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Green homes save greenbacks

The energy crisis in California brings home the message that energy-saving homes cost more to build but pay back that expense over time.

By JUDY STARK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 2001


ATLANTA -- Energy efficiency is in.

On the 500,000-square-foot trade show floor at the National Association of Home Builders convention last month, the yellow Energy Star label popped up on appliance after appliance manufactured by all the big-name appliance companies.

"Make every home a green home," says Temple, manufacturer of gypsum wallboard, bragging about its certification from the independent Scientific Certification Systems for using 95 percent recycled content.

"We all know lower energy costs are a very cool thing," says TechShield in its advertising. TechShield displayed its radiant barrier sheathing, which it says will reduced attic temperatures on an average summer day by 30 degrees.

"California is just the tip of the iceberg," cautioned representatives of ChemRex Paints, in Shakopee, Minn., which sells interior paint that keeps rooms cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

The convention's showcase New American Home, a 4,400-square-foot Arts and Crafts mansion in the city's Buckhead neighborhood, shone a major spotlight on energy efficiency and sustainability. The house was built according to the principles of the Atlanta-based EarthCraft House program, promoting energy efficiency, water conservation, healthy indoor air, durability and buyer education. (Builders in Florida are developing a similar certification program called the Florida Green Building Coalition.) The house's estimated annual energy bill is $1,978, or about half what it typically costs to heat and cool a comparable home.

"The environmental features pay for themselves," said builder Pam Sessions of Hedgewood Properties. "They might add 1/2 to 1 percent in additional costs, but you're saving 38 to 43 percent on your energy costs."

Those dollars add up in a house such as this, which cost $1.2-million "and would be close to $2-million if it weren't for all the donated products," Sessions said. The New American Home, a feature of each year's builders' convention, is a showcase for new products, construction techniques and home design.

The home's energy-saving features include a high-efficiency heating and cooling system, sealed ductwork that runs through air-conditioned spaces, a sealed building "envelope," blower-door testing to find leaks and an energy recovery ventilator that prevents cooled or warmed air from escaping outside. (Some Florida builders are already using these techniques.)

EarthCraft certification requires a minimum score of 150 points for energy-efficiency products and construction techniques; this house scored more than 200. The program also encourages the use of engineered or recycled lumber, recycling of construction debris, use of durable products and preservation of trees on-site.

A lot of what drives the move toward "green" products is education, said Jim Hackler, director of the EarthCraft House project, which is overseen by the non-profit Southface Energy Institute. The idea, he said, "is for people to think about a high-performance home when they're out looking for a home."

Consumers demand -- and are willing to pay for -- high-performance cars that get great gas mileage, he said. Buying a home should be the same.

"But a lot of people think that quality comes in the Corian countertops or really nice cabinets or nice paint or crown molding," he said. "We're trying to educate people to search for more and ask their builder for more."

Builders say it's hard to sell the upgrades, Hackler said. Consumers don't know what to look for, and they're suspicious that a builder is suggesting a more expensive window or air-conditioning package only to make more money. Third-party endorsements from an organization such as EarthCraft, which currently operates only in Atlanta, give consumers the information and confidence they need to make smart decisions and spend their money wisely.

"A couple of years ago people were not as concerned about energy efficiency as they are now," Hackler said, "but, now that energy bills are becoming outrageous, the value of this type of program, or any "green' building program, really comes into its own."

"The goal is not that everyone will live in a $1-million house," said William T. Nolan of the Affordable Housing Institute of Florida, one of the organizers of the New American Home, "but to show something that can be copied at any price point."

The manufacturers and vendors donated their top-of-the-line items to this showcase house, he said, but they can replicate the effect at a lower price so buyers of less-expensive homes could still achieve energy efficiency.

Builders respond to consumer demand

Why the increased interest -- indeed, demand -- for energy-efficient materials, designs and appliances?

California's energy crisis was certainly an attention-getter, but this trend "is a growing area of interest among builders and consumers," said Liza Bowles, who heads NAHB's Research Center in Upper Marlboro, Md.

"There used to be a sense that you were only building green if you were building with straw bales," she said, "but there are lots of things you can do to make housing more environmentally sensitive. The more you develop these things, the more builders can look at them and say, "Well, gosh, I can do this, I can incorporate this, I can sell this to the homeowner,' and we can all feel good about it."

These things take time. In 1992 the research center went from cabinet manufacturer to cabinet manufacturer, unsuccessfully trying to interest someone in designing a recycling center into kitchen cabinets.

"I can't tell you how many we went to for something as simple as that," Bowles said, "and look where recycling is today. Who doesn't do it? It's gotten more into the consumer's mind, they look for things, and, if a consumer's willing, a builder will be there."

Builders and manufacturers are reluctant to shoulder the risk for cutting-edge products without a performance track record, with uncertain warranties and manufacturer backups, with prohibitive costs and limited consumer appeal, and it's hard to sell buyers on a product they don't perceive that they need or whose price is wildly out of line with what they're accustomed to spending. Ultimately, consumer acceptance is what drives the market.

"The California problem is somewhat unique, but in the end it makes us think harder about these things and points out that we'll have long-term problems unless we find other power sources," Bowles said.

When energy is on page 1 of the newspaper and leading the 6 o'clock news, it's easy to get builders' attention for products such as photovoltaic roofing systems or hydrogen fuel cells, which one architect envisions as the private energy source of the future for homes and communities.

At the Craftsman tools booth, home generators were on prominent display.

"They want those generators," said Philadelphia builder J. Mark Wiedmann at a panel discussion on building for dot-com millionaires, especially "people who live in rural areas where there are frequent outages."

A lot can be done with off-the-shelf materials and techniques, said Hackler of EarthCraft House. "We're not asking builders to adopt outrageous products that are incredibly expensive and are foreign to them," he said. "We want to have them take current building systems and maximize the performance and installation."

That might include using airtight recessed lighting rather than simply cutting a hole in the ceiling open to the attic, where air-conditioned or heated air can escape and hot or cold outside air can intrude. It might mean properly sealing the ductwork with mastic.

Homes that EarthCraft has certified as meeting its energy-efficiency requirements range from modestly priced Habitat for Humanity homes to $2-million mansions, Hackler said. So far 70 builders have signed up for the program.

Florida in the forefront

Brian Pruett, of Sarasota-based Pruett Builders, is glad to see the rest of the industry catching up with the energy-efficient and sustainable building techniques he's been using for several years.

"In five years what we're doing will be normal building practice," he said.

Last year his company won a gold Energy Value Housing Award from NAHB's research center for its Health House, a showcase home for the American Lung Association that featured spray-foam insulation, a central dehumidifier/ventilator, solar water heater with gas backup, front-loading washer and sealed ductwork routed through air-conditioned space.

"Consumer awareness is the key," he said. "People don't buy what they don't know is available."

His company offers a brochure with names and numbers of suppliers "to make it as open as possible for people to know how to get the products and how they're installed. They're not outrageously priced, and they pay for themselves," he said.

Consumers are starting to ask for products that eliminate bacteria and mold, smoke, chemicals, and the gas from upholstery and carpets as they become aware of the importance of indoor air quality, Pruett said, likening the increasing awareness to the change in attitude about smoking. We now look back in dismay on the decades when people raised children in homes filled with cigarette smoke without a thought of what that smoke might be doing to the children's health. That, said Pruett, is how we'll look at the household pollutants of today 20 years from now.

Pruett has been talking with a producer at Home & Garden Television about a series on the way he builds homes.

"I never thought about it this way, but the HGTV producer said, "What people don't realize is you're adding two, three, five years to a person's life, and how much is that worth?' The real tragedy is that the inside of the house is where the real pollution is, (and) that's where you spend the majority of your time."

Locally, increasing interest

"The idea that, if you build a better mousetrap, people will beat a path to your door is predicated on their knowing that it is a better mousetrap," said John Lambie, director of the Florida House Institute for Sustainable Development. "What's underneath the wallboard, and how does it work, and the impact of west-facing glass, and the fact that you'll pay for air conditioning for the next 35 years to pump that evening sunset out of your living room -- this is not part of the tools that we use to select that living room. We have not taken responsibility for how our houses work.

"I think people are getting the difference between affordable housing and affordable living. You can invest in quantity in terms of large numbers of opulent square feet that you then have to maintain, heat and cool, or you can make an investment up front in terms of efficiency and high-quality, long-lasting, low-maintenance, high quality-of-life living space, and it continues to pay you back month after month in reduced overhead that is significant and pays you back in increased quality of life."

Early adopters of "green" building techniques, he said, "are adding value, and that's why we see green building and materials becoming mainstream: They represent a major market opportunity."

Five or six years ago, when Matt Ross talked with builders about energy-efficient products, "They said, "No one's asking for these things, and, until they're asking, we don't need to get involved with offering them,' " Ross said. "That has now changed."

Ross heads Eco-$mart, a Sarasota-based distributor of green building materials that have undergone third-party evaluation by the Florida House Institute. Eco-$mart also provides referrals to designers, subcontractors and funding sources for energy-friendly building products and services.

Now, he says, from custom builders such as Pruett to those who build homes for $100,000, "builders are seeing the market advantage."

That's partly due to the widespread public awareness of the EPA Energy Star program and to better-educated buyers. About 10,000 people a year visit the Florida House Learning Center, where they can see and learn about ways to build sustainable homes and about the materials and building components they can incorporate in their own homes, Ross said. They also see that mainstream builders are using these materials and techniques, so they speak up and insist on them when they're ready to build.

"California is not a small factor, either," Ross said. Two weeks ago he conducted a seminar at the Florida House on solar energy options. "Almost 50 people showed up -- it was standing room only. Last year and the year before we had maybe 15 to 20 people."

Going green

For more information about sustainable building and energy-efficient building components, visit these Web sites:

The New American Home: Photographs, floor plans and product information are at http://www.builderonline.com. Click on "Builders' show marches into Atlanta," then on "The New American Home."

Florida House Institute for Sustainable Development: http://www.I4SD.org. You can take a virtual tour of the Florida House Learning Center in Sarasota, built with many energy-saving materials and designs. The Florida house is open for tours from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Thursday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. It is on the campus of Sarasota County Technical Institute at 4600 Beneva Road S, Sarasota. Phone: (941) 316-1200.

Eco-$mart Homes & Buildings Program is a Sarasota-based distributor of energy-efficient materials and components. All the products and systems it offers are evaluated by the Florida House Institute for Sustainable Development. Eco-$mart offers referrals to subcontractors, designers, architects and other professionals. Web site: http://www.ecosmart.ws.

The National Association of Home Builders Research Center, at http://www.nahbrc.org, offers information about green building and highlights of the annual Green Building conferences.

The EarthCraft House site is at http://www.earthcrafthouse.com.

The federal Energy Star program certifies that homes and appliances operate at levels that exceed federal standards by at least 30 percent. Some lenders offer Energy Star mortgages that allow buyers to borrow more, since the lenders know their utility bills will be lower than normal. For information about the Energy Star program, call toll-free 1-888-782-7937 or visit the Web site at http://yosemite.epa.gov/appd/eshomes/eshomes.nsf. For home buyer workshops in Pinellas that explain Energy Star homes, remodeling and mortgages, call the Pinellas County Extension Service at (727) 582-2660.

The Florida Green Building Coalition maintains a Web site at http://floridagreenbuilding.org.

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