomeAdvisor gives bad advice about energy savings, saying "windows typically account for 25% to 30% of your home’s heat loss—installing Energy Star-rated windows with low e-coatings may add 10% to 15% to the upfront cost, but will help you save on your utility bills and may help you qualify for local or federal energy rebates." Windows are not even close to that high a percentage of heat loss.

As the famous Minnesota Pyramid of Conservation points out, windows are way at the top of the list for complexity and investment; the only thing that gives a worse return on investment are solar panels on the roof. But if people buy green, they want to be seen. This has been called conspicuous conservation.

Industry: The Fox Is in Charge of the Henhouse

Jones writes:

"Inexplicably, we seem to willingly participate in a deadly game of chance each time we respond to another disaster by rebuilding the same old way, in the very same places, with the same marginal systems and materials. We somehow expect a different outcome the next time our number comes up."

In the U.S., the building codes are mostly written by industry, in an excruciatingly slow process that doesn't even acknowledge carbon emissions. The International Code Council (ICC), which is not international and doesn't do much except "model" codes, has been taken over by industry. According to Sarah Baldwin in Smart Cities Dive, the recent code revision cycle was a mess.

"ICC members representing fossil fuel interests and developers lobbied to appeal the climate-favored improvements and modify the voting process. While the ICC rejected the request to repeal efficiency improvements, they repealed the all-electric measures. They also curtailed future local government voting by modifying the IECC development process, limiting opportunities for local governments to shape future IECC versions. The effects are far-reaching, making it harder for communities to stop fossil fuel expansion in new buildings."

So we keep building the same old way, powered by the same old fossil fuels, to the same old miserable standards.

The Will

The level of knowledge in the industry is abysmal. Ask them about embodied carbon and they will never have heard of it. Ask a mechanical contractor about mean radiant temperature and they will stare at you blankly. Ask the North American supplier for Passive House quality windows and they will cost twice as much and take a year to get. Ask a client what they want and they will tell you quartz countertops. Ask the authorities about tougher codes and they will shrug.

This is where I think Jones is wrong in his concluding statement. We don't have strong building codes because of "affordability." We don't have the knowledge, tools, materials, or technologies. And we certainly don't appear to have the will.

View Article Sources
  1. "Survey: 1 in 4 Americans Severely Underestimate This Home Improvement Cost." Home Advisor, 2021

  2. Goldstein, Benjamin, et al. "The Carbon Footprint of Household Energy Use In The United States." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 117, no. 32, 2020, pp. 19122-19130., doi:10.1073/pnas.1922205117