The new generation of green builders

Joe Rios typifies a new generation of environmentally conscious workers who are thinking green.

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    Alexandra Marks interviews Joe Rios (aka Joe Gas) about a generational trend in building energy-efficient homes.
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Meet Joe Rios, known around here at Sheep Dog Hollow as “Joe Gas.” In his early 20s, he’s in the vanguard of a new generation of builders with a green consciousness and a determination to keep on the cutting edge.

As he was growing up, it never occurred to the Connecticut native that he’d get involved in environmentally conscious building. Nope. He was going to be a diesel mechanic and work on the big rigs.

But he fell into a job working at a natural gas company. Then he met Tony Silverio, who owns a heating and plumbing company in Old Saybrook, Conn., that specializes in geothermal heating and cooling systems and other green technologies, such as natural gas-fired tankless water heaters.

“When I got on with Tony, I did a lot of classes with the Noritz hot water heaters and other things like that, that started me up thinking about [green building],” Joe says as he puts the finishing touches on a basement wall where he’ll install one of the gas fired Noritz tankless water heaters here at Sheep Dog.

“I think differently in a big way now. Everybody should go green," he says. "It makes a big difference costwise – upfront costs are a bit more but in the long run it pays out more – you save.”

I mention Joe because of an article sent to me by my editor. It has a grim headline: “US loses opportunity with home energy efficiency.” It’s actually a good piece that talks about the Environmental Protection Agency’s success in getting up to 20 percent of the new homes built in the US in 2009 certified with an Energy Star rating, which means that they are “20 to 30 percent more efficient than typical houses.”

But then the article takes a turn for the pessimistic:

Despite the EPA's gains, some 99 percent of American houses are "sick" – damp, drafty, dusty, noisy and expensive to heat and cool – and could be made at least 30 percent more energy-efficient with highly cost-effective, tried-and-true energy-efficiency improvements…

The problem, it concludes, is a combination of a “economics and regulations":

Mortgages are structured in ways that fail to recognize efficiency's benefits, while a patchwork of inconsistent and ill-enforced energy codes provides conflicting signals to industry. Meanwhile consumers remain largely unaware of efficiency's advantages, advocates say, thereby bypassing an easy target for considerable cuts in national carbon emissions.

I can’t argue with that, but being a “glass half-full” person, I can stress the positive that the article also mentions, such as the current availability of Energy Efficient Mortgages – which have been around for 20 years – and efforts in Congress to increase their usage.

It also mentions efforts to improve housing codes nationwide to increase their energy-efficiency standards:

A measure in the climate bill would change that by establishing a nationwide code. The bill calls for a 30 percent increase in efficiency over the 2006 [International Energy Conservation Code] IECC upon enactment, a 50 percent jump by 2014 and a 75 percent increase by 2029.

Now, had I been the editor writing the headline for this article (yes, it’s the editors who write the headlines, not us reporters) it would have read like this: “US has great opportunity to increase home energy efficiency.”

That brings me back to "Joe Gas.” His choice of work and environmental awareness is part of a fundamental change occurring here in the US. Like his boss Tony, being “green” and “environmental” was the one of the last things he’d thought he’d be in high school, or even just a few years ago. But because technology and economics are now catching up with the environment, awareness of the importance of energy efficiency is spreading fast.

“Three years ago, I did 15 percent geothermal, 60 percent gas, and maybe a little oil system here or there,” says Tony. “We’re about 90 percent geothermal now and 10 percent gas. In my world, it’s taken off. But then again, I’m known for geothermal and so people come to me.”

While he acknowledges that many builders are still using traditional technologies because their upfront costs are less, more and more people are now looking for energy efficiency when they’re buying and renovating their homes. And that’s helping to nurture a whole new generation of environmentally conscious builders like “Joe Gas,” who may help change things for the better even faster.

Editor’s note: Alexandra Marks blogs twice a week – usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays – about her green and budget-friendly restoration of a 1902 farmhouse in Connecticut. Click here to find all her blog posts and articles.

The Monitor's Environment section has a new URL. And there's a new URL for its Bright Green blog. We hope you'll bookmark these and visit often.

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