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Sustainable Building by the Numbers

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Sustainable Building by the Numbers

 How building “green” can save builders money

December 15, 2021
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Image: stock.Adoble / Daboost

Home building is no longer exclusively about materials or land, but instead, how all the pieces fit together within an overarching puzzle. Sustainable building is using energy-efficient and healthier materials and the intelligent integration of design, construction, and operation of each home so it delivers benefits like healthier living, less maintenance, and durability not just for the next 15 years, but for decades to come. 

Surprisingly, we discovered that by making some adjustments to not only the materials used, but how we purchase and inventory them, our bottom line was positively impacted, too. Much of what we learned had to do with simple arithmetic. 

Tri Pointe Homes’ process begins with site selection and planning, with considerations given to community walkability, proximity to schools, shopping, green space, local transportation, and amenities aimed at reducing our carbon footprint and increasing the overall physical, psychological, and emotional health for our homebuyers.

So what value can be discerned from dual-flush toilets, tankless water heaters, mesh Wi-Fi systems, or zero-VOC paints and adhesives? These products are not only expected to make a home more comfortable, but also to perform better over time, ultimately saving homeowners money. Unfortunately, those benefits can sometimes be overshadowed by more aesthetic design elements such as paint color, tile, and countertops which can mean home shoppers may overlook the long-term, intrinsic benefits that can extend the life of the home and health of its residents, as well as future value.

This signals a growing need for home builders, like us, to raise visibility around these front-end investments and to message the benefits of sustainable materials and building best practices directly to consumers. For our part, Tri Pointe Homes has developed and actively promotes its LivingSmart program, a comprehensive program involving the development, design, construction and ongoing operation of high-performing homes aimed at generating cost-savings for our homeowners and a better environment for their families, and the planet. 

Options or Part of the Value Package?

Construction is a numbers game. How much do materials cost? How many trades are needed for each job? Can a bulk order save money? What will it cost to inventory and store bulk buys? 

These questions and a slurry of considerations for sustainable materials and best practices can easily force us back into our comfort zone versus experimenting with what we don’t yet know. Any change, large or small, can therefore become overwhelming—especially for those attempting to become environmentally conscious stewards – all in the face of rising costs, supply chain delays, labor shortages, and ever-changing municipal codes. 

The main driver however is today’s homebuyers, who expect newly built homes to include high-quality products that deliver greater efficiencies. They are also willing to pay for those innovations – leaving the responsibility and costs associated with green gains – squarely on the shoulders of home builders. 

Our analysis has shown that when improvements (zero or low emission paints, adhesives and cabinetry, and smart home systems for lighting, security, irrigation control and roof mounted solar panels) come as included features in our homes, most buyers are comfortable with the value equation. If presented as an option, many buyers tend to scrimp. Here again, it comes down to basic math. Lacking the knowledge of long-term gains, consumers focus exclusively on front-end expense. Home builders are therefore in the driver’s seat to not only build but message the value of homes with features that are friendly to the environment and overall human health and integral to a home’s value. In doing so, consumer demand for products should grow and ultimately drive down front-end expense. 

Navigating the Divide Between Policy and Practice

Builders, architects, and contractors are being called on by some consumers to design and build lower carbon footprint, higher-performing, net zero-energy and self-sustaining buildings that generate their own power. However, as many of us know through experience, innovations that detach from existing electrical grids and power supplies tend to attract the discerning eye of governing bodies, often resulting in new policies. Some states are driving change and adoption of sustainable practices, while others belabor incentives, which can create some serious confusion. 

Home builders therefore have a unique opportunity to minimize the gap between new building policy and practice by rallying supply chain players and collaborating to create an entirely new playbook. For example, Tri Pointe actively broadcasts the how’s and why’s of our approach to vendors along our entire supply chain. If new codes mandate a shift in selected products or size of purchase order, we explain in detail why the changes are being made and collaborate with partners with whom we’ve had long-standing relationships, to successfully execute those changes – many of which are required to ensure our built homes pass final inspection. It hasn’t always been easy however instead of viewing these shifts as an acquiescence to policy, we view it as opportunistic for our industry to serve as leaders, blending innovative designs, customer expectations, and of course, overarching policy. 

Sustainable homebuilding, although a topic of conversation, has not yet reached critical mass. Plenty of home builders, including Tri Pointe Homes, support the adoption of practices and materials expected to help a home perform better, increase its value,  and ultimately save homebuyers and home builders money. What drives change in the homebuilding industry is not just policy and safety codes, but consumer demand. That demand is steadily ebbing towards high-performance and energy-efficient building products for healthier home environments and improved quality of life – not only for buyers, but the longevity of completed builds. The good news is that adopting these new approaches and practices should have net positive results, not only for the generations of buyers to come, but for our industry’s bottom line. 

3 Ways Builders Can Mitigate Front-End Costs

  • Bring supply chains into alignment. Buying in bulk isn’t only beneficial for Costco members. Bulk buying appliances, lumber, and drywall leads not only to reduced cost per unit, but a reduction in shipping and trucking fees. An ancillary benefit is that as sites ready for install, materials will be on hand versus on a freighter out at sea or stuck at the dock awaiting transportation.
  • Consider impact on labor expenses. Reducing the number of needed tradespeople can increase build margins, and using greener or more sustainable products makes that easier. For example, shifting away from standard water heaters to tankless wall-mounted options alleviates the need for multiple plumbers and achieves a shorter install time. Lighter building materials reduce the number of people needed to transport and install items on a site. Worth mentioning is the reduced space footprint and warehouse storage costs saved by buying wall-mounted tankless options vs. standard water heaters. 
  • Employ intelligent design using available, on-site materials and native topography. Tri Pointe Homes frequently uses rock material native to build areas to create drainage swales, retaining walls, and decorative accents. We landscape using native vegetation, incorporate drought-tolerant concepts and slope terrain in a way that reduces water usage for irrigation purposes. Instead of paying for and transporting sand material needed to backfill electric and gas trenches, we make our own using onsite materials, reducing overall expense. 
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Written By

Kevin Wilson is national vice president of strategic sourcing and sustainability for Tri Pointe Homes, Inc. (NYSE: TPH), one of the largest homebuilders in the U.S. and a recognized leader in customer experience, innovative design, and environmentally responsible business practices.

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