Maybe someday people will brag about the energy efficiency of their homes like they brag about the miles per gallon they get in their fuel-sipping automobiles.
Maybe someday soon in Lawrence.
Building code changes that took effect July 1 made Lawrence one of the few cities in the region to require that all newly constructed homes undergo a home energy audit, which in most cases is going to produce a score that will allow comparison of energy efficiency among homes.
"We think it is going to work much like miles-per-gallon numbers when people are shopping for a car," said Bobbie Flory, executive director of the Lawrence Home Builders Association.
The changes are part of the 2012 International Building Code, which ups the ante on home energy efficiency. But many communities are exempting themselves from the home energy standards in the code. Lawrence officials did not, but did tweak the rules a bit to allow builders to use a specific type of test, the Home Energy Rating System, to determine the energy efficiency of a home.
The HERS test involves a private home energy auditor reviewing the building plans for a home. The auditor calculates a score based on the amount of insulation used, the energy efficiency of appliances and equipment and other factors. The auditor then does an inspection of the home before Sheetrock is installed in the house, said Neal Ezell, a local builder who already uses the system.
A HERS score of 100 means the home has the energy efficiency of a home built to the 2006 energy efficiency standards. The new Lawrence code requires homes that are started after July 1 to have a score of 80 or lower, meaning it is about 20 percent more efficient than the average 2006 home. In 2014, the code will require a score of 75 or lower, and in 2015 it will require a score of 70 or lower. The score will be posted on the electrical box of each home.
"You're really going to see builders take a lot more time and effort to seal up their houses," Ezell said. "They're going to be using a lot more caulking, a lot more foam to fill up empty spaces. If you have a lot of air moving in and out the house, that's not going to be good for your score."
The stakes are high for builders. If a home does meet the minimum score, it won't get an occupancy permit from the city until energy efficiency improvments are made.
Ezell, who served as the chair of the city's building code board of appeals that reviewed the code changes, said that has made some builders nervous. But despite some of the apprehensions, the Lawrence Home Builders Association did not come out against the code changes.
"In this town, I think we have the type of clientele that is going to appreciate this type of standard," Ezell said.
How much the new building standards may add to the price of a home is still to be determined. Flory said the national home builders association provided figures that it could increase the price of an average home by $5,000 to $7,000. But she said several local builders reviewed the requirements, prepared plans using them and came back with a lesser cost.
Ezell said he thinks the amount of money needed to meet the codes will be $2,000 or less in most cases. But builders are conceding that one type of home may see larger increases than others: Small starter homes built on a concrete slab foundation. To meet the higher energy standards, those homes likely will have to have insulation applied to the edge of their concrete slabs. That isn't often done today because it can be time consuming and somewhat costly, Ezell said.
But those starter homes also will be the ones that can see the greatest improvement in energy efficiency because of the changes.
"That one change alone can result in a 20 percent drop in energy costs," Ezell said. "Entry-level homes could see some dramatic benefits in terms of lower energy bills."
Flory said her office has been explaining the new system to local real estate agents, who believe buyers will value the new information. Although the code changes only require the testing for newly constructed homes, Flory said she thinks people trying to sell existing homes may someday be pressured to have home energy audits conducted on their homes.
"I think buyers may start pushing for it," Flory said. "I think it is information buyers are going to want to have."