4 ways to build green on a budget

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It’s good to be green, but everything starts with affordability. That’s what home builders have learned about creating marketable products for cost-conscious, savvy buyers. Solar panels and tankless water heaters are attractive options, but achieving green at an affordable price requires getting back to basics: using land economically, reducing waste, making the most of smaller square footage, and keeping operating costs to a minimum.

October 20, 2010

It’s good to be green, but everything starts with affordability. That’s what home builders have learned about creating marketable products for cost-conscious, savvy buyers. Solar panels, central vacuum systems, and tankless water heaters are attractive options, but achieving green at an affordable price requires getting back to basics: using land economically, reducing waste, making the most of smaller square footage, and keeping operating costs to a minimum. 

   
 

Affordable green: the four commandments

1. Use land efficiently, preserving as much of the site in its natural state as possible.

2. Create home designs that are attractive and cost- and resource-efficient without looking cheap.

3. Use open plans and other features that give the perception of spaciousness. Find ways to utilize every bit of space.

4. Focus on insulation, high-efficiency HVAC systems, and other green features that reduce the homeowner’s monthly operating costs.

      

   

Earlier this year, Pardee Homes of San Diego introduced a new line of LivingSmart Homes at two communities in California’s Inland Empire. LivingSmart Homes are the culmination of a “greening” process that started in 1998 when Pardee pioneered Energy Star homes. For the last decade, the company has offered a menu of standard and optional green features at its communities in Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange, and San Diego counties, but the price points were too high for home buyers in the Inland Empire. So with help from suppliers, trade contractors, and home buyers, Pardee retooled the LivingSmart line.

“Our buyers told us very clearly that they really want to be green, but their finances have to come first,” says Matt Sauls, regional marketing director for Pardee. Tangible green features such as radiant roof barriers, insulated ductwork, and water-saving faucets and toilets made sense to potential buyers “because they saved money on a month-to-month basis,” says Sauls.

Bigelow Homes, a Chicago-based builder that also is active in central Texas, has a long history of providing affordable, energy-efficient housing. “You’ve got to sell at a price that the market will bear,” says Jamie Bigelow, president of Bigelow Homes. “We look at resales and try to get as close to that as possible. Our salespeople are trained to tell customers that even though a resale home or foreclosure costs less than a new home, it’s not energy-efficient.”

A smaller, “right-sized” footprint is one of the most basic tenets of sustainability, says builder Linda Pruitt, president of The Cottage Co., based in Seattle. “A moderately sized, 1,500-square-foot home is infinitely more sustainable than a typical 2,500- or 3,000-square-foot home,” says Pruitt. “Smaller homes use less raw materials and generate less waste.” Pruitt’s cottages are clustered and have minimal yard space, instead favoring lushly landscaped common areas. What they lack in square footage they make up for in richness of detail and ingenious use of space. Features such as dining alcoves with built-in seating are common in her designs.

Pruitt’s business model is inherently sustainable, too. She builds exclusively in existing single-family neighborhoods that are close to jobs and transportation. By using higher-quality, durable materials, she aims to build homes that won’t have to be torn down in 10, 15, or 20 years.

Pardee’s progress

In February 2010, Pardee opened four new LivingSmart models at Tournament Hills in Beaumont, Calif., and another four at Canyon Hills in Lake Elsinore, Calif. “We got great opening traffic — over 300 units a week — and to date we’ve sold 90 homes between the two neighborhoods,” says Sauls.

Ranging from 1,132 to 3,099 square feet and priced from $180,000 to $280,000, the LivingSmart Homes line includes eight floor plans with up to seven bedrooms, two to four baths, and two- to three-car garages, plus options like media niches, garage workshops, and master bedroom decks. Simplified roof lines, stacked or aligned plumbing, and 8-foot ceilings are among the cost-saving design tricks. But Pardee heeded the advice of potential buyers and didn’t skimp on kitchens and master baths. Stainless steel appliances, granite countertops, Shaker-style birch cabinets, and separate tubs and showers are standard. The base price also includes Energy Star appliances, low-e windows, water-saving faucets, and radiant barrier roof sheathing.

The revamped LivingSmart Homes are attracting a wide cross-section of buyers, including “first-time buyers who thought they would never be able to afford a new home,” Sauls says. At press time, Pardee had sold 35 homes at Tournament Hills and 55 at Canyon Hills. The builder is also getting its highest-ever customer satisfaction ratings on the new homes, with scores topping 95 percent in every category from construction and sales to quality.

Lower cooling bills — guaranteed

At Franklin Square in San Marcos, Texas, Bigelow Homes guarantees buyers that their cooling bills will not exceed $400 a year. Thanks to a combination of energy efficiency and affordability, the builder has sold six out of eight homes released to date. Prices start in the $140,000s for single-family homes ranging from 1,380 to 1,920 square feet.

“It’s an inexpensive product on wooded lots that we preserved, and it’s close to Texas State University,” says Bigelow. 

There are several keys to producing affordable green homes that the market will embrace, Bigelow says. They include working with a municipality that will allow this type of housing, purchasing the lot at the right price, and having good systems, procedures, and processes that allow homes to be built efficiently. “As far as making it green, we decided long ago to focus on energy efficiency and do it well, which saves people money and helps the environment,” he says.

Revitalizing the suburbs

Sarah Peck, principal of Progressive Housing Ventures in Malvern, Pa., focuses on infill properties in the Philadelphia suburbs. Her latest venture, Arbor Heights in downtown Norristown, Pa., consists of 12 townhomes that start in the low $120,000s. Designed by BartonPartners Architects, Norristown, the innovative design stacks townhomes — three-over-three townhomes in each of two buildings, separated by an existing home.

Norristown is an old steel town that has declined over the years. Faced with an increasing number of lower-income rentals, the municipality wanted to foster homeownership. “Their vision was to take the most blighted structures on the worst block that had the most upside, concentrate a lot of public funding on that block, and work in conjunction with a private developer,” Peck says.

The block they selected is in a historic district populated by once-elegant mansions. It’s an ideal location, a few blocks from county offices and the county courthouse, for individuals who work in the area and want to lower their commuting costs.

Public subsidies, including a HOME grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and grants from the County Affordable Housing Trust Fund, are keeping sale prices low and assisting qualified buyers with closing and down payment costs.

“One of the nice byproducts of building high-density in this kind of environment is that the homes tend be very energy-efficient as well as walkable to public transit and life’s amenities,” says Peck. Green features include insulated ductwork; low-e windows; R-8 insulation in the ceiling and R-19 in the walls; 13 SEER, high-efficiency electric heat pumps; and Energy Star appliances and lighting. The mansard and gambrel roofs have lighter shake colors to lessen solar heat gain.

At press time, two homes had been sold, although the project is not officially open and construction hasn’t started. “Our buyers are coming out of rental apartments with very high energy bills, and they’re delighted to find out that those bills are going to be much lower,” says Peck.

Smartly built in Sarasota

When Sarasota, Fla., builder Josh Wynne designs a house, he looks to great architects and builders such as Gustav Stickley and Henry and Charles Greene for inspiration.

“Much of what we need to know about building a more efficient, simple house is in the history books,” says Wynne. “When early settlers in Florida cleared a site, they didn’t take trees just for the sake of taking them — they took the ones that were going to be best for use in the house. They used long roof overhangs to shade windows from the sun when it was high. Passive ventilation and lighting were necessities. They built small houses because it took a lot of manpower and resources to build a large house.”

Wynne recently built a home that achieved a HERS index of 52 “without using any solar. That house actually had a swimming pool because the client needed one for therapy. Without the pool, the HERS index would have been in the 30s.” Long eaves and large, insulated patio doors maintain indoor comfort. Polished concrete floors also help regulate temperatures. Other features include a sealed duct system, low-VOC paints and cabinet finishes, recycled materials, and drought-tolerant landscaping.

His goal is $100 or less per square foot in building costs. “I try to incorporate design elements that are fundamentally more sustainable and energy-efficient: light-colored roofs and exteriors, good insulation, good windows and doors, well-designed HVAC systems, Energy Star appliances, smart lighting features, and passive ventilation.”


Modern green homes unfold

Steel is the deal for Blu Homes, a designer and manufacturer of energy-efficient, factory-built homes. The Waltham, Mass.-based company uses commercial-grade steel for framing because the material is more durable than wood and resists fire, termites, and rot, according to Blu Homes’ vice president of design and engineering Dennis Michaud. “The homes will last way beyond most people’s life span,” he says.

Offerings range from small starter and empty-nester homes (Origin and Element) to the eco-luxury mkDesigns line. Origin starts at 400 square feet and $64,000, while Element starts at 738 square feet and $125,000.

What’s most innovative about Blu Homes, though, is the technology. “The homes are almost completely built in the factory, which is basically unheard of in prefab building,” Michaud says. “That takes four to six weeks. Once finished, the home is folded up, put on a truck, and shipped to the job site, where it’s unfolded in a day and finished in one to two weeks.”

Energy modeling performed during construction indicates that Blu Homes consume 40 to 60 percent less energy than conventional homes, Michaud says. Blu homes, which are LEED certifiable, promote natural ventilation and cooling with operable clerestory windows. A continuous layer of rigid foam around the home makes it air- and watertight. 

Since it was founded in 2007, Blu has sold 45 homes. Until now, the company has been working directly with home buyers, but it is actively seeking partnerships with builders and developers.

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