Building homes in a down economy

Why green is gold

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Print this page by Nicole Anderson Ellis

What’s a home builder do when the housing market stalls?  Find a way to stand out.  For a growing number of builders in Virginia, that means certified green homes.

“We’ve kept our people working,” says Mark Waring, vice president of Richmond-based BainWaring Builders.  “We’ve been able to get custom-build jobs in the last three years because of our ability to build high-performance homes,”
Ed Sadler turned to green building in 2007, “shortly after the recession started.”

“It differentiates us,” says Sadler, president of Virginia Beach’s Sadler Building Corp.  “The high-performance house is offering added value and benefit.  An Energy Star or Earth Craft home will easily be more attractive to buyers.” 

Rounding out Virginia’s green home certification programs are LEED for Homes and the National Association of Home Builders.  All four promote, measure and recognize energy efficient construction.  All require third-party verification.  And all are thriving in the current economic climate. 

Energy Star is the veteran, with more than a million homes certified nationwide since its founding in 1992.  A joint effort of the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency, its homes typically use 20 to 30 percent less energy than standard American construction.  So they cost less to heat and cool.

“Buyers are taking note of this during the recession,” says Aneil Kumar, president and CEO of SENCON, a Virginia Beach-based sustainability contractor and consulting firm.  “Energy Star sells faster.”

Of the 6,918 Energy Star-qualified homes in Virginia, more than 1,800 have gone up this year alone. Founded in 1999, Earth Craft is exclusive to the Southeast and uses building science specific to the area’s climate (think humidity).  More than 700 Earth Craft homes are scattered across Virginia, and more than 100 certified Earth Craft Builders operate in the commonwealth.  Waring was the first.

In 1990 the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) offered to show Waring and his crew some energy-efficiency techniques.  “What they showed us was how leaky our houses were,” says Waring.  “From that point on we started changing how we do things.”  Their new habits include sealing every crack — from shower drains to recessed lighting — where heated/cooled air might travel.

Recent projects include a 2,900-square-foot home in Chesterfield County.  But not all Earth Craft projects are custom jobs, or large homes.  “Over the last couple of years we’ve been building these little houses — 1,200 to 1600 square feet.  They start at $195,000, and they heat and cool for $40 a month.”

Though the NAHB was a forerunner in educating builders about efficiency, it’s new to the certification game.  Founded in 2005, it has certified only two Virginia projects, both in Hampton Roads.  However, NAHB certification is growing nationwide, which Kumar credits to the program’s streamlined evaluation process and low cost. 

In contrast, the U.S. Green Building Council’s two-year-old Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program for the residential market — aka LEED for Homes — costs more, is harder to achieve but already boasts 21 Virginia homes. 

“It’s the Cadillac of all programs,” says Kumar.  All high-efficiency homes offer long-term savings, but “NAHB, Earth Craft, even Energy Star, with all its branding, don’t result in proven added value in property resale.  LEED has a recognized increase in market value.” 

Whether the goal is quicker sales, higher prices or global health concerns, certified green homes seem rooted in Virginia’s future.  “I see it as the next movement in the housing market,” says Sadler.  “It’s here to stay.” 

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