Step aside activists. Stand down environmental groups. Contractors are advancing the green building movement as fast as any nonprofit, green manufacturer or other eco-zealot. They are the guys taking it to the streets to single-handedly spread the adoption of sustainable design, energy efficient construction practices and green building technologies.
I’ve decided to give these proselytizers the recognition they deserve. So, I’m launching a series of articles profiling green contractors. For the first edition, I connected with Kyle Ashley of Green Building Energy Services, a contractor here in Austin. I was surprised to learn that we’ve got our work cut out for us. For a city that prides itself on being progressive, Austin has a lot of old, energy-inefficient buildings.
Before we get into that conversation, meet Green Building Energy Services. They are certified by the Building Performance Institute (BPI) and affiliated with a number of energy conservation organizations, including the Texas Green Network, the Austin EcoNetwork, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and others. In my conversation with Ashley, we discussed why Austin’s buildings are overdue for retrofits, what types of projects are in high demand and how homeowners can get that highly sought return on investment (ROI).
But before sharing my findings, I want to hear from you. Do you know a construction company that is making a big impact in their community by promoting sustainable design, architecture and/or construction? Let me know. Leave a comment below, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or get in touch on Google+.
Austin’s Older Buildings Missing the Mark
We have a lot of work to do in Austin. The majority of our buildings don’t comply with modern building energy codes, such as those established by the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO). As Ashley informed me, “there is a significant opportunity for retrofit and upgrade work in the Austin area. Most buildings are 15 to 20 years old (or older). The number could be as high as 80 percent.”
I was a little surprised when Ashley first shared these estimates. Given that buildings make up 40 percent of our state’s energy use – and nearly 70 percent of electricity use – there’s a great opportunity for us Austin’ites to improve the energy efficiency of our buildings.
Fortunately, Ashley and his team are here to help. They devote most of their resources to work on retrofit projects, and primarily residential projects. “This is where we identified the biggest area to contribute to the community,” said Ashley. “In terms of what we are doing, it is probably 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial; 80 percent retrofit and 20 percent new construction.”
So what kind of work is in demand? How can we cut our energy use?
Record-Breaking Temperatures = Record-Breaking Utility Bills
Austin just had the hottest summer ever. As you would imagine, our utility bills are also off the charts. So there is a lot of demand from property owners that want to cut utility costs through energy-efficient retrofits.
Ashley and his team find that most issues originate at the building envelope. That is, the ventilation and insulation of a building’s roof, walls, doors and windows.
“There are so many homes with traditional atmospheric vents. Often, they don’t have enough air intake into the attic. The air becomes stale and heats up like a conduction oven. This is common among older homes built out in the hill country, or those in downtown Austin that were built in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.” – Kyle Ashley
Sometimes it’s just a matter of insulation. Older homes may have little to no insulation in walls. So Ashely and his team use non-expanding injection foam to completely fill the wall cavity.
On the commercial side, a common project is roof treatment. Ashley and his team use an expanding spray-foam product to help improve the energy efficiency of offices and retail buildings. According to Ashley, many businesses have flat and untreated roofs. They need better protection to act as a radiant, air and moisture barrier.
What’s the ROI of Green Construction?
The question on every building owner’s mind is, “What’s the ROI?” There are three main measurable improvements Ashely and his team work toward:
- Financial impacts. Every building is different, but owners can reduce their utility bills 15 percent to 30 percent with energy efficient upgrades. In an extreme example, Ashley participated in a remodel of a home that was replacing siding. They did a complete energy efficient upgrade – radiant barrier in the attic, non-expanding injection foam around the walls and more – and they immediately received a 35 percent reduction.
- Energy conservation. They collect utility bills before and after a project, then ask for quarterly updates. They’ve noticed an average 20 percent reduction of kilowatt hours in cooling months, and a 20 percent reduction of gas use in heating months.
- More comfort. When a home is properly ventilated and sealed, homeowners and business owners are more comfortable. They don’t have outside air running through (i.e. cold drafts in the winter), and their homes and buildings aren’t as hot during the summer. So one of the first things their customers end up doing is turning the thermostat up in the summer and down in the winter.
While Ashely suggests hiring a qualified organization to perform a comprehensive energy assessment, building owners can realize energy and cost savings with little investment. By simply changing your behavior, you can conserve and reduce energy consumption without having to do remodels and energy efficient retrofits.
Some quick take-away tips include:
- Don’t set your thermostat more than three or four degrees higher when you leave your home every day. When you return and change it again, your AC has to work significantly harder to make up this temperature change.
- Use appliances in the morning or late evenings.
- Take showers in the morning, not the middle of the day, and take shorter showers.
If you have other ideas, leave a comment below. We also want to hear about other contractors making a difference in Austin and beyond. So share your story below.
Thumbnail image created by Living Off Grid.