Friday, December 3, 2010

EcoBUILD in the News

From today's Commercial Appeal, a story on an EcoBUILD home...

'Build it tight': Construction methods help increase homes' energy efficiency

Robert Burditt's new Mud Island home is nearly twice the size of his former house. But his utility bills in the new house are lower.

The reason is simple: His old house wasn't very energy efficient, but his new house is.

"I bought an existing home on Mud Island about seven years ago," said Burditt, custom home builder and co-owner of Creative Development Inc. "It was drafty. It was uncomfortable. It had a 3-ton heating and air-conditioning unit in it, but because the building envelope wasn't tight, that 3-ton unit ran all night in the heat of the summer."

So Burditt set out to build smarter,

starting with his own house.

He and his business partner and brother Jimmy Burditt each built a home on Mud Island according to Memphis Light, Gas and Water's EcoBuild construction guidelines. The voluntary program promotes the use of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly materials and techniques in new home construction.

Robert Burditt used spray foam insulation in all wall cavities and in the rafters, eliminating the need for ceiling insulation and placing the attic ductwork in conditioned space. That single change made a big difference.

"You want to build a home like a plastic bag," Burditt said. "Build it tight, and ventilate it correctly."

And that rarely happens, said Kieth Kulow, EcoBuild inspector for MLGW. In fact, Kulow said, the leakage rate for ductwork in newly built houses sometimes runs as high as 30 percent to 50 percent.

"A lot of people assume when you buy a brand new house that it's energy efficient, and that's not necessarily the case," he said.

Kulow said the goal for EcoBuild was to provide a set of prescriptive guidelines for builders that allow them to build both efficiently and economically.

"An EcoBuild home is designed to use 30 percent less energy than a standard construction home," he said. "Results have shown so far that the homes are using 34 percent less electricity and 56 percent less gas."

Builders aren't required to build energy-efficient homes. That's why programs like MLGW's EcoBuild, the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star, the National Association of Home Builders' Green Building Program and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for Homes are voluntary.

"Somebody has to watch and monitor this," said Kevin Wright, owner of Quantum Showrooms at 5690 Summer.

And that somebody, right now, is the home builder or individual buyer.

"Normal construction does not get inspected (for energy efficiency)," said Kulow, adding that every house certified through EcoBuild is inspected and rated. "I've told people in the past that I guess you could build a house without insulation, because nobody looks at it. (Shelby County) Code Enforcement does a good job at what they do, which is structural and safety, but there are no real energy inspections in the city of Memphis."

Burditt, who has used the recent lull in home building to "study and take classes and bone up on knowledge" to build a competitive edge when the industry rebounds, said he believes all builders should build to eco-friendly standards.

"It's following best practices," he said. "When I build a home, I want to know that my customers are going to enjoy it, that it's going to be a nice place to live and that's it's well built."

The foam insulation he used in his own house added about $5,000 to its overall price tag. But not all energy efficient upgrades are cost prohibitive.

"If you didn't want to spend all that money on foam, you could use cellulose, which is a good product," Burditt said. "You just have to pay more attention to the details."

That means making sure no penetrations are left unsealed, Wright said.

"Corners need to be caulked; wires that go to the ceiling need to be caulked," he said. "Recessed cans, electrical lines, plumbing lines. Dryer vents are a big culprit. To get the full benefit out of insulation, you need to stop air flow."

A tight building envelope isn't the only factor in increasing a home's energy efficiency. Energy-efficient windows and tight ductwork are also important -- as is installing the right size heating and air-conditioning unit. That means hiring a professional to do a load test.

"That takes into consideration square footage, type of insulation you're using, type of windows you're using, how many square feet of windows you have, the house's exposure on the lot, how high the ceilings are," Wright said. "Most air-conditioning contractors use the old rule that 500 square feet of space equals 1 ton of air conditioning. That's not true. You might have a house where it's 800 to 1,000 square feet per ton. That's a big swing when it's a 4,000-square-foot house."

He said "overtonnage" can result in heating and cooling cycles that run in short spurts.

"It runs for a minute and turns off," he said. "It's like taking a 'Vette one stop sign to the next stop sign full floor. It's not efficient."

Burditt's old house had a 3-ton unit. In the new house, he installed a 4-ton, self-modulating system.

"The house is 1.8 times larger, there's 1 ton more heating and air conditioning in the house, and my bills are slightly less than in the old house -- and the house is more comfortable," he said.

It's easiest to build an energy-efficient home from the ground up, Kulow said. But there are steps that owners of existing homes can take to improve energy efficiency.

"Some of it -- attic insulation, duct leakage -- can be fixed and tightened up," he said, adding that MLGW's Residential Services department conducts energy surveys for homeowners.

Several private companies offer energy surveys, as well, including Memphis Energy Audit, which is based at Quantum Showrooms.

"If you follow these basic steps: Wrap the house, tape the windows, buy decent windows, make sure you have a proper-size air-conditioning unit and caulk all the penetrations, you'll save at least 30 percent on utilities, if not 50 percent," Wright said. "Who wants to have plumbing that leaks? Nobody. So why do you have ductwork that leaks? And I guarantee you, most of them leak 30 percent or better."

More information:

Check out the following websites for more information on how to save energy in new and existing homes:

At, click on "For Your Home" and scroll over the "Energy-Saving Tools" menu. There you'll find a range of tips and tools for increased energy efficiency, as well as information about MLGW's in-home energy surveys. Click on "New Homes." Click on "Housing Topics" and scroll to "Green Building, Energy & Water Efficiency."

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