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.

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.

Materials such as Tyvek are another more recent innovation. Tyvek wraps around the house immediately behind the siding, keeping out the wind, yet allowing interior moisture vapor to pass through.

In the scramble to cut heating and cooling costs in the decade immediately after the first sharp increase in oil prices, many energy-saving measures were adopted, and some accompanying mistakes made. But the flaws in the new systems have since been uncovered, so that today most builders, particularly in the cooler regions of the country, ``have mastered the techniques,'' according to Kate O'Brien of New England Builder. ``They know about vapor barriers, wind barriers, insulation, and site orientation.''

Even with today's moderate energy costs, some builders in the colder north use their energy package as a marketing tool, ``and all good builders will respond to an informed client,'' she says.

So, to get what they want in energy efficient construction, would-be home buyers should ask several questions of the builder. They include:

Can he site or orient the house so that the living areas face the south? If this is not feasible or if a spectacular view demands a different siting, are there other ways that winter sun can be introduced into the home?

Will the home be sufficiently insulated? State building codes generally specify the R-value (resistance to heat transfer) for a given region.

Will the home be reasonably airtight? Total air tightness isn't necessary or even desirable. But if the house is very tight, what steps are being taken to ensure air quality and moisture control? In particular, are adequate, quiet exhaust fans being installed in the kitchen, bathroom, and any other stuffy room?

Will combustion air be ducted directly from the outside to any fireplace or furnace? This is particularly important in a tightly constructed home.

What heating system is planned? Electric baseboard heat is cheap to install but costly to run. Avoid it. During their lifetime, more efficient though more costly systems keep repaying for themselves over and over again.

Will high-quality windows be used that include frames with a thermal break (insulation) which prevents heat being conducted directly to the outdoors and glazing that is correctly spaced? (Panes too widely or narrowly spaced will lose heat. A quarter-inch gap is considered ideal.) Are triple-glazed windows being used on the north wall, and is special heat-excluding glass being used on west-facing windows?

Finally, is the design such that the house can vent itself in summer? This generally requires a relatively open plan that allows cooling breezes to move unimpeded through the house and exit, preferably under the eves or through some other high point in the home.

Meanwhile, the rise in the world's energy use is beginning to accelerate again, spurred on by both economic and population growth.

Some forecasts suggest that the demand for energy may be 1 times its present level by the turn of the century. In such an event the cost of keeping a home in the comfortable range year round will probably increase dramatically. Then those who invested in energy efficiency today ``will have reason to smile,'' says Fox.

First in a two-part series on home energy savings. On Tuesday, a look at some ways to upgrade thermal efficiency in your present home.

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