Editor’s note • Through a grant from Solutions Journalism Network, The Salt Lake Tribune is examining lesser known contributors to air pollution — our homes and our workplaces — and possible solutions to mitigate the effects they have on the air we breathe. In the first of a three-part series, we focus on how more energy efficient homes may help reduce pollution problem along the Wasatch Front. Read part 2: The all-electric home: Tackling air pollution by cutting off natural gas. Read part 3: How small businesses in Salt Lake City are helping to clear the air.

Peter Bartok wanted a house made with glass and steel, an open floor plan, close to downtown Salt Lake City — and so well insulated and sealed that practically all its energy could come from solar panels on the roof.

Finding such a home — called net zero energy or zero emission — would have been nearly impossible in Utah just a couple of years ago.

But as housing developers face their growing role in the Wasatch Front’s bad air, some have started importing construction methods used in Europe and other states that are aggressively regulating energy consumption by homes and buildings.

By 2024, pollution generated by Utah homes and small businesses will overtake all other pollution sources in the winter, including vehicles and heavy industry like gravel pits, refineries and the copper mine, according to the Utah Department of Air Quality.

So building innovations ranging from highly energy efficient homes, such as the one Bartok bought, to those completely powered by electricity hold the promise of a major pollution solution for Utah areas routinely plagued by bad air. How much of a difference these efforts will make will depend on how many developers, business owners and new homebuyers embrace the idea that homes and businesses make a difference in clearing the air.

“Our population is going to [nearly] double in the next 30 to 40 years. If our inversion doubles at the same time, this is not going to be a pleasant place to live,” says Chris Parker, executive director of Giv Development, which builds net zero apartment buildings in Salt Lake City. “There shouldn’t be a choice between growth and childhood asthma. That’s the decision we have [to make] if we keep building the way we’re building.”

Worst in the nation

The American Lung Association says Salt Lake City, Provo and Orem have some of the worst air in the country, both for spikes of fine particles of pollution that color the sky a dreary brown in the winter and the buildup of invisible ozone or smog in the summer.

The mountains that tower over the bowl-shaped valleys of the Wasatch Front mean that polluted air becomes trapped and stagnant, leading to dangerous levels of pollution, as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency, that can contribute to respiratory problems such as asthma, cardiovascular disease and premature death.

For years, vehicles have been Utah’s major polluters, contributing 52% to our dirty air in 2011. But because of better technology, cleaner gas and stricter federal emissions standards adopted during the Obama administration, vehicles will drop to 31 percent of the problem in 2024 along the Wasatch Front.

Area sources — homes, small businesses and light industrial sources — will jump from 27% of the problem to 35%, says Glade Sowards, a policy analyst in the Utah Department of Air Quality.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

That shift plus the anticipated population boom mean more energy-efficient structures — homes and businesses — will become an increasingly important part of solutions to fight air pollution.

“Your home, and buildings in general, basically have two smoke stacks,” says Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR), a nonprofit that works on finding and promoting voluntary changes that can reduce air pollution. “The first is your water heater; the second smoke stack is your furnace. Those are providing emissions every single day.”

The natural gas combustion that occurs in water heaters and furnaces in homes along the Wasatch Front generates nearly 10 tons per winter day of nitrogen oxides, a precursor to the tiny particles — called particulate matter — that dirty the air during inversions. Throughout the winter, that’s equivalent to the pollution generated by just under one-third of all gas-powered vehicles in the Wasatch Front, says Sowards.

“It’s not trivial,” he says.

The benefits of an airtight home

At Bartok’s modern, wood-clad home in a development called Living Zenith at Liberty Park developed by builder Redfish, the air inside is much cleaner than the air outside. Bartok says his friend with asthma notices that on red air days — considered unhealthy for everyone — she breathes easier in his home where the air is filtered and was built with virtually no leaks to let in the dangerous particles.

The 2,600-square-foot home also uses design elements to reduce energy use, including a large overhang on the south side to prevent the sun from heating the house in the summer but allow solar heat in the winter.

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Living Zenith homes at 1172 S. 400 East in Salt Lake City were built by Redfish Builders in 2017.

“It’s not different than a normal house, except you spend less energy keeping it at the comfort level that you like,” Bartok says, whose energy bill in July was about $35. “It’s also doing the right thing for the environment.”

Building more efficient homes both reduces pollution and makes it more feasible for homes to be powered by renewable energy. As energy efficiency advocates say, the cleanest and cheapest energy is energy not used. Adding more insulation to roofs, walls and even the ground, caulking every conceivable cranny and using high-performance windows to retain heat in the winter and keep it out in the summer help tightly seal the building to reduce leaks and drafts.

Developers should create homes that function like a Yeti cooler, says Mitchell Spence, who built Bartok’s home and created an insulation company, Aerobarrier West, which uses an airborne sealant to plug holes as thin as a human hair or up to half an inch thick.

“The biggest bang for your buck on a home is making a home airtight. If you can seal the envelope or make it airtight then you have so much more control over your home and the inside environment,” Spence says.

By comparison, a typical home can contain a half-mile worth of cracks and gaps behind the walls, around windows and other openings including ducts and pipes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Environmentally conscious developers also stock the homes with Energy Star appliances and light them with LEDs, to save energy.

Increasingly, developers are pushing energy efficiency, even though their customers aren’t clamoring for it.

At Granite Legacy, a 75-home subdivision under construction by Garbett Homes in South Salt Lake, a tour of an unfinished home reveals the key to low-emission construction: The framing looks typical, but the exterior lumber is spaced further apart, allowing more space for more blown-in insulation — meaning it will take less natural gas to heat the house. The roof design also allows more space for more insulation. The joints and electrical outlets that can’t be insulated are caulked. And gray paint seals off tiny openings in all the ducts. It results in homes that will use 50% to 60% less energy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Megan Miller shows an energy-efficient home under construction in the Granite Legacy community in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, July 16, 2019. Garbett Homes is behind the project.
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Homebuyers’ eyes tend to glaze over when the sales team starts talking about what’s behind the walls. And for many buyers, the appeal of the homes are the location and modern style first.

“I just let them know it’s really important that the energy you’re creating is staying where you want it to be instead of leaking out through the walls or through crevices,” says Garbett Homes sales associate Megan Miller, who also lives at Granite Legacy. She paid about $50 a month to cool her 3,300-square-foot home in May.

Every Garbett home built over the past two years has been verified by an independent energy auditor and certified by the U.S. Department of Energy as a Zero Energy Ready Home. All are built “ready” for solar panels so they could generate as much electricity as they use. Using a sample size of all of its homes built in the last decade, Garbett estimates each of its new homes has potentially cut 6.3 tons of carbon dioxide, 4 pounds of sulfur dioxide and 18 pounds of nitrogen oxides a year, compared with a standard new home.

So far, they have built 273 Zero Energy Ready Homes, making Garbett the third largest builder of such homes in the nation.

Bryson Garbett, company president, says if the state is serious about reducing air pollution, it should require developers to share each home’s Home Energy Rating System or HERS score — a home’s energy efficiency report card — so shoppers could compare energy use like they do with miles per gallon when they buy cars.

“Buyers don’t know. It’s hard for them to tell,” Garbett says. “They don’t know the mpg their home gets.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The lower the HERS score, the more efficient and more money saved on utility bills.

Garbett Homes say its Zero Energy Ready Homes average a HERS score of 50. When the homes have solar panels, their HERS scores can drop to 0. New homes built in Utah since 2016 must rank between 69 and 65, depending on the location.

Utah’s largest homebuilder is also paying attention to the HERS score.

Ivory Homes is using extra insulation, energy-efficient lighting and furnaces, high efficiency water heaters and better windows, pushing its average HERS score from 68 in 2011 to 53 today, better than what the Utah code requires.

“We’re building the most energy-efficient and pro-environment homes we’ve ever built,” says Michael Parker, Ivory’s senior economist and vice president of public affairs. “We don’t do them as one-offs. This is across 1,100 homes [a year].”

The company is looking at adding infrastructure to accommodate electric vehicles to all of its homes starting next year, another move to attract younger environmentally conscious buyers.

But he says the extra cost of reducing the HERS scores even lower, to around 40, isn’t worth the energy savings and reduction in pollution.

“The further we squeeze, the more we’ll price people out of new homes and not get the benefit people expect,” Parker says, noting that buyers already think building with the environment in mind is too expensive.

Not a critical mass yet

To be sure, there will have to be a lot more energy efficient homes to make a real difference in air pollution. Boosting energy efficiency and electrifying buildings is happening on a small scale in Utah, where 13,000 building permits were issued for single-family homes in 2018 and where there are hundreds of thousands of existing single-family homes, most built before 2000. Older homes waste much more energy than new ones.

Ivory Homes says the conversation needs to include improving the efficiency of existing homes. “They’re already in the airshed, they’re already less efficient,” says Michael Parker. “We can tighten the screws on new construction and push up prices. [But] there’s also existing stock that needs to be addressed as part of the solution.”

Notably, Utah’s code for new homes is outdated when compared to other states. New York, Oregon, Washington and California require their builders to reduce energy consumption to mitigate climate change. California will require all new homes to be net zero energy and come with solar panels starting in 2020. Oregon will require all homes to be built to Zero Energy Ready code in 2023.

But Utah homes are built to what amounts to a hybrid of a 2009 and 2015 model energy conservation code. The International Energy Conservation Code was updated in 2018. But pressured by the homebuilding industry in 2016, the Utah Legislature passed a bill that keeps Utah’s standards at the lower level until 2021. The law also prevents the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and cities and counties from enacting any stricter rules to tamp down pollution.

Garbett says all homebuilders can build less polluting, more energy-efficient homes and the Utah code should be updated. While energy-efficient homes cost more to build — 2% to 5% more — he says homeowners make up the increase with cheaper energy bills.

“Typical rhetoric by homebuilders and the homebuilder association is, ‘We are efficient enough. We don’t need to do more,’ ” he says. “It’s a deception. The homebuilders are the biggest obstacle that we have in improving our energy efficiency in homes. They can do it ... they should do it.”

Heather May is a freelance writer and can be reached at heathermayslc@gmail.com.