- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 16, 2006

As a sweltering summer comes to a close, consumers weary of rising electric bills and gas prices are turning their attention to money-saving and environmentally friendly benefits of energy-efficient homes.

While some builders are now scrambling to refocus on what has been a back-burner issue for some time, others have already established themselves as Energy Star (www.energystar.gov) partners with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Some are combining their goals, designing homes that require less energy during the building process, using efficient methods and environmentally friendly materials to save energy as well as costs.

Pulte Homes Inc., an Energy Star partner with the EPA for five years, builds energy-efficient homes across 54 markets in 27 states that meet the high standards of the program, says Rod Hart, vice president of operations for Pulte Homes of Maryland.

“As energy costs have been rising we’ve seen more interest among consumers in energy efficiency,” Mr. Hart says. “Not only is using less energy near and dear to everyone’s hearts, but now it also affects their pocketbooks.”

In Pulte’s customer surveys, respondents consistently said they want more energy-efficient homes. The company estimates that $500 to $1,500 can be saved annually on the average 1,500- to 4,000-square-foot home by incorporating energy-efficient elements into the residence.

Arlen Janet, vice president of construction for Pulte Homes of Maryland, says, “The Energy Star modifications we make include ‘value engineering framing‘ which allows us to put insulation in places such as corners where you couldn’t put it before. We add duct insulation and 90-percent-efficient furnaces, when the average is 80-percent-efficient. We do what’s called ‘sealing the envelope‘ around fireplaces, bathtubs and windows to minimize the loss of energy from the home.”

Mr. Hart says consumers can save from 5 to 15 percent in energy costs by buying an Energy Star-compliant home.

“Consumers are usually more concerned with the heating and air conditioning than anything else because these are things they feel,” Mr. Janet says. “As part of the home-buying process we do a pre-drywall orientation with our buyers so we can show the customers where we have added insulation and sealed their home to add energy efficiency.”

Mr. Hart says he lives in a 6,000-square-foot Pulte Home that is Energy Star-compliant and that for the past eight months his electric bill has averaged $100 per month.

Miller and Smith LLC has earned the Energy Star designation for the homes in two of its Maryland communities.

“We’re mostly experimenting with this program to gauge the level of consumer interest in energy efficient homes,” says Rhonda Ellisor, vice president of sales and marketing for Miller and Smith. “We’ve found that while many people like the idea of energy-efficient homes because they are good ecologically and they want to build green, they are not that willing to spend more money to do that. However, as we see utility costs start to rise, we expect more consumer interest in energy-efficient homes.”

Mrs. Ellisor estimates that building a 2,800-square-foot home that qualifies for an Energy Star designation costs about $5,000 more than building a home without the additional energy efficiency.

“We have raised prices a little on our Energy Star homes, but, basically, we split the cost with the buyer,” Mrs. Ellisor says. “However, the purchaser is the true beneficiary later on because they will have lower utility bills.”

Scott Peterson, vice president of Bozzuto Homes Inc., says that his company, a new Energy Star partner, will be earning the Energy Star designation for all its homes this year — single-family homes, town homes, apartments and condominiums.

“We had been adding a lot of energy-efficient components already, but earning the designation adds value to our homes,” Mr. Peterson says.

Among the requirements of an Energy Star home are the installation of energy-efficient windows, heating and air conditioning systems with higher Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) ratings, insulating windows, wrapping the homes with high-density polyethylene and using insulated metal exterior doors, Mr. Peterson says.

As utility costs rise, Mr. Peterson says he anticipates that more consumers will be aware of the value of energy-efficient homes. While Bozzuto and other companies are beginning to market the energy efficiency of their homes, Mr. Peterson says the level of interest in this aspect depends in part on demographics.

“Energy efficiency is very important to older buyers, especially if they are going on a fixed income,” Mr. Peterson says.

“If they are moving into a condominium, they need to know what their energy costs will be, so we give them anecdotal evidence to help determine what they can expect,” he says. “Younger buyers, depending on the region, are usually less interested because they are more concerned with finding a home they can afford and are less aware of the impact of energy efficiency. Some, however, are interested in the idea of sustainability and green buildings.”

Mrs. Ellisor says Miller and Smith chose single-family home communities as its first group of Energy Star homes because they recognized that energy efficiency is less of a focus for first-time buyers.

“Single-family home buyers have usually already experienced utility bills and, so, are more concerned with energy efficiency,” Mrs. Ellisor says.

While most buyers are primarily concerned with reducing their energy consumption and their costs, many are also interested in the environmental impact of their homes and even the home-building process.

The Sustainable Buildings Industry Council (SBIC) (www.sbicouncil.org) supports the efforts of home builders to design more energy-efficient homes and to use energy-efficient systems inside those homes.

“Everyone talks about building better buildings, buildings which perform better,” says Douglas Schroeder, SBIC associate director.

“Our group started in support of passive solar energy, which means designing homes with the envelope or shell of the building designed to accept or retard the accessibility of sunlight to more efficiently use energy,” he says. “We still embrace this design, but we also see the need to develop more efficient internal systems such as lighting and HVAC systems which use less energy.”

The SBIC, in partnership with Greener Buildings and IHS Architectural, Engineering and Construction Solutions, developed a building design approach called the Whole Building Design Guide (www.WBDG.org) to provide design teams with information to make environmentally sound decisions when building homes.

The National Association of Home Builders (www.NAHB.org) also has developed a “green” home building program.

“What was once a niche part of the home building market, energy-efficient homes, has now become of significant interest to builders and consumers,” Mr. Schroeder says. “Not only are there a number of organizations, including the NAHB, providing information on this, but a number of companies are prominently marketing energy efficiency as a way to sell homes.”

Mr. Schroeder says the biggest impact in the last 10 to 20 years has come from the improvement of glazing technology for windows, advances in insulation techniques and the development of more energy-efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and the fans to circulate the air in homes.

“We would like to see more developers pay attention to the way a home is oriented right from the start in terms of the exposure to the sun,” Mr. Schroeder says. “You can maximize the potential for energy efficiency from the very beginning with a careful layout of the streets and the positioning of the homes. Not every home has to be facing the street.”

At Waterford Development LLC in Reston, the approach to home building in recent years has focused on building more efficiently, which, in turn, makes the homes more energy efficient for the buyers.

Chris Todd, director of design and construction for Waterford Development, says, “Thirty-eight percent of the energy consumed by industry in the United States is consumed by the home building industry. At Waterford, we are trying to do sustainable building, using recycled materials and materials that last longer.”

“We build condominiums and build them as if they will stay up for 100 years, out of concrete and steel,” he says. “We build them as efficiently as possible, with as little waste and as little unused space as we can.”

Waterford’s homes include such features as dual-flush toilets, which Mr. Todd says are common in Europe. They have two buttons to control the amount of water used when flushing.

“The NAHB says that the typical four-bedroom, three-bath home can save 4,000 gallons of water per year with these toilets,” Mr. Todd says.

Waterford’s buildings have “vegetative roofs” that filter rainwater for use as irrigation and cleans the pollutants out of the water to protect other water sources such as the Chesapeake Bay.

“A ‘green’ roof should also impact residents in a building because it adds more insulation to the roof,” Mr. Todd says. “More insulation keeps the homes cooler in the summer and also allows less heat to escape through the roof in the winter.”

In larger developments, Waterford uses a central mechanical system to heat the water for the furnaces. It costs more to install initially but in the long-term it will save energy.

“We try to save money during construction when we are building these energy-efficient buildings so that we don’t have to increase our prices to consumers,” Mr. Todd says.

“Our company has made a conscious decision to use recycled or alternative materials, which are better for the environment, and we changed our focus over the past four years to make denser urban products that are not using as many virgin materials or as much previously undeveloped land,” he says.

Finding a balance between energy efficiency and cost efficiency is a goal of most builders. Developers depend on research and development efforts to invent new technology to improve the way homes are built and how they work.

“We are constantly looking for innovations across the country which add energy efficiency to homes and give our company a competitive edge,” Mr. Peterson says. “Adding energy efficiency to homes is better in the long run for the home buyer and yet doesn’t make the price of the home rise out of reach, either.”

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