- The Washington Times - Friday, December 7, 2001

Ask a homeowner what he hopes to accomplish this winter, and it just might boil down to this: Saving money on energy bills while staying warm and cozy at the same time. Buyers of new homes share these goals, but they have the advantage of being able to buy the latest in energy efficiency. Besides enjoying a cozy new home and lower fuel bills, these buyers can also have their hearts warmed by possibly qualifying for a larger mortgage, as well as having the satisfaction of doing something good for the environment.

"Most people buy an energy efficient house because they want to save money on their utility bills," says Barry Andrews, president of Barry Andrews Homes in Bel Air, Md. "But it's also important to recognize that it's the right thing to do for the environment."

All builders mention elements of energy efficiency among the standard features of their homes, but some builders go beyond the basics, using new techniques and technologies to push energy savings even higher. While it is possible to increase an existing home's energy efficiency, the best scenario is to build in energy efficiency right from the beginning.

"Back in the 1970s, you could buy a car without air conditioning, and then when you got a little money you could go to Montgomery Ward and buy an air conditioner and install it," Mr. Andrews says. "But the truth is, it never worked like it would have worked if it was installed in the first place. It's the same thing with homes; if you wait and try to increase the energy efficiency later, it's a retrofit. Building a house without paying enough attention to energy efficiency is a lost opportunity that you'll never get back."

Barry Andrews Homes, winner in 2000 of the Medium Builder of the Year Award from the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program, builds houses primarily in Maryland's Cecil, Baltimore and Harford counties. Prices range from the $160,000s to more than $500,000 for custom homes.

"All the homes we build meet the Energy Star program requirements, and most exceed them," Mr. Andrews says. "While Energy Star homes are required to be 80 percent energy efficient, ours are usually 86 [percent] to 90 percent efficient. We've estimated the savings on our lower-end homes, those priced in the $160,000s, at $7,204 over a 10-year period."

Homes with the EPA's Energy Star label have been verified to meet energy efficient guidelines. Heating, cooling and hot water energy use in these homes is expected to be at least 30 percent less than a home built to the national Model Energy Code. Energy Star homes have tightly sealed and insulated duct work, a tightly sealed and properly ventilated building exterior, an optimum amount of insulation in the walls and attic, technologically advanced windows, and high efficiency heating and cooling equipment.

"The verification process for Energy Star certification includes having a third-party contractor hook up a fan to the front door of the house and suck out all the air," says Dan Gregory, general sales manager of Beazer of Maryland. "Then they measure the amount of air getting into the house to see if the home is sealed tightly enough. It's a pretty stringent program to commit to."

Buyers can benefit from an energy efficient home by saving money in the long run and by being able to afford a more expensive house.

"Many of the lenders we work with will tweak the numbers a little bit to help buyers qualify for a higher loan, because they know their utility bills will be lower," says Eve Nolan, director of sales and marketing for Barry Andrews Homes.

Beazer is the only national builder in the Washington area participating in the Energy Star program. As of Nov. 1, all Beazer homes in the Marleigh community in Upper Marlboro, the Oaks at Garrison Forest in Owings Mills, and Hollifield Farms in Ellicott City will be certified with the Energy Star label.

"Buying one of these homes can mean lots of savings for the homeowner," Mr. Gregory says. "We've estimated that the total energy cost savings on our Radcliffe model at Garrison Forest will be $8,678 over 10 years, or $867 per year. The average monthly energy bills for this model will be $223 per month, which is really low for a 3,100-square-foot home. On top of that, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can push their loan approval limits for buyers of Energy Star homes."

Creating energy efficiency while constructing new homes costs more money up front, but this varies according to the builder and the project.

"Beazer Homes has been building their homes with a high degree of energy efficiency all along," says Mr. Gregory, "so we have only had to spend a few hundred extra dollars to bring these homes up to the Energy Star level, and we haven't raised our prices at all because of the energy efficiency. Most builders will spend $2,000 to $6,000 extra to build homes to that standard."

Mr. Andrews estimates the extra cost to build a more energy efficient home to be about $2,500 to $3,000 per home, which the buyer can quickly make up in lower energy bills.

While much of the technology used in building these energy efficient homes has been available for years, there are some new products and new techniques that are used to decrease energy consumption.

"The main things we do to increase energy efficiency are to install 'low-E' windows, which are standard in all our homes, to go to R-38 level insulation in our attics, when most builders only go up to R-30, and to seal the envelope of the building thoroughly with caulking," Mr. Gregory says.

"We use a product similar to plywood to sheath the outside of the house before the exterior material goes on, and we tape all the seams, too," he says. "Inside, the floor joist that goes through the middle of the house is banded together for support, and we wrap that with plastic wrap to protect it and tape the seams, which allows less air to pass through."

Low-E (low-emissivity) windows can block up to 98 percent of UV rays, according to the Energy Star Web site. The windows reduce utility bills because they lose less heat in winter and absorb less heat in the summer.

At Dodson Homes, a builder primarily in Virginia's Warrenton area, low-E windows are only the beginning of a complete energy efficiency package, which also includes a 92 percent energy efficient gas furnace, a 99.9 percent energy efficient gas fireplace, and a 12-SEER rated electric air conditioner.

According to Builder Alex Boyar, principal owner of AB-Urban Development LLC, "Any heating system with 90 percent or above efficiency is highly energy efficient, and a 10-SEER or above rating is excellent for an air conditioning system."

Dodson Homes, currently building all-brick villas and single-family homes priced from $189,990 to the mid-$300,000s at Northrock in Warrenton, also goes the extra mile to build with extra-tight construction.

"All of our homes are built with energy efficiency as a priority," sales representative Tammy Dodson-Baldwin says. "It also makes a difference in the eventual resale value of a home. As more homes are built to meet the Energy Star standards, resale homes without these features will be less competitive."

Dodson Homes seals all the ducts with tape, wraps all above-grade living spaces in Tyvek, uses blown cellulose insulation for the exterior walls and the attic, and pays careful attention to their air-stop package, stopping air flow around outlets and holes for plumbing and electrical lines and pipes, and preventing unconditioned attic air from infiltrating into the conditioned air of the home.

While learning to super-seal a home and insulate it to a higher level are simply new twists on the standard practice of building homes, the new products that can add value to a home include high performance low-E windows and new gas furnaces and water heaters.

"The new direct-vent gas furnaces and water heaters are low combustion, too, which makes them safer as well as more energy-efficient," Mr. Andrews says. "But generally, most of the products made in the 1970s are energy-efficient enough to meet the Energy Star level."

In Arizona and California, a number of builders are using site-planning to increase the energy efficiency of their homes, with careful placement of windows and trees for passive solar heating and cooling. Few builders locally are using this technique for their projects, in part because land here is more expensive and less plentiful than in some parts of the western United States.

Bozzuto Homes, however, was named 2001 Environmental Builder of the Year at the Maryland National Capital Building Industry Association's ninth annual Environmental Builder and Developer Awards dinner, partly for the site planning it used at Blueberry Hill Community in Vienna. Besides preserving vegetation and using topography to provide shade, Bozzuto Homes used low-E windows, upgraded insulation, and installed geothermal heating and cooling in these homes.

Mr. Boyar will be using geothermal heating and cooling in the home he's building in the Palisades neighborhood of Northwest Washington.

"Geothermal heating and cooling works on the same basis as a cave," Mr. Boyar says. "A cave usually stays at a fairly constant temperature, not too hot and not too cold. A geothermal system drills a rod deep into the ground and takes the temperature of the air in the ground into the house. A blower sends the moderate-temperature air through the whole house, which means the air conditioning and heating systems don't need to work as hard. In D.C. and other urban areas, you need to send the rod into the ground vertically, but in other areas you can get the same effect by sending out a rod horizontally to gather the air."

Mr. Boyar's company is introducing passive solar heating to the new home it is building and anticipates spending about $10,000 to $12,000 extra on the project to ramp up the home's energy efficiency.

"I look at this project as a good place to experiment and save some energy at the same time," Mr. Boyar says. "I'm looking into solar collection panels for the roof, but the traditional ones are not very attractive. New solar panels have been built that resemble roof shingles, but they are less effective."

AB-Urban Development also builds condominiums and renovates homes in the Dupont Circle area, where the company is meeting the Energy Star requirements, as well.

"The key elements to creating energy efficiency are the placement of the windows, the type of windows, and the furnace and air conditioning systems," Mr. Boyar says. "Brick buildings are usually more energy efficient, and if you're building one from the start, you can add heavy insulation and tape up all the air gaps before the brick goes on."

Whether old products such as brick and caulk or new products such as low-E windows and low-combustion direct-vent gas furnaces are used, homes can be built today to provide a comfortable living environment while saving money and caring for the world's environment.

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