Credit: Aine / Creative Commons

Energy auditors across the U.S. are looking beyond leaky windows and outdated appliances in pursuit of a more holistic approach toward assessing building performance.

There’s long been a link between a building’s physical state, its energy consumption and the health of its occupants, experts say. Energy assessors are increasingly looking to tap into that intersection of needs in order to better serve their customers and to seek new funding streams.

“Over the course of the last 20 years, it’s always been energy or comfort that has driven the contractors and low-income weatherization programs … but at the same time, there were these … secondary benefits like comfort and health,” says Matthew Anderson, client relations director at the Building Performance Institute (BPI), which issues building performance credentials and standards for energy auditors and other assessors.

“While that was never really a major selling point, it was always noted that — in most cases — people were getting more comfortable [and] healthier.”

In some cases, there’s a direct link between efficiency and health. Maintaining proper air flow, for example, not only helps reduce heating and air-conditioning use but also concentrations of contaminants. In other cases, health or safety hazards like lead contamination or asbestos need to be addressed before energy efficiency upgrades can be made.

Taken together, unhealthy and inefficient housing costs homeowners $82.4 billion each year, or 3 percent of total U.S. healthcare costs, according to the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a program started by the Council on Foundations and the White House Office of Recovery to integrate home hazard control and energy efficiency work.

In October, GHHI and BPI partnered to launch a nationwide Healthy Home Evaluator certificate. It aims to give energy auditors, weatherization experts and other building professionals added expertise in identifying home-based environmental health and safety hazards. Combining these so-called housing interventions can cut costs 20 to 25 percent, according to GHHI, because of reduced travel time, site preparation and other efficiencies.

“We know that there are millions of homes in the U.S. with lead and other key health and safety hazards that need to be addressed,” Peter Ashley, a director in the Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said in a press release when the certificate launched. “In [developing the HHE], we will work together to create homes that are not only energy efficient, but safe and healthy as well.”

Efficiency, health go ‘hand in hand’

HHE certification includes a 50-question, multiple-choice quiz that tests building professionals on “the key components to keeping a home healthy by maintaining a structure that is: Dry, Clean, Pest-free, safe, contaminant-free, ventilated, maintained [and] energy-efficient,” according to the certification’s handbook. It seeks to build on the skills and knowledge of professionals with existing building-analysis or energy-auditing certificates.

Chris Steinhoff is the construction manager at Elevate Energy, a Chicago-based organization that performs energy retrofits for low-income housing. In October, he became one of the first 260 professionals to obtain the HHE certification. Steinhoff says the certification lends credibility to what he and other building professionals already intrinsically knew about the connection between energy efficiency and health.

“It goes hand in hand,” Steinhoff says. “We have to look at the health of the home and also the health of the occupants. It doesn’t matter how energy efficient a structure or home is if the occupants are getting sick.”

In some cases, Steinhoff notes, efficiency improvements can actually exacerbate other problems in the home if they are not addressed first. For example, energy retrofits often aim to “tighten up” a home — to reduce the leaks and drafts that make heating a home inefficient. But if the home has a plumbing leak causing mold and mildew, the efficiency measures may very well trap that moisture and make things worse, Steinhoff says.

Ventilation and indoor air quality issues like these play a major role in asthma and other health issues. Between 20 and 30 percent of asthma cases can be linked to home environmental conditions, according to the National Center for Healthy Housing. Radon, a radioactive gas that seeps up into homes from underground, plays a role in 15,000 to 22,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Benefits for occupants, building owners

GHHI arose out of new federal funding for low-income weatherization under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The aim was to coordinate various efforts to tackle efficiency and health issues between HUD, the U.S. Department of Energy and other organizations and agencies. The passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 required that insurance plans cover a set of essential benefits that include preventative health services. GHHI and others are working to secure Medicaid and private insurer reimbursement for the kind of work an HHE-certified professional might do.

The ACA also penalizes hospitals for repeat admissions. That means hospitals have an economic incentive to reduce in-home triggers for chronic illnesses like asthma, says Andersen of BPI. Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City helped BPI draft questions and develop other components of the new certification.

A 2014 report on the original GHHI program in Baltimore showed promising signs in terms of reducing repeat hospital admissions. Of the 126 participants, 65.5 percent reported reduced hospitalizations for asthma after GHHI interventions, and 27.7 percent reported reduced emergency room visits.

There are also economic benefits for occupants, building owners and energy auditors. During the Baltimore program, GHHI says its interventions saved homeowners an average of $403 in the first year of implementing changes. For energy auditors, added certification can help differentiate themselves in the market and find new sources of private, philanthropic and federal money.

Building owners, meanwhile, can reap the reward of happier tenants.

“If you keep your tenants happy, your maintenance [costs] will go down,” Steinhoff says, noting that less turnover means fewer repair and upkeep costs. “If you keep them happy, you keep them safe, you keep them comfortable, they will stay with you, and that really can be equated into dollars.”

David started writing for Midwest Energy News in 2016. His work has also appeared in InsideClimate News, The Atlantic, McClatchy DC and other outlets. Previously, he was the energy editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston, where he wrote and edited stories about the global energy transition toward cleaner fuels.

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