Proposed federal standards that would set limits on the amount of energy buildings can consume are about to trigger a national debate of importance to home buyers, renters, architects, builders and others concerned with residential real estate.
The Department of Energy's long-awaited energy performance standards for new buildings could save consumers a lot of money, or cost consumers a lot of money or both, beginning in 1981.
The standards, issued for public comment in the Federal Register, seek to cut energy costs in new houses, apartment and office buildings and most other new construction by as much as 52 percent from current levels. The government believes the standards could save the equivalent of 100,000 barrels of oil per day by 1985. Buildings currently consume about a third of the total energy used in the U.S., or the equivalent of 13.8 million barrels of oil per day.
The rules could take effect in as little as 14 months and would, for the first time, set federal energy "budgets" for designers of new buildings throughout the U.S. The standards would be mandatory for all federally funded construction and could be made mandatory by Congress for virtually all home building.
Every major geographic and climatic area of the area, as well as each of 19 building classifications, would be given individual performance criteria.
A builder of subdivisions in Northern Virginia, for example, would have to operate under energy consumption budgets for heating and cooling that would differ from those for a builder of similar houses in suburban Chicago.
The more demanding the climate, the higher the consumption of energy per square foot builders would be allowed for their houses when they applied for construction permits.
A Fairfax County builder of a gas-heated and-cooled house could pass the standard if his house consumed no more than 31,200 Btus (British thermal units) a year per square of interior space. (Btus are a form of measurement of energy usage. A Btu is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit at standard atmospheric pressure.)
The Chicago builder's budget could go to 39,400 Btus per square foot per year. And the designer of a similar house outside frigid Bismark, N.D., could qualify under the standard with 63,000 Btus per square foot per year.
To achieve the budget for a particular type of house in a given area, builders could employ whatever conservation techniques made the most economic or esthetic sense to them. A Chicago builder to cite an example of a moderately cold climate, could try one of several sets of design options.
The builder could:
Use double-glazed thermal windows on all his units and supply storm windows along with them to achieve triple glazing. He would also have to insulate all ceilings and walls heavily -- to the standards of R-38 and R-19, respectively. (These measurements relate to resistance of insulation materials to heat gain or loss. Typical ceiling insulation in this area is probably not more than R-19.)
Rely heavily on passive solar heat, by building houses with 75 percent more window space than normal facing the south; install double-glazed thermal windows throughout, and insulate walls and ceilings heavily.
Equip all houses with solar-powered hot water heating systems; double-glaze all windows, and install R-38 insulation in all ceilings and R-11 insulation in the walls.
Variations of these alternatives would be open to builders and architects in every geographic area of the country. Different sets of standards would be imposed on apartment and commercial buildings, according to size and location.
The problem with the standards, though, is that there's little agreement among experts on how they would really affect consumers -- the buyers of houses and condominiums especially -- in the pocketbook.
Builders, engineers, consumer activists and utilities all agree that the standards will raise the initial prices of all new homes and apartments. The National Association of Home Builders, for instance calculates the cost increase for the typical new house to be more than $1,700 ( $1 per square foot.)
But the Department of Energy's detailed technical studies, documenting how rapidly this initial consumer cost would be amortized through savings of gas, oil or electricity, haven't been published yet. And they probably won't be accepted as authoritative by all the interest groups even when they're available later this month.