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Construction Science Education: Background and Overview
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Building America Building Technologies Program
Building America is a private/public partnership that develops energy solutions for new and existing...

Residential Construction Topic Hub
This topic hub introduces the importance of resource efficient construction or green building practi...

This topic hub is for students and teachers who want to learn about energy efficient and high performance home building. The hub includes links to some of the best educational resources available, resources that can be incorporated into classroom work, student-built homes, research, and preparing students to enter the green home building marketplace. In short, this topic hub and its resources can help both teachers and students gain a competitive advantage in the rapidly changing and growing green home building industry.

The home construction industry includes a vast array of professionals. Builders, architects, inspectors, engineers, building product manufacturers, vocational-technical schools, colleges, nonprofit organizations, government agencies, professional associations, and the media all contribute to the knowledge, dissemination and use of high performance building science. Whereas some building methods and materials widely used today received little independent testing for their environmental impact before adoption and acceptance, current building science advocates rigorous testing of products and techniques in a variety of climates to prove their reliability and safety.

The essence of this approach is the whole house design concept. Proper use of this concept integrates all components of a home in ways that reduce building, operating, maintenance costs and overall environmental impact, while improving the comfort and health of its occupants. Teachers and students who accommodate this approach into their education and projects are anticipating the direction of the market and the industry. Students who learn resource efficient design and construction can expect to be more employable. By learning new styles and technologies now and understanding their superiority over the more commonly methods used today, teachers and students may also create the mindset they need to continue to learn and change as conditions that impact building change.

Reasons to Change

Different market factors existed when many of the home construction building techniques used today were adopted forty to fifty years ago. Energy was relatively inexpensive. Natural resources were seemingly abundant. Awareness of the environmental impacts of products and techniques was minimal. In many instances, it was not exceptionally unhealthy to use toxic products inside the home because the home was not built tightly. Gasses were exchanged to the outside because the house leaked or due to intentional ventilation. Some weather conditions can drastically reduce the amount of outdoor air that enters a home, pollutants can build up even in homes that are normally considered "leaky". Source: US EPA Indoor Air Quality

For Americans, how houses were built began to change significantly in the 1970s after two Arab oil embargoes. Superinsulated homes came to the market, as did a variety of energy saving programs. As the homes became tighter, indoor air quality decreased. Mold became a huge problem. According to the American College of Allergies, 50% of all illness is aggravated or caused by polluted indoor air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that indoor air is anywhere from 2 to 10 times more hazardous than outdoor air. The EPA also warns that the indoor air quality is the United States' number one environmental health problem. One reason so much testing occurs now within building science is to avoid creating new problems when solving old ones. That is exactly what happens when homes are built in ways that do not allow natural ventilation and sunlight in. People get sick. This is why looking at the home as a system is important. In a properly designed and built high performance home, components and building techniques support each other.

Figures vary in terms of how much extra it may cost to build a high performance home compared to a conventional home. Current estimates range from 2% to 10%. When built properly for its climatic conditions and site, high performance homes outperform conventional built homes and result in lower operating and maintenance costs. Keep in mind that while some high performance building methods take more time and materials, such as advanced sealing, others take less time and materials, such as advanced framing. Consequently, the tangible payback for the extra planning, construction, materials, and product costs can be offset by lower labor costs, lower materials costs, lower utility costs, and a better mortgage contract. Other benefits include greater comfort and occupant health.

Although the total number of resource efficient, high performance homes is small compared to conventionally built homes, students should remember this is a rapidly growing housing segment and learn to market themselves appropriately. In 2004, for example, the EPA estimated that 10% of all new homes built in America were Energy Star certified. Many industry analysts agree that concerns about indoor environmental quality, renewable energy, and energy efficiency will continue to drive consumer demand for the foreseeable future.

P2 in Action

Green building is the fastest growing market niche in home construction. “In the past five years, green building has become less a trend and more a full-blown movement for the housing industry,” NAHB President Kent Conine told conference attendees at the 2003 National Green Building Conference. And at the 2005 International Builders' Show, NAHB introduced its Model Green Home Building Guidelines. Further evidence of the growth of high performance homes is the the Building America program. To date, Building America builders have added thousands of green homes across the country. Another example of the green home building movement is seen through the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). The USGBC sponsors Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a national building rating system. The USGBC is currently at work on a set of green guidelines, LEED-H, specifically tailored for homes.

In addition, three hundred universities have committed to sustainability and environmental literacy, which impacts building science research. More and more builders are committing to building to Energy Star standards and other local green builder association specifications, while the number of local green building associations grows. The modular and panelized home industry is also fast becoming another potential employer of students with green building skills. According to Joe Lstiburek of Building Science Corporation, consumer demand is driving the market everywhere. Lstiburek says there is still a major disconnect between what builders think home buyers want and what home buyers actually want. "Homeowners want energy efficiency in a well-built, healthy home."

What this means for students in building science programs is they should consider seeking programs that can help them learn about high performance and healthy home building, sustainability issues, consumer demands, and how to market the benefits of building green. Established builders also have a plethora of learning opportunities. Many green building conferences feature lectures and hands-on demonstration to help builders learn high performance building skills. Builders who have made the transition to high performance building are frequent speakers at these conferences. They give real life examples of the risks and rewards of green home building and what drove their decision to change.


The Topic Hub™ is a product of the Pollution Prevention Resource Exchange (P2Rx)

The Construction Science Education Topic Hub™ was developed by:

Peaks to Prairies Pollution Prevention Center
Peaks to Prairies Pollution Prevention Center
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Hub Last Updated: 12/4/2012