Residential sustainability trends for 2023.
Farah Ahmad is a licensed architect, LEED-accredited professional in building design and construction, and nationally published journalist specializing in sustainable design and green building standards. Views expressed are her own.
Jack Baldwin is one of the managing partners and founders of the custom home design company Reynard Architectural Designs. Jack also hosts the By Design podcast which tells stories about architecture, design and inspired living.
Jack: Hey, this is Jack Baldwin with Reynard Custom Homes. We have our next installment of our Sustainability Spotlight Series with Renewable Farah. This is a series that we've started in October to talk to homeowners about how to get sustainable solutions out of their homes.
We really get nerdy. Farah is an architect in the New York area with local government. She's a LEED Accredited architect who really has a passion for bringing green thinking.
Today we are talking about residential sustainability trends for 2023.
What's great about talking with you, Farah, is that you're so close to governmental codes, you know what's going on. You really keep your eye on those things. So we are going to talk about trends, what's going on in codes, what things homeowners should understand when they're thinking about their new construction homes.
Let’s follow along with the results from the 2020 Residential Energy Consumption Survey.
Farah: Yes, so this survey was administered by the US Energy Information Administration and was published during the pandemic. It's one of the most recent residential surveys that are out there in the market that also has a good national representative sample of housing units. They had over 18,000 or so folks respond to this. So, it's a really great representation of what's going on in the housing market, and really sets the stage for the trends we will be discussing today.
Jack: Yes, so we are seeing here that more people are spending more time at home.
Farah: Yes and, despite people spending more time at home, we are seeing that residential energy use has actually declined by 4% in 2020 from 2019. So, that's really interesting, because with work from home scenarios and despite the increased energy use intensity from this, we are still seeing an overall decline.
The survey also indicates that the warmer winter months in 2020 have reduced heating demand, which typically accounts for about 40% of energy use in homes. So, that's just something to keep in the back of our minds as we see how energy use and consumption is trending.
Looking at slide 9, we can see that Florida and Hawaii had the highest percentage of all electric homes in 2020. And, if you take a look at this graph, there are almost as many states that are not all electric as there are with all electric. If you take a look at how the United States is performing in terms of the quantity of states with all electric homes, it's really all over the board.
It's a little surprising to me. You know, about 50% of these states are low range, and then the other half are in the mid-range.
Trend #1: Grid-Interactive Efficient Buildings (GEBs)
Jack: The first topic we wanted to discuss was grid interactive efficient buildings, or GEBs. That may be a new term for people, even if it's trending in the construction industry. But what does that mean with energy efficiency for buildings grid, interactive efficient buildings? Is that what we are seeing when we are looking at this graph? When you say all electric homes, are those the type of homes that are GEBs?
Farah: Yes, GEBs are the next wave for electrification and transform quite literally the way we use our power grid. When we talk about grid interactive buildings, we are talking about building equipment and systems that work with the power grid.
When you have alot of clean power available on the grid, or when you have low demand, there aren't a ton of dirty emissions just being put out there. Buildings can work with the power grid, to draw power at times when the grid is more environmentally friendly. So, it's this time-of-use energy efficiency. A real-time carbon signal is given out to the building to tell the building when you have high carbon intensity and lots of grid emissions on the grid. The grid is going to give a signal to your home and say, ‘Hey, this is not a good time to draw power. Maybe shift your load somewhere else.’ It is this really smart, interactive way of using the grid to be more environmentally friendly. That's going to be kind of the next wave. I did an article on this with Green Biz for the Sonoma Clean Power Headquarters. Check out that project, it's a really good example of this grid engagement with buildings. There are homes in the US that are being tested out for this pilot.
Jack: Awesome. So what's the legacy solution? If this is the next wave, what's been typical beforehand? Have we traditionally looked at how the grid performs?
Farah: I believe there’s been more attention to overall grid loads. However, we really have just been looking at independent energy performance for buildings. There hasn't been concern on the homeowner level with how our neighbor next door and our entire community performs in regards with how that will impact the grid. With GEBs, we pay attention to this microgrid for your home and its connection to the power grid and how it contributes to the grid emissions.
Jack: So if you shift your building loads and you use less energy at a time where it's just better for the greater good, it's more environmentally friendly for the community's emissions. It's a super interesting concept. If anyone wants to check out more about it, the New Buildings Institute has quite a bit on it as well.
Jack: What would that look like for a new homeowner, are there some solutions that are available to them to opt in to this?
Farah: This is in research and development and piloting phases right now, it’s not readily available on the market as of yet here in the States as far as I know. I would encourage people to check out the Energy Department’s website for more information on the timeline of when this will be introduced.
Jack: How would it work for homes?
Farah: A building management system with built-in software for your home speaks to the building systems inside.
Jack: So, it's like a super automated smart home. What's important about what you said is you're thinking about this differently than legacy thinking. We are not siloed. We are not just individuals. You know, my home and its power consumption and outputs into the environment are not happening in a vacuum. So if we think about it in a community kind of way, I think that's the type of thinking that leads us to seeking out these types of solutions. I'm part of a grid. I'm part of a community. How can I reduce what I'm putting out and reduce what I consume?
It's about being part of the community. We talk about being grid independent and going off the grid, but at the same time, most of us have homes that are not off the grid. We don't have a battery storage system to completely not rely on the power grid. So, if we are connected to the grid, how can we do that in a more environmentally responsible manner?
Farah: Yes, how do we reduce our electric demand during what the grid is telling us is a very high cost, high carbon hour?
Jack: Yes, and being off the grid is a very difficult thing to achieve. We do have clients who build in remote areas in North Georgia. You're still dependent on being part of the community no matter how remote you are.
Trend # 2: Smart Homes
Jack: Another thing that many of our clients talk about which you brought up right away is smart homes. The technology is out there and there are really great solutions we can leverage to automate solutions so that we can meter our consumption. So, tell me about Smart Homes. Where's that trend headed?
Farah: I think that this is picking up even more. While it’s not necessarily a new concept, we are seeing more and more readily accessible, easy to implement user-friendly solutions that are available at your local store. It is all about hooking up as many of your systems and accessory devices to one streamlined system to optimize energy usage and automate your home for ease.
You essentially have sensors and controllers that can regulate your lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation, etc. so that nothing is wasted. You have a user friendly building management system that will tell you your home's usage at any one given time and which system is sucking up the most power. It enables you as a resident to become a smarter building manager and lower your bills and lower your usage. It also influences your behavior in the home as well. It trains you to be smarter and think more about how you use energy.
Jack: These are just so easy to hook up. You just need to buy a device that can hook up to another smart device. Right. The next trend that we were going to discuss is resiliency.
Trend #3: Resilient Homes
Jack: We have talked about this topic in our previous episodes, but tell me a little bit more about what we can do to ensure our homes are more resilient.
Farah: So again, we are going to see an increase in resilient homes. Severe weather events are becoming increasingly more frequent. This makes an investment in resiliency even more critical. Not just on the community level, but also on the individual level. We all want energy security, right? We want to know that we'll have power and be able to operate during some sort of a natural disaster no matter where we are. You don't need to be near a coastal zone for a disastrous weather event to happen. Precipitation is increasing, heat is increasing. These are all risks that can impact you no matter where you are in the U.S. There are many passive and active solutions.
Passive solutions for maximizing resiliency include an airtight or a well insulated envelope to ensure that your home can survive and serve as a shelter- especially in areas where you have really extremely hot or extremely cold weather in peak seasons or year round.
Then there are active solutions like battery storage- being able to island yourself from the grid which can allow your building circuits and systems to continue to operate and remain online when there are restrictions like black-outs. There are also other solutions like green roofs to insulate your roof and provide protection from snow and rain loads.
Jack: We’ve also seen very simple things people can do in the building process just to find good products, like ZIP sheathing to weatherize the home. Also, striking that balance between shielding your home and providing breathability too- you still want airflow to happen within the house, and we also want to secure places with gaps to prevent loss of heat. It’s definitely important to ask your builder about resiliency and to find out which products are qualified for it. I know it’s important for you, Farah, to find things that are rated really well and have integrity.
Farah: Exactly. I want to speak more to some of the statistics on these slides, which I think are really going to hit home the points you're making right now.
Farah: A general trend that we are seeing as far as energy consumption, where our energy portfolio lies, and what our fuel sources are is that we see single family homes are more likely to use natural gas for water heating. It’s also interesting that mobile homes are more likely to use electricity.
Jack: And, that does tie into our next trend, electrification. By that, we mean getting rid of fossil fuels burning in the home.
Trend #4: Electrification
Farah: This is impacting all sorts of building systems and equipment. You have everything from heat pumps to hot water heaters for domestic water. Actually, something that is new and controversial in New York is that the state governor has been pushing a ban on gas stoves in new construction homes.
That’s really controversial because folks are saying, well, this is my home. How can you control It? Nobody likes to be banned for anything. However, the policy here applies only to new construction, not to any existing homes.
Jack: Right, and there's a lot of conversation about how there are toxins being emitted from gas stoves.
Farah: Yes, this is a huge issue where you have recirculating hoods. And again, I don't really know the impact or the scale of how much these toxins are contributing to poor indoor air quality, but we know that gas stoves certainly are a huge contributor to emissions.
Jack: Are there any incentives that are happening to get people to think more about electrification?
Farah: Yes, certainly. It's a great question. On the national level, the Inflation Reduction Act is granting economic incentives to replace old appliances with more environmentally friendly appliances. The utility providers on the local level are giving tax rebates and other sorts of incentives if you install electric equipment, such as heat pumps.
Jack: So people need to pay more attention to what's being put out there to incentivize you to take advantage of some of these programs. We've talked about this in our previous podcasts, but the upfront cost of things versus the life cycle cost and savings has been an issue. With more of the private sector like the utility providers providing incentives coupled with state or federal incentives that are being thrown out there, it actually becomes a pretty economically viable solution.
Farah: Also, where electricity is really expensive at times as well, there are other ways to offset that with other solutions, but we'll get more into that.
Jack: You've given us some really good food for thought already about, what can I be thinking about with my relationship to my power consumption? What can I be thinking about in relation to my automated solutions? What can I think about when I go into my home and, and start designing it and start building it, to get the best results but also lower my impact? So, it's a really great train of thinking that we are going along and it goes into building materials.
So, at least from our perspective, we as a design firm get to specify for our clients all of the building materials that go into their home as a custom home design firm. Therefore, we really do feel like it's our responsibility to guide people well. That's a big reason why we have you repeatedly on these sustainability spotlights so that people can think about their building materials before they start construction.
Trend #5: Natural Building Materials
Jack: You mentioned wood-based construction and naturally sourced products, but talk to me about what trends you're seeing in the building materials world.
Farah: Something that really is cropping up more and more in the building science world is embodied carbon. When we talk about building emissions, alot of times the numbers that you're seeing are quantifying operational carbon- dirty emissions that are really associated with using the building. These are emissions that are contributed to the environment from using your heating, your lighting, etc. all your building systems, your appliances, etc.
Embodied carbon, on the other hand, speaks to these other parts of the carbon lifecycle that is associated with your building that you maybe were not paying attention to. Embodied carbon is associated with the raw extraction of your materials, transporting your materials to construct the home, disposing of those materials-the other components of the material’s lifecycle. Other than just simply using your home, there are these other emissions that really make up a huge bulk and now we are trendings towards paying more attention to this! In fact, building scientists are predicting that embodied carbon will make up as much of your building emissions as operational carbon- they’ll be equivalent.
Jack: So where can a homeowner get more information on embodied carbon when selecting materials for their home?
Farah: Embodied carbon is being studied right now for different materials. There are alot of online databases that you can look through. There's the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute, which has a database. There's EC3 where you can simply just plug in a material or a product and understand what the embodied carbon is for that material.
Jack: This allows you to make a smarter choice about what to pick.
Farah: Exactly, and it’s also leading the industry to think about alternate materials. So, you know, instead of energy intensive materials like concrete, we are looking at things like wood and carbon sequestering materials that are more viable solutions. Wood-based construction and other naturally sourced products are going to become even more prominent. New York City, for instance, recently approved the use of mass timber which is huge. They’re now permitting buildings to be constructed out of mass timber for up to 85 feet. The International Building Code actually allows up to 200 feet high! Though the use of timber isn’t new, jurisdictions like New York City with huge building stocks are supporting the use of this material. There's other natural materials that I think will continue to pick up use as we realize that many of the traditional materials that we are using such as glass, concrete, metals, etc. have huge carbon impacts. Now we can look at other natural materials like stone. Stone is low maintenance, durable, and there are no emission of toxins or chemicals into your indoor environment and it's gorgeous to look at.
Jack: I agree. I love it, inside and outside.
Farah: It's just this exposed finish that needs a polish after you've extracted it. It's about as natural as you can get. And, bamboo is another material that I love, and I think we'll see more and more of that being showcased and being specified for projects. It’s durable, lightweight and it is available for all sorts of interior applications, whether it's flooring or cabinetry or countertops. There's just such a use for it, such a versatility.
Jack: You don't necessarily have to go with the materials that your contractor is telling you about, but they could probably source material, natural material that is on a site somewhere, and that can be reused or salvaged. You also get to incorporate the vernacular of what's around you too, into your home.
Trend # 6- Minimalism
Jack: Let's talk about minimalism too. People talk about minimalism from a design perspective, but also from a size perspective.
Farah: All the trends that we have discussed so far all lead to this minimalist design. Since energy impacts and usage all come also with the large scale and complexity of a bigger home, right? Well, because of all these emissions contributions, we are going to see a lot more people looking towards minimalist homes. With the rising costs of real estate in the US and with the increasing and versatile costs of fossil fuel energy, I think smaller homes are just going to become simply more attractive options. I think this conversation about tiny home construction and design and even modular homes will continue to crop up. We'll see more and more communities that focus on affordability and developing communities around that theme.
Jack: I'm noticing the same concept- people's values are just shifting towards a new way of thinking about design- what do I really need? How can I get elegance and style without being overstated? Can you get something really beautiful stylistically without having to get overly complicated? Minimalism informs design in so many ways. It's not just the size of the space, but just how you treat the space.
Trend # 7- Solar-Ready and EV-Ready Homes
Jack: Let’s talk about another hot topic. Speak a little bit about more readiness around both solar panels and electric vehicle charging stations in the home. Where's that headed?
Farah: As far as trends go with electric vehicles (EV), according to this study from 2020, more than three quarters of EV owners charge their vehicles at home. The survey also reveals that there are more single family homes with solar on the west coast. And, solar installation is more likely on homes that are owned versus rented. Moreover, between 2010 to 2020, we've seen an increase in the number of single family homes with solar.
Jack: With over 75% of EV owners charging their electrical vehicle at home, it shows that people are willing to put in that small economic investment because they're seeing a payout for owning an electric vehicle and it serves their needs in the community.
Farah: Exactly. And, solar readiness is also trending. Having a solar-ready zone on your home means you've allocated a space on your rooftop, and you've got the electrical infrastructure in place to install solar in the future. You have the electrical capacity and the space.
What’s super interesting is that with an increase for electric on the grid you have concerns of what happens if we electrify too much, or what if we don't have enough power? Well, that gives more reason to increase renewable energy sources. That’s going to lead to more demand for solar, right?
Jack: We are going to look to more sources of renewable energy to offset that electric demand.
Farah: So I think that there's this really interesting balance that's happening right now where we have these competing interests for electrification and solar.
Drivers for Change
Jack: So, looking at all these trends, are there any drivers in place for change?
Farah: There’s the Inflation Reduction Act on the federal level. The Inflation Reduction Act is going to advance decarbonization in several ways. It's the largest national move that we've seen recently. First, it’s a supporter of an increase for electric vehicles. Biden even announced that by 2030, the goal is that half of all vehicles sold in the U.S. will be electric. This is why we are seeing so many different makes and models for EVs across different American car manufacturers. The Inflation Reduction Act is also introducing more low carbon materials and technologies. There are also alot of economic incentives for tax credits. The Act is also setting aside funding for these sorts of technologies. There's also more of a demand for federal projects that will use low carbon products in their construction.
There’s also the International Energy Conservation Code, or the IECC. You’ll see electrical vehicle infrastructure requirements. There were public proposals to facilitate the electrification of the transportation sector. Renewable energy and more energy efficiency requirements for existing buildings are also prominent. We'll get more details as the final version of the 2024 IECC is released.
Jack: So, the legislation really speaks to the trends.
Farah: And, so do the statistics. The survey we’ve been reviewing also reveals that the number of households using LED lights has increased dramatically, from 4% to 47%.
Jack: That's showing you the impact of the manufacturing industry. Old technology is being pushed away by newer technologies. People are adopting them because it's readily available on the shelves.
Farah: It’s the same story with smart homes- in 2020, about 40 million households had smart speakers. We are seeing an increase of these systems and equipment in the homes that are being automated or controlled.
Another interesting statistic is that 31% of households reported that their main heating equipment was 15 years old or older. That’s showing us that older equipment, which have 20, 25, maybe 30 year equipment life cycles, are now due for a replacement.
Jack: So the legislation that we are seeing on phasing out fossil fuel burning equipment in homes and replacing them with something that is maybe electric or just more environmentally friendly makes sense.
Farah: We’re also seeing that nearly 90% of households used air conditioning in 2020.
If you replace traditional through the wall units with a heat pump, that's using that cooling energy more efficiently.
Farah: Furthermore, only one third of households with these programmable or smart thermostats actually use the capabilities to control their temperature. This speaks to our first recording on our sustainability spotlight series, where we talked alot about occupant education building commissioning, and understanding how to use your equipment and your systems. This statistic shows that that education is so important.
Farah: Here’s another interesting energy statistic to set the stage. 27% of households experience energy and security in 2020- whether it's an economic disparity, people weren't able to pay their energy bills, or received a disconnection notice from utilities or their homes were at an unhealthy unsafe temperature…there's this imbalance that you're not properly using the energy you need for all sorts of reasons- social, economic, etc. It just speaks to the need that we need proper energy solutions so that no one is left out. As we continue to study electrification and renewable energy, there are more stable, optimal solutions that are available to the homeowner. As we continue to diversify our energy sources and provide more options for people, these solutions will become more popular choices.
Jack: Taking a look at these trends, the policy drivers, and the underlying statistics have helped us understand the green building framework for the new year. Thanks for advocating for people to become empowered to learn, as we always talk about here on the Sustainability Spotlight series.
Farah: Thanks for your passion on this, Jack and to Reynard Designs, for promoting education to our audience.
In preparation for this podcast, we asked the industry to share some of their favorite predictions and manifestations for 2023 in the green building world. Here’s what they had to say: