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Natural disasters remind us that homes are for people, and like people, they need the strength to survive. This summer people were driven from homes, schools, and workplaces by hurricanes in the east, wildfires in the west, and earthquakes to the south. As before, victims will rebuild. Only this time, rebuilding should be to the highest standards of resilience, durability, health, and energy efficiency. We know two things for certain: people will overcome the devastations of 2017, and the powerful cycles of the natural world will repeat. Coastal areas will be hammered by hurricanes again, the forests of the American West will burn every year, and earthquakes will shake us once more. What can we do in the wake of these disasters? We can turn tragedy into opportunity.

New construction is the best time to build in the features that deliver  high performance and sustainability. Greater insulation, better building tightness, more durable construction, and highly efficient appliances and heating and cooling systems are easier and cheaper to include when you’re already building the structure and purchasing the materials and equipment anyway. It’s a matter of pushing just a little bit further so as not to miss this golden opportunity for improvement.

 

Seeing Disaster as Opportunity

Many homes in Texas, Florida, and along the Gulf Coast, have been so extensively damaged that they must be razed and replaced. And some homes in the West have been burned to the ground. These homes should be rebuilt to meet one of several zero energy home standards. The national Zero Energy Ready Home standard is particularly appropriate because this level of efficiency requires that the home reduce energy use to the point that the addition of on-site solar panels or the purchase of renewable energy contracts would supply all the energy the home needs. Building to zero energy ready allows flexibility because the solar panels can be installed in the future, keeping initial costs down and allowing further price reductions in solar technology to occur before installing them.

Rooftop solar systems can add resiliency to homes that survive. Solar panels provide much needed electricity when utility power is interrupted when on-site batteries and an emergency circuit have been built into the building. Since zero energy homes are often built to a more durable standard, they can easily be built to better resist future hurricanes. Any new construction in a potential flood zone or fire zone should be done in such a way as to better withstand future flooding or fires, such as including metal roofs in fire prone areas and elevating the foundation in flood zones. These are the homes of the future, not homes of the past.

This leap in energy efficiency resulting from building to a zero energy ready standard is not only possible, but is cost-effective for any home that requires complete reconstruction, especially in mild southern climates. Zero energy homes cost less to own, and can be built for almost the same price as conventional homes. Homes built to withstand disaster may not need to be rebuilt after future calamities. Additional insulation, air sealing, and higher equipment efficiency will pay for themselves in energy savings. There’s a great cost to society, too, for failing to build advanced homes. Well-built homes, such as these, can last for 100 years or more. Inefficient, hurriedly constructed homes often don’t last as long and must be fed fossil-fuel-based energy to function for the entire life of the home. A zero energy ready home requires less energy to operate and offers the option of being supplied with cost-effective renewable energy to bring its fossil fuel use to zero.

When construction speed and efficiency are the top priority, as is the case after a natural disaster leaves so many without shelter, it’s hard to get better than modular homes. They can be built quickly AND achieve the high-standards of energy efficiency, health, and durability that our future world demands. Sustainable modular manufacturers around the country have the capacity to provide these homes and can deliver almost anywhere.

 

Rehabilitation

Rehabilitation after flooding or smoke and fire damage often requires removing wet or smoke imbued, scorched drywall, flooring, and insulation. In many cases, these homes will need to be gutted, which provides an excellent opportunity to add more insulation and maximize air sealing. Once a building has been gutted, it can be outfitted with energy-saving measures very similar to new construction. This is called a “deep energy retrofit.” It’s possible, and almost always desirable, to rehab a home to the zero energy ready performance level. And, at the same time, measures can be taken inside and out to prevent future fire, water, or wind damage.

 

Finance for Maximum Efficiency

Whether it’s new construction or rehabilitating, it’s tempting to use cheaper materials and accelerate the schedule. But doing so often leads to missed opportunities. While it’s important to return victims of disaster to their homes as soon as possible, it’s equally important for a home to be as sturdy, healthy, resilient, and cost effective as possible.

No one disputes that energy efficiency pays off in the long run, and there are several mechanisms to make efficiency pay off immediately. New construction loans, rehabilitation loans, and direct grants are available for victims of disaster. This financial assistance must not just allow – but encourage – the highest level of energy efficiency and resilience. By financing the cost over a term of 20 or 30 years, any additional monthly payment for reaching zero energy ready will be lower than the monthly energy savings. That means that occupants will benefit immediately. For those that do not have flood, hurricane, or fire insurance, loan programs are available for energy efficiency upgrades that may help fill the gaps in coverage that inevitably occur.

How can America facilitate this extreme makeover? It will take a coordinated effort. First, government leaders at all levels, must set the goal of rebuilding to at least zero energy ready standards and communicate it effectively. Second, materials suppliers must commit themselves to providing the high-quality goods and equipment that will be needed to accomplish the goal. Third, contractors must embrace a higher standard of construction and schedule sufficient time to implement top-quality work. This may require additional training and oversight from third-parties, such as building code officials, ENERGY STAR verifiers, and home performance contractors. And finally, insurance adjusters, real estate appraisers, and lenders must step up to support the financial requirements of these better homes and buildings.

Staggering amounts of money will be spent in these areas in the form of insurance payouts and federal disaster aid. To simply return homes and buildings to their previous state of inefficiency and vulnerability would be a terrible waste of money and resources. We have an opportunity now to leverage our time, money, and sweat into a better life and a more stable future for everyone affected. Let’s work together to seize the opportunity to rebuild storm-ravaged areas to 21st century standards of health, efficiency, resilience, and safety.