Energy efficiency vs. frills. Many home buyers choose a Jacuzzi over better insulation
LIZ FOX is as concerned as anyone else about current tensions among the oil-producing states of the Middle East. But the Cambridge-based specialist in energy-efficient construction sees a slight silver lining to these tensions. They just might knock a ``little sense'' into new-home buyers. ``Everyone who looks ahead further than next week,'' she says, ``knows that our current good fortune in low-priced oil won't last more than five or 10 years even if the Middle East stabilizes.'' She is aware, for instance, that industrialist Armand Hammer forecasts oil at around $100 a barrel by the turn of the century.Skip to next paragraph
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What bothers Ms. Fox are the tales builders bring to the ``residential building science'' seminars she organizes around the country. Too many are saying the same thing: When the homeowners have to decide between a better insulation package or an oak staircase or a Jacuzzi, ``the staircase and the Jacuzzi win out most of the time.''
Leon Trueman, who manages Hancock Building Materials Inc. in South Paris, Maine, concurs. Hancock markets a passive solar home designed to cope with the rugged winters of northern New England, and time was when Mr. Trueman would sell six or more of these homes in a year. Now he's down to half that number.
When energy prices were high, the first priority in a new home was energy performance, followed by good looks, Trueman says.
``Buyers can get both,'' he points out, ``but today if they can afford only one, good looks generally win out.''
David Sloan, a senior editor at Practical Homeowner magazine, also faults some builders in this respect.
``They know what sells,'' he says. ``Cosmetics. People buy what looks good to them, so builders go in for great entryways and round-top windows.''
Ads in major magazines devoted to home construction (Practical Homeowner and New England Builder excepted) tend to run 20 to 1 in favor of amenities and cosmetic options over energy efficient ones.
Energy efficiency, it seems, simply isn't seen as important enough to make it a top priority with most buyers these days, yet even by today's inexpensive-energy standards an uninsulated home of average size in Massachusetts can cost about $2,000 a year to heat.
As Fox points out, those homeowners who take steps to contain their heating and cooling costs while their house is being built will have much more discretionary income in the years to come. The need, then, is to choose draught-free construction, good quality in doors and windows, and good insulation - though not necessarily ``super-insulation.''
After the oil crises of the early '70s, the industrial nations of the world scrambled to conserve energy every way they could. In housing that meant adding insulation, including 12-inch-thick super-insulated walls, sometimes turning to double-envelope construction - a sort of house within a house - and adding various solar heating features. Double-paned windows became standard in all new windows, and even triple-paned for windows on the shady side.
The latest glass technology allows heat and light into a room, yet once it is indoors the glass retains the heat as effectively as a moderately insulated wall. Still other formulations, used in west-facing windows or homes in warmer latitudes, let in light but exclude nearly all the heat.