Forget about granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.
The real trend in home construction may be reflected more closely at the gasoline pump.
``All of you have seen what's going on at the gas stations and seen your energy bills go up,'' said Andre Desjarlais, group leader for the building envelopes group at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory. ``This is going to lead to tremendous changes in how we build our buildings and depending on how you look at it, there could be a lot of opportunities.''
And many of those opportunities will rely on plastics, Desjarlais said during a May 7 discussion at the Society of Plastics Engineers' Antec 2008 conference in Milwaukee.
One-third of all energy used in the United States and two-thirds of all electricity is used in buildings, he said. The construction industry will be forced to reconsider the way buildings are built in order to help cut the costs and energy use of operating buildings — including offices, manufacturing plants and homes.
``If we really want to attack global warming in the U.S., we have to do something with the building sector,'' he said.
The laboratory, based in Oak Ridge, Tenn., is working toward a ``zero-energy building'' goal for 2025 to create homes that use no more energy than they produce. To reach that goal, Desjarlais' group is looking at energy collectors like solar panels, but also better ways to make homes.
Swapping out incandescent light bulbs for fluorescent bulbs will not go far enough, he said. Americans will have to look at the entire building.
Efficient vinyl windows can make a big impact, he said. So does properly sealing the house when it's being built.
Using expanded polystyrene sheets all around the exterior of a house can eliminate minute cracks between the studs where cold air can seep in, said Gary Parsons, development leader for Midland, Mich.-based Dow Chemical Co.'s building solutions group.
Nearly a quarter of the energy used in a house goes to heating the building, Parsons said. If 1 million houses, averaging 2,000 square feet in size, were to have better insulation and use PS sheeting, it would save 500,000 barrels of oil annually in heating costs.
The additional costs of adding PS pays itself off in savings on the heating bill within seven years, he said, while the house's life — and energy savings — continues for decades. With higher heating costs, that message should provide another incentive to add it during construction.
``There are tons and tons of opportunities in the building products area,'' Parsons said. ``We've only just scratched the surface.''