Can A Green House Grow Money?

In a recent issue, Corp! wrote about making commercial buildings more sustainable. In this article we turn to the residential sector.

Despite the fact that residential home building has taken a slight uptick in the past month, the market as a whole is still way below previous activity. Still, there are small pockets of construction and some of those are greener than others.

The Village at Burns Harbor.

One of these is the Village in Burns Harbor, Ind., a small town on the Lake Michigan shore east of Chicago and bordering the Indiana Dunes State Park. According to John Kremke, a board member of the Porter County Builder’s Association, the Village is on “the first single site green building parade of homes in the first development project to be certified under the newly adopted National Association of Home Builders National Green Building Standards.” Both accomplishments, Kremke points out, are the first in the nation.

Not only is the Village green, it’s a “typical neighborhood development,” Kremke says. “It’s based on a design that centers on creating a neighborhood -“ such as smaller lots and shallower front yards -“ to get the houses closer to the sidewalks in order to create a more walkable community. The houses have front porches, with garages on rear alleys, or at least not on the same plane as the rest of the house. There are neighborhood parks and greenspace.”

Beautiful Front Load Home

What makes a home green? The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) has issued both standards and guidelines to help define the concept, but in broad terms they say that environmental concerns and resource efficiency should enter every step of the design and construction process. Indiana home builder Kremke points out builders in the Village are even “recycling all of their wood, cardboard and drywall scraps.”

The NAHB says the construction of a green home must focus on energy and water efficiency, resource-efficient building design and materials, indoor environmental quality and the overall impact of the home on its immediate environment.

Jo Theunissen of Howling Hammer Builders, a Certified Green Builder with offices in Mt. Pleasant, Mich.

What goes into the construction of a green home? Corp! caught up with Jo Theunissen of Howling Hammer Builders, a Certified Green Builder with offices in Mt. Pleasant, Mich. that specializes in custom homes. She was attending the federal Department of Energy national weatherization conference in Indianapolis. We asked her what she was doing to increase her use of sustainable building materials.

“First of all,” Theunissen said, “we’ve been building green for more than eight years. We took a hard look at everything that went into a house. For the end product, the finishes, we use a lot of cork floors and bamboo -“ readily renewable resources -“ and getting away from hardwood floors. We’re also using much more porcelain and ceramic flooring. We using advanced framing techniques to actually use fewer materials without sacrificing strength or quality. We also use as much engineered wood as possible.”

Tom McCullough from Kaper Building Materials talks about how homes in The Village in Burns Harbor include finger-jointed lumber, factory built wall panels and roof trusses, I-joists floor framing, 24″ OC non load bearing interior wall framing, insulated headers, and continuous exterior insulated wall sheathing

Engineered wood seems to be a constant among environmentally-conscious builders, whether they’re building a number of homes in a development such as the Village or individual homes. “Our framing studs are engineered finger-jointed lumber, which uses cutoffs and scraps that might normally be discarded by lumber manufacturers,” says Kremke. It’s also greener. Framing members that look like steel “I” beams use oriented strand board -“ another recycled engineered product -“ to add strength to structures while reducing dependence on traditional dimensional lumber.

Indiana’s Kremke goes so far as to use a local drywall product that’s made from a byproduct of the local utility’s coal ash. Scraps of drywall from construction go back to the manufacturer to be recycled once again.

Ann Arbor, Mich. architect Michael Klement remodeled a home that has an average energy bill of $35 per month.

How do homeowners decide on a green home? Corp! asked Michael Klement of Architectural Resource in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“It all begins with our clients understanding that they, more than anything that we might do, have the greatest impact on the ‘greenness’ of what we might accomplish together,” he replies. “In the words of one of my university professors: ‘a passive home requires an active homeowner.'”

While not everyone who talks to Klement may agree about the fact of global warming, “everyone can accept that we have dwindling vital natural resources that need our attention and everyone can get excited about $35 per month on average energy bills like we were able to achieve in a project that was the first LEED Platinum home remodel in Michigan. I look at green,” Klement continues, “as an escalator. Not everyone has to take it to the top level, you can get off on any floor-¦ we just would like to see them get on the escalator.”

The idea of $35 energy bills brings up some economic questions. There are two basic ways of looking at the costs of a green home building project or remodel: direct costs up front and payback period. To qualify as a certified green home there might be a direct premium of between $1,900 to $38,000 -“ depending on your location -“ and, to use Klement’s analogy, which floor you want to get off on. Those figures were estimated by the NAHB’s green building unit.

Kelly Kaminski from Coolman Properties and Karen Thatcher from Energy Diagnostics (an energy efficiency verifier) explaining the value of a “green” home in The Village in Burns Harbor to visiting real estate agents and others.

Payback, though, can reduce those costs by the amount of energy savings a homeowner can achieve over a period of years. As Dave Kellett Sr. of Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Kellett Construction, says, “for a geothermal heating and cooling system, for instance, you pay a relatively small premium over a conventional unit, but after about five or six years you’ve recovered that premium and then with the greatly reduced operating costs it’s like collecting dividends on your investment.” A geothermal system uses the relatively constant temperature of the earth at comparatively shallow levels to add heat to a home in the winter or deposit heat from the home in the summer. Because the system relies on a closed-loop arrangement, it does not use oil or natural gas and thus saves both money and a non-renewable resource.

Education plays a big part in customer acceptance of green building or remodeling. Theunissen points out that there’s a gender difference in how prospective clients view green. “Big time!” she exclaims. “Women generally are much more concerned with air quality -“ how it’s going to impact their family. Guys get really wrapped up in the techie part of it -“ the furnace and the smart panels. And, strangely enough, when we get to some of the high-end finishes like the recycled glass we often use in countertops, it’s the guys again getting all involved in the tech aspect. I think perhaps 25 percent of what a builder does is learn about a client, how they’re going to use their house.”

A Blower Door is used to accurately test indoor air infiltration.

Kremke and other area builders have held what are called “workboots tours” to show other builders, prospective buyers and even real estate agents what goes into the construction of a green home. One stop on the tour demonstrates an important feature of a green home -“ air quality. A device called a “blower door” is placed on an exterior door of a nearly completed home, all other doors and windows are closed and the amount of air entering the home from outside can be accurately measured. The tighter the home, the less air enters -“ with a resultant reduction in energy required to maintain desired temperatures. But, that can cause problems as well. So devices called air exchangers are installed to insure there is sufficient conditioned outside air added to the home to maintain healthy air quality.

Aerial Shot of The Village Square.

Because green builders are often as committed to green building practices as they are to a green end product, they usually are able to keep their homes in a reasonable price range -“ despite the potential premiums mentioned earlier. Homes in Indiana’s Village in Burns Harbor top out at $250,000 -“ showing that a modest, yet totally green home can be affordable. In the Mt. Pleasant, Mich. area even a Howling Hammer custom home, with premium features, can be certified green -“ and affordable -“ at $375,000.

With fewer homes being built and fewer sold, what are green builders doing to keep afloat? Most are remodeling. Both Kellett and Theunissen are actively encouraging customers not only to remodel green for energy efficiency, but to incorporate Universal Design, a concept that appeals primarily to empty nesters who’ve discovered that they may as well stay in their home after their children have left because its market value has declined rather than increased. UD incorporates design features that include wider hallways and doorways, kitchens that require less bending or reaching, baths and kitchens with easier to maintain surface materials, better, and more energy-efficient lighting -“ all of which include a heavy green component. Theunissen explains “we’re remodeling a home for clients that we hope will be their last home. We market a lifestyle and the use of a home as much as we market the home itself.”