Construction demolition waste

Why the home building industry doesn’t care about energy efficiency or waste

In general, most large conventional homebuilders build to code and no more. In most states, building to code means the home won’t fall down, but this is not the same thing as being excellent. In fact, it means that most homes are only built to the very minimum standard required by law.

Like many other industries—for example, the auto industry—the building and construction and real estate industry is averse to change.  Automakers in Detroit have long opposed adjustments to fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Even though the automotive technology for reducing fuel use has existed for a long time and it becomes cheaper the more we implement it, the auto industry hasn’t been interested in improving fuel efficiency on its own.

The home building industry is the same way. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) claims to be America’s largest trade association, representing 1.2 million members of the residential and commercial real estate sectors.  A powerful advocacy organization that spends a lot of money influencing, NAR has  lobbied against legislation that would label the energy efficiency of existing buildings. NAR has lobbied against incentive programs that use energy audits to help upgrade efficiency in existing buildings. The organization has also come out in favor of repealing the Clean Water Act and has even opposed the Endangered Species Act.

The National Homebuilders Association (NAHB), another powerful group representing the residential construction industry, also lobbies against energy efficiency in building standards. Both organizations argue that improving environmental and energy standards can add costs that make a home less affordable for the homeowner. But let’s not forget, it’s the homeowner who ends up paying the energy bills, not the builder. The builder is long gone before the first energy bill comes and energy efficiency just doesn’t benefit them. Here are a few of the reasons the conventional building construction and real estate industry spends so much money resisting changes to standard building practices, whether regulated or self-imposed, that would improve energy efficiency and reduce environmental impact.

1. Innovation is Risky

According to Bloomberg, the residential construction industry is a $500 billion industry. Protecting the bottom line leads the industry to perpetuate existing practices of conventional building. Most conventional stick-built homes are often made of poor quality materials and can be hard to insulate well.  In addition, construction of these homes generates literally tons of construction waste. The building and construction industry has a standard way of building and, until recently, consumers haven’t had many other choices unless they are able to build a completely custom home.

Because profit is the main priority, quality materials are not. Cheaper materials mean homebuilders can charge less. While they maintain they are working to make home ownership more affordable, they often end up creating a product, the modern suburban home, that only last a few decades at best.

Making homes more energy efficient and more durable sometimes costs more and takes more time, especially the first few times you do it.  These costs eventually come down as they become part of standard practice. Now pre-fab and custom homebuilders have also found ways to standardize components, which not only reduces their costs but also dramatically reduces construction waste. Changing the process of building to reduce waste and increase energy efficiency means the builder has to work harder and care more about quality to make a profit, at least at first.

2. We’re “Modern”

Once houses had to be energy efficient to be comfortable because we didn’t have air conditioning in our homes and coal fired power plants down the road. Now, thanks to our modern HVAC systems, we don’t have to select designs and materials appropriate for the climate or environment that can passively help us with comfort. Builders select standard materials regardless of geography because that’s the cheapest easiest way to build. This not only leads to homes that do not fit with their environment or climate, it also leads to a homogony of design where every suburb looks the same.

3. We’re out of Touch

The housing industry doesn’t seem to realize yet how people’s demands for housing are changing. Recent trends in the real estate market show people want smaller more energy-efficient homes in denser walkable neighborhoods closer to transit. Results of this US Green Building Council report on the growth of green building show conventional homebuilders may be misjudging the market if they think energy efficiency isn’t important.

Chart: https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000000062

There isn’t any doubt that being in the home construction business is a hard game and it’s understandable that homebuilders need to keep costs down and stay competitive. But we need buildings that are more comfortable, use fewer natural resources and less energy and create less waste. Homeowners do care about quality, durability, energy and environmental impact and they deserve homes built to better standards than the very minimum.

Molly Miller

Molly Miller

I write and produce stories on green design, energy efficiency, renewables and sustainability. I love writing narratives about people, showing the personal side of technology, design and policy. I make wonky information human. I write articles, video scripts, and blogs and manage projects for select clients committed to transforming business and design to protect and nurture nature and humanity.
Molly Miller