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The Future of Housing, A Speech at HUD

posted Aug 4, 2013, 4:23 AM by Andrew McCoy   [ updated Jun 27, 2016, 4:49 PM ]
The following is a speech I gave at the National Housing Research Framing Agenda of The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. in May 2012:

A few years back I had the opportunity to work on the Solar Decathlon 2009 and 2010 entries for Virginia Tech. As part of the process, I was fortunate enough to meet many talented faculty and, of course, young students. One of these students, an engineer named Matthew Capelli, was like EF Hutton in the old commercials. Do you remember the ads that said “when EF Hutton talks, everyone listens”? Well, that was Matt.

Matt and I worked for months on lifecycle analysis and a market viability report for the team. One day, Matt leaned back, looked up at me and said “you know what, in the future people will worry less about how their home looks and more about how it performs”. A simple idea, yet I find it profound. 

Before I go any further, let me say that my wife, a designer and artist, does not like this quote. She thinks it negates design in our world. To the contrary, I believe Matt meant that the trend is towards performance and I could not agree more. Designers and aesthetes, like my wife and, me I must admit, should not worry less. Quite the opposite: design is at the center of building performance. And, I believe, we are starting to see this trend in numbers around the Architecture, Engineering and Construction industry. Let’s look at some of those numbers, many of which, I am sure, you have heard before. My hope is that they will provide a picture of the trends in housing today. 

[Some statistics on housing trends, many from a 2009 EPA report on “Buildings and Their Environment”]:

- Nearly 133 million residential housing units currently exist in the U.S. (1Q2012).
- Urban land area quadrupled from 1945 to 2002.
- The annual mean air temperature of a city with 1 million people or more can be up to 5°F warmer than its surroundings. In the evening, the difference can be as high as 22°F. 
- On January 1st, 2011, Baby Boomers started turning 65, with an average of 10,000 more a day for the next 19 years. 
- “Desire for maintenance free living” and “lower living costs” were recently listed as the number 1 and 3 reasons, respectively, for re-location of housing, with the smallest percentage of people moving FROM central city residences. [2010 study by the Society of Certified Senior Advisors] 
- In a recent poll, 26% of people are planning to remain in their homes for 16 to 20 years. [National Association of Remodelers Institute] 

Our portfolio is vast, we are trending towards density, and our urban spaces are generally warmer. Today, more than ever, an increasing percentage of our population is of retirement age with a need for fixed costs and services. Many us are choosing to remain in our homes. 

[Some statistics on energy and water use in housing, again mostly from a 2009 EPA report on “Buildings and Their Environment”]:
- Buildings accounted for 38.9 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2005. Residential buildings accounted for 53.7 percent of that total. 
- Building occupants use 13 percent of the total water consumed in the United States per day. Of that total, over 74 percent is used by homeowners. 
- Americans now use an average of 100 gallons of water each day—enough to fill 1,600 drinking glasses. 
- On average, Americans spend about 90 percent or more of their time indoors. Sources of indoor air pollution may include: combustion sources; building materials and furnishings; household cleaning, maintenance, central heating and cooling systems and humidification devices. 

Much of our time is spent indoors, where building air quality can be a problem. When in residential buildings, individuals directly contribute a considerable portion of the total energy and daily water use. 

[Now some statistics on trends that affect affordability from a 2009 EPA report on “Buildings and Their Environment”]:
- The average household spends at least $2,000 a year on energy bills — over half of which goes to heating and cooling. 
- Out of the total energy consumption in an average household, 50% goes to space heating, 27% to run appliances, 19% to heat water and 4% goes to air conditioning. 
- Indoor water use contains the following percentages: toilets, 27 percent; clothes washers, 22 percent; showers, 17 percent; faucets, 16 percent; leaks, 14 percent; and other uses, about 5 percent. 

We have a pretty good handle on where, within residential buildings, we are spending our energy. 

[Finally, some statistics on technology trends]: 

- In 2009, the solar market grew 62%, 67% in 2010 with an even higher figure predicted for 2011 and beyond.
- Research suggests that knowing how the energy management products work and having quantifiable energy savings are key for homeowner engagement. [2012 Pike Research “Smart Grid Consumer Survey”] 
- The largest reported, by auditors, energy savings in the home are through: sealing air leaks; installing interior storm windows; insulating the basement ceiling under the heated space; and adding more insulation to the attic. [90 homes audited, Midcoast Green Collaborative in Maine] 
- Simply by using efficient fixtures, one can cut graywater production to about 16 gallons per person per day. [systemic benefits can be realized, According to Builder Online] 
- Technologies, such as energy efficiency in lighting and air quality, are already being utilized in healthcare management, with many more high tech opportunities on the horizon. [responding to the aging market] 
- The installation of green roofs jumped 115% in 2011, with Washington DC at the top of the list by building 800,000 sf. [not necessarily relevant to affordable housing] 
- Scientists continue to develop materials and metamaterials to renew or conserve energy. [Metamaterials bend light, for example, which increases solar efficiency] 

So, what does this mean for affordable housing? That is what we are here today to discuss together, so I will not propose much. I will say this: I believe, as of right now, there is more opportunity than ever before to realize performance out of homes and leverage this performance towards affordability. The technologies available to us are many and so are the possibilities. The design, construction and operation of these technologies are the path towards creating affordable options that support community. 

As you read in the framing paper (below), our industry is vast and complex. Significant efforts are currently being made to explore energy efficient technologies and their incorporation into many materials, systems and facilities. Harnessing these efforts towards innovation in affordable housing is one key and remains a challenge. Further, environmental stewardship requires greater efficiency in energy use, shifts to renewable energy sources, and reductions in the negative impacts of housing on our air, water, land and energy resources. These challenges are likely to become increasingly urgent as the effects of Green House Gasses, severe weather events, and climate change become more evident throughout the world. In closing, I will repeat Matt Capelli. “In the future people will worry less about how their home looks and more about how it performs”. I could not agree more.