High Energy Prices Driving Builders, Homebuyers to More Efficient Housing

UAF Professor Tom Marsik, who now teaches at the Bristol Bay Campus, at his home in Dillingham. The 600-square-foot, extremely energy-efficient house has been certified as the world's most airtight house. (Credit KDLG)
UAF Professor Tom Marsik, who now teaches at the Bristol Bay Campus, at his home in Dillingham. The 600-square-foot, extremely energy-efficient house has been certified as the world’s most airtight house. (Credit KDLG)

As energy prices continue to rise, Alaskan engineers and builders are pushing the envelope in the quest to build ever-more energy-efficient housing. Some of those innovations are making their way into residential construction, as builders look to meet homebuyers’ demand.

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UAF professor Tom Marsik has built what he says is the world’s most efficient house, a small, airtight structure that he and some friends built in Dillingham a couple of years ago.

“It’s extremely insulated – we’re talking 28-inch thick walls, just to put it in perspective,” Marsik said.

Those thick walls are rated at R-90, nearly four times more than the required R-21 for walls; and the ceiling’s R-140 rating is nearly triple the required R-49.

Marsik and friend Gordon Isaacs conduct a blower door test on Marsik's home in March 2013 to determine how tightly it's sealed. The test was certified by the World Record Academy, which declared the structure was "the world's most airtight house." (Credit KDLG)
Marsik and friend Gordon Isaacs conduct a blower door test on Marsik’s home in March 2013 to determine how tightly it’s sealed. The test was certified by the World Record Academy, which declared the structure was “the world’s most airtight house.” (Credit KDLG)

Marsik, who teaches sustainable energy, says on most days he can warm his small, airtight home with about the same amount of energy it takes to run a hair-dryer.

“Last year, it cost us about one-hundred-fifty dollars to heat the home for the entire year,” he said.

Marsik says he was inspired to build the house after spending a few winters here in Fairbanks teaching at the main UAF campus.

Cold Climate Housing Research Center President and CEO Jack Hebert marvels at the work of Marsik and others he calls “pioneers” of efficient homebuilding. He includes Thorsten Chlupp, a Fairbanks-area builder who like Marsik has constructed highly efficient homes that are super-insulated and that also often employ sustainable-energy heating systems.

“There’s amazing things done in Alaska by very creative people – like Tom, like Thorsten, like others in the state who’ve always been pioneers in housing,” he said.

But Hebert says not all the advances developed by those pioneers in their quest for a home that requires little, if any additional energy to heat, will make their way into mainstream homebuilding. Because some are too expensive or unappealing to homebuyers.

“I think these pioneers and creative people right now that are approaching net-zero with their passive houses and the work that they’re doing on extremely energy-efficient envelope small home – extremely admirable. But how can we incorporate that into the mainstream, where the market says I don’t want to live in a house like that, or I can’t afford it?”

That’s the challenge that green homebuilders like Aaron Welterlen confront. Welterlen’s Fairbanks-based company, WV Builders, touts its line of energy-efficient and affordable homes. He says most of his customers tend to be first-time homebuyers, often young families or people temporarily here, like military personnel or contractors.

Welterlen says homebuyers in the Interior have increasingly shown a preference for energy-efficient homes in recent years since, not coincidentally, the price of heating oil began its rise to $4 a gallon. But he says he must weigh how many of those features a prospective homebuyer is willing to pay for. Because such features as super-insulated windows and ground-source heat pumps – which extract heat from underground – all add to the upfront cost.

“So we as builders are trying to find ways, constantly, of how do you give people the best house that they can afford, the most energy-efficient house they can afford, for a cost that is reasonable to them – without having them having to bankrupt themselves in order to get into a house.”

Welterlen says despite such incentives as rebates of up to ten-thousand dollars offered by the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation, and the payback that energy-efficient features promise, many homeowners still just can’t get past the sticker shock of, for example, a twenty-thousand-dollar ground-source heat pump.

“Yes, the ground-source heat pump is still more expensive, but it’s about 50 percent cheaper to operate,” he said. “So if we can convince the client to spend some money out of their own pocket at the beginning, then you have a heating cost which is now about 50 percent less, so you’re heating a house for a hundred and 10 dollars a month in winter – it kind of becomes unbeatable, very quickly, in the long term.”

Hebert says that shows that shows a demand for energy-efficient homes – but, for many, it’s a demand that has limits, based on cost.

“The market is really the loudest voice,” he said. “If the market starts to demand energy efficiency – a highly efficient heating appliance over a commercial range in the kitchen – then that market demand will start to drive where the builders go.”

Hebert and Welterlen both say that’s already happened, as shown by homebuyers’ sustained interest in energy efficiency. Hebert says building on that progress won’t be easy, and will require educating homeowners by getting the word out about breakthroughs in efficiency and introducing them into the marketplace, then making the case on investing more now to reap the energy savings later.