Oscar Einzig
Big names (Hillary Clinton, Bon Jovi) and big themes (climate change, disaster recovery) tended to get the big headlines at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in Philadelphia last November. But for remodelers, some of the more important topics covered by the editors of sister titles to Remodeling involved energy rating labels and the notion that manufacturers should reveal more about what’s in the goods they sell.

The “transparency” movement contends that by making information more readily available, consumers will make greener choices. But skeptics worry that this information could be confusing, particularly when data is put into context by comparing one product against another or by attempting to shoehorn performance figures into some comprehensive database.

For instance, a training session on the Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) generated tension among audience members, about a third of whom were manufacturers. Presenter Steve Baer, a senior consultant at PE International, was questioned frequently on the accuracy of the data and the databases used to generate the LCAs and Environmental Product Declarations that he presented as tools to inform designer decisions. 

The audience’s incredulity “may hurt,” Baer said half-jokingly, “but it’s a good discussion to have here with 170 people in a room.”

Home Energy Rating Labels

Also being discussed were energy-rating labels for homes. Four states—Alabama, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington—are involved in a three-year pilot program to develop and test such labels. The program wraps up in March 2014, with the results expected later in the year.

The four states are taking slightly different approaches, but the end goal is to have a standard set of energy metrics that consumers can use to compare houses in their locales. Massachusetts is participating in the Department of Energy–funded program not just to develop a label, but also to move homeowners to invest in energy efficiency, especially retrofits, Ian Finlayson, deputy director of Massachusetts’ Energy Efficiency Division, said during a presentation.

Finlayson and the other presenters compared a home energy rating to the miles per gallon label found on all new cars. “The mpg label has a lot of value to people … and it can change behavior,” said Chris Wagner, project manager for the National Association of State Energy Officials. “But we don’t have [such] a simple metric in the housing industry.”

To date, Massachusetts has produced 2,500 HomeMPG scorecards, resulting in 832 retrofits. The next step: Train real estate agents so they understand the scorecards and use them in the sales process.

The transparency movement was again at the fore when the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) debuted the LEED Dynamic Plaque. To reflect the ever-changing conditions of buildings—particularly those that have earned LEED certification—the plaque is an electronic display of ongoing performance metrics in five sustainability categories: human experience, transportation, waste, water, and energy. Presented as a numerical score, it allows owners to compare building performance with that of peer buildings, and to gauge past or projected performance against actual operation.

USGBC senior vice president Scot Horst, who unveiled the plaque, also moderated a panel on “How Information Improves Performance,” which again showed the challenges faced by the transparency movement. About half the attendees were product manufacturers. And although the question of whether product transparency was here to stay, received a confident “yes” from panelists, about two-thirds of the audience demurred.