Building America and the Builders Challenge, the DOE’s Guide to Improving Energy Efficiency

e-ScaleIf you have never heard of the Department of Energy’s Building America initiative, started in the 1990’s, start paying attention. With tax incentives for home energy efficiency and the addition of the new Builders Challenge initiative, started in January of 2008 this program is likely to become increasingly popular.

Building America works with research teams that include builders, manufacturers and technical experts to develop technologies and strategies that lead to improved home energy efficiency. They also created the Builders Challenge; builders that agree to join the Builders Challenge commit to constructing homes that rate 70 or better on the EnergySmart Home Scale (E-Scale).

According to Stacy Hunt, an energy and environmental building consultant who includes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as clients, codes for energy efficiency are getting more stringent, and demand for high performance homes from consumers are rising. Builders must find ways to both meet and market these improvements, well beyond what they do today. The Builders Challenge and the Building America Program help provide resources, such as technical support, to meet these new goals and marketing tools to help sell consumers on the importance of these energy efficiency improvements.


In 2008, the first year of their launch, the Builder’s Challenge program qualified 1200 homes and have already developed packages that achieve residential energy performances 30 – 40 % above code. The ultimate goals of the program are more ambitious than that, though – by 2020, the DOE wants to make it possible for every American to own a cost-effective net-zero energy home (PDF 852 KB), with zero energy commercial buildings following by 2025. According to the DOE “A net-zero energy building is a residential or commercial building with greatly reduced needs for energy through efficiency gains (60% to 70% less than conventional practice), with the balance of energy needs supplied by renewable technologies.” Other goals include:

  • Produce homes on a community scale that use on average 40% to 100% less source energy
  • Improve indoor air quality and comfort
  • Help home builders reduce construction time and waste
  • Implement innovative energy- and material-saving technologies
  • Improve builder profitability
  • Provide new product opportunities to manufacturers and suppliers
  • Dramatically increase the energy efficiency of existing homes.

Best practices and case studies (PDF) to date are broken down by region and available for builders and developers at no charge. The benefits to builders are numerous and include lower material and labor costs during construction and less construction waste. Homeowners get the real benefits, though, in the form of lower utility bills, better indoor air quality, energy-efficient mortgages and higher resale prices.

The website has some great links for homeowners that want to improve the energy efficiency in existing homes, including:

  • DSIRE – Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy—A comprehensive source of information on state, local, utility, and selected federal incentives that promote renewable energy.
  • Do It Yourself Network—An on-air, online network that provides in-depth project instructions, easy to understand demonstrations and product tips for home and hobby enthusiasts.
  • DOE’s Efficient Windows Collaborative—Provides unbiased information on the benefits of energy-efficient windows, descriptions of how they work, and recommendations for their selection and use.
  • ENERGY STAR®—ENERGY STAR, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, offers product-specific information on high performance appliances and lighting for the home. You can also view information about home improvement, new homes, and tax credits for energy efficiency.
  • Home Energy Briefs—Offered by the Rocky Mountain Institute, these nine guides describe what the average homeowner can do to save energy.
  • Insulation Fact Sheet and Tool—This fact sheet, provided by the DOE, covers a variety of information regarding insulation. You can also access an online tool, the ZIP-Code Insulation Program, to help determine the amount of insulation appropriate for your house based on your location.
  • National Energy Affordability and Accessibility Project—The Residential Energy Efficiency Database helps consumers find energy efficiency programs a utility or state offers to help save energy and money.
  • Simply Insulate—Helpful information about insulation and links to information about incentives in your area. This Web site was created and is maintained by North American Insulation Manufacturers Association.

They have information for apartment dwellers, too. It includes ways to reduce heating and cooling costs and conserve energy.

According to the DOE, “Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions account for more than 80 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.” In 2007, the total U.S. emissions were up 1.3% from the previous year, to 6,022 million metric tons (MMT). (As a side note, 2579.9 MMT were from petroleum and 2162.4 were from coal) Of those emissions, 1,249.5 MMT came from residential energy use. Energy efficiency in the residential sector is the low hanging fruit in the fight against catastrophic climate change. Ultimately, we must address energy sources, but between incentives for efficiency in the stimulus package and best practices provided for builders, there is no reason we can’t see an immediate reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions even before we take the needed steps of developing an energy system that uses 100% renewable resources.

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