Austin, Texas—the state capital and home to the University of Texas—has long been known as a liberal bastion in a conservative state, and the city’s residents are renowned for their environmental consciousness. But it wasn’t the community’s mind-set that led to the establishment of the nation’s first comprehensive green building program; it was a nuclear power plant. The city of Austin owns the local electric utility, Austin Energy. In the 1970s, there was a political controversy involving whether the city council should buy a share of the South Texas Nuclear Project to add needed capacity. After years of debate, the city council approved a 16% share, but it also developed an energy-efficiency program with the goal of deferring construction of new power plants.
In 1985, the council adopted the city’s first energy code and started Austin Energy Star Homes. The program rated single-family dwellings on energy performance, awarding them one to four stars. Five years later, the city expanded the program to include water conservation, efficient materials use, and solid waste ratings.
In 1991, it was renamed the City of Austin Green Builder program, and in ensuing years it developed guidelines for commercial and multifamily properties. City-owned Austin Energy was put in charge of the program in 1998, making it one of only a few utility-sponsored green building programs. (Portland, Ore.’s Earth Advantage was initially launched by the utility.)
One of the program’s biggest roles is influencing city policy, says Richard Morgan, program manager for Austin Energy Green Building. The program was voluntary at first, but in 1999 the city required buildings that receive municipal funding, including affordable housing, to meet green requirements, and in 2003 mandated that all downtown buildings meet the standards too.
The green building program also is responsible for developing new energy code proposals, so staff are continuously identifying energy-efficient systems and concepts. Strategies that prove effective are rolled into the mandated energy code.
Name: Austin Energy Green Building
Location: Austin, Texas
Program Manager: Richard Morgan
Purpose: Offers consulting, resources, education, and
ratings to promote construction of environmentally
friendly homes and workplaces
Programs: Residential, Commercial, Multifamily
Homes Certified Last Fiscal Year: 1,022
Builder Breakdown: Of 54 builders and design/builders
participating last year, 10 were classified as production
builders (100-plus homes per year locally). Those 10
builders accounted for 80% of the program’s certified homes.
On the web
That process will continue in coming years as the green building program leads the Zero Energy Capable Homes initiative, which is one part of Austin’s Climate Protection Plan. The initiative calls for all Austin homes, by 2015, to use 65% less energy than houses built to code in 2006 and thus be zero energy.
Another new program set to launch next year will require single-family and multifamily building owners to conduct an energy audit and disclose the results to potential buyers or renters. While the initiative is not technically part of the green building program, “The green building staff leads the policy efforts when we do things like that,” says Matt Watson, policy director in the office of Austin Mayor Will Wynn.
Years of Achievement
Even though the Texas city’s housing starts are down 20%, Austin Energy Green Building rated about 30% of all newly built residences--1,021 homes from fiscal October 2007 to September 2008, up from 981 the previous fiscal year. Morgan says the average certified home uses 1,400 fewer kWh per year than a dwelling built to code, totaling $137,610 in energy savings for the 1,021 homes certified last year. The fiscal 2008 certified new homes also will save about 589 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year from power plants, Morgan adds.
The program has been successful in achieving its original mission: Morgan estimates the city saves between $850,000 and $1.4 million each year in deferred construction costs for additional power plant capacity. The program is “one of our key strategies that we use to avoid the need for new energy generation and all the costs, both financially and environmentally, that go along with that,” Watson says.
Benefits to Builders
Builders cite the resources and feedback provided as the program’s greatest benefits. “They are helpful on a one-on-one basis to figure out what you should do during planning and throughout the construction,” says Khair Zaman, owner of Z Works Design/Build. In addition to planning assistance and continuing education, the program’s raters visit projects both during construction and upon completion.
While clients only occasionally ask to have their homes rated, custom builders say they usually rate their projects anyway to keep up their program membership (builders who go several years without rating a home may be dropped from the program directory) and to ensure their homes meet high quality standards. While Zaman says it is not necessary to build to the green standards to compete, he notes that the program provides a marketing advantage, with efforts such as an annual home tour to raise awareness.
Facing the Challenges
The program currently has no rating fees in the Austin Energy service area, which roughly equates to the city limits, but it will begin charging a flat $50 fee for in-area ratings starting in April. The program collects $75 for out-of-area ratings, and builders must work with a certified third-party rater, with varying fees. While participating builders say the fees are low, the testing required for the highest ratings can be onerous, says Bill Moore, owner of Wm T Moore Construction and the first builder to have a home rated by the program.
But Zaman argues that the blower door and duct-leakage tests are important enough to justify $300 to $500 for each test. “If my front door leaks, I think it’s the responsibility of the contractor or the builder to find out before they hand the keys over to the homeowner,” he says.
Morgan says an ongoing challenge will be meeting growing demand for green building without watering down the ratings. And maintaining an above-code standard will be tougher as local building codes become stricter in 2009, 2012, and 2015. Furthermore, verifying the integrity of existing green buildings is an issue, Morgan says: “How do we make sure green buildings continue to live up to the standards?”
This is the first monthly spotlight on a local green building program. Next month: Denver.