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Going Green: Making the Transition

 

By Joanna Childers, Wake Living

Fall 2015

 

Everyone has heard a lot about it: the Green Movement, Green Energy, making consumer choices that take into account the eventual effect on the Earth. But when it comes to making the transition to living a greener lifestyle in your own home, considerations about where to begin, what you can afford, what improvements are the most important, and where to put your resources of attention and money in the midst of other demands … that can be a bit of a challenge for each individual consumer. Fortunately, as the Green Energy Movement gains speed, some of those choices are becoming easier as companies create greater access for consumers to “make the transition” to living green.  


Peter Winkler decided to make the transition to green living a few years ago when he decided to buy a home for his family at Briar Chapel. “I was just looking for a home, and I happened to see an advertisement for someone giving a seminar. It was just a little talk in the community from Southern Energy Management. It was a quick, hour long, weekday evening kind of deal, and it was a very high overview of a green certified home. What does it mean, what are the benefits? I had not even considered it. It was just something that, since I was in the market, I thought I should learn about. I was kind of blown away. I didn’t realize that you don’t have to spend a whole lot more money to get a green home. There were so many benefits, not only with the savings in energy, but also higher air quality, and that good feeling that you were doing something that was a little bit more sustainable.” 


When Newland Communities decided to build an entirely green community and work with Southern Energy Management to measure their homes, it did something interesting for Raleigh as a whole: it created an incentive for a number of local builders who were not already building green to make the transition. “Builders were being forced to up their ante and teach their contractors how to build green,” according to Winkler. “We thought it was really neat that a big development was taking the lead in this way. And, of course you probably know what has happened to the market: I think about 30% is now certified green.” 


Southern Energy Management was the company that Newland Communities chose to measure their homes when they first began development for Briar Chapel. Since that time, Southern Energy Management has continued to dig deeply into what it takes for a builder to make the transition to building green. As a result of their familiarity with the Green Energy market and their passion, they have come up with the ecoSelect program – a program that gives local builders easier access to being certified green. This is a program that is being used in Newland Communities’ new development, Wendell Falls, which recently opened in Eastern Wake County. 


While the combined forces of companies like Newland Communities and Southern Energy Management make it easier for individuals to buy into a high standard for a greener lifestyle, there are still many challenges a consumer faces when thinking about buying elsewhere. While “living green” is gaining in popularity, it is important to remember, according to Peter Winkler, that the concept of what green is can get watered down. 


Stanley Martin Homes has been in the market since 1966, and they have seen a lot of changes over that period of time. From the beginning, Green Energy has been their corporate, social responsibility program, and they build homes that are very energy efficient. With decades of experience building green homes that are cost competitive in the market, an understanding of everything they consider – and the order they consider it in – can be a good point of reference for a consumer who is thinking about making the transition to green living independently. 


“One of the first things we do is we seal all of our crawl spaces and we condition that space. That reduces all mildew, it reduces all drafts, and it reduces any kind of air infiltration from up under the floors. We use air sealing technology around all penetration to the outside of the home so that there is no air infiltration coming in. We use all Energy Star rated appliances inside the kitchen, and we use efficiency heating and cooling systems. We use low VOC paint in ceiling and caulks. Our engineered floor systems actually save lumber through our sub floor as well. The sub flooring we put in is typically recycled material, so we actually save trees being cut down. We build our floors two times better than the code requires. We use a thermal barrier to wrap the house and put those barriers behind tubs and to seal outlets to prevent any drafts from getting in in the winter time. We also use a low expanding foam all around our windows and we make sure there are no drafts coming in. And our roofing shingles are made from recyclable asphalt whenever possible.” And this is only the beginning. In short, they look at every aspect of the home they can from an energy efficiency perspective. 


When you start to look at a Stanley Martin Homes in terms of energy efficiency scoring, the result of the combination of all these efforts is substantial. The HERS score – short for Home Energy Rating System – uses several different tests to produce a single score that measures the energy efficiency of a home. They recently built a home that got a score of 44. To put that in perspective, a typical resale home has a score of about 130. An average standard new score is about 100. And some better builders are able to get their score down to around 60. 44 is an excellent score. From his experience with building green, William Smith from Stanley Martin Homes points out that consumers should be careful when relying on HERS scores that are meant to apply to an entire development. Often, he points out, builders only test a few homes in their community, and then use that as an aggregate score for the whole community. Developments may report that “homes in the community are scoring about 65 or 70.” 


But this can be misleading because a builder might know which home will be tested, and put more into the energy efficient construction of that particular home to represent the community.

 

When that is the practice, other people buying into the development might not have as energy efficient a home as they were led to believe. So if you are buying into a development where you are being given average or aggregate numbers, be sure to test your home individually. 


Another important point to keep in mind, according to Stanley Martin Homes, is to keep a critical mind when you are presented with a long list of all the different components that are put into a home to make it energy efficient and green. “The unfortunate thing is that if you don’t have a builder who can install your products properly, you can still get a bad HERS score. You will hear a lot of people tell you ‘Oh gosh, we use this and this and this and our average HERS score is x.’ But that doesn’t really mean much, because it depends on the builder who put the home together. All of the components have to go together and have to be installed properly so that overall, you have a very energy efficient home. For instance, if you take an extremely energy efficient thermal window, but install it improperly and compare that to a regular window that is installed well, the regular window will have a better energy efficiency.” It is vital that consumers are not just looking at the list of energy efficient products used, but making sure they are working with a builder who knows how to install them properly. 


The net effect of taking these precautions can be substantial. William reports that they have had residents move from a 1,900 square foot home to a 3,000 square foot home and actually paid less in energy costs. But to reach that outcome from a purchase within a development, the most important thing is to know the actual HERS rating of the home you are purchasing.

 


Joanna Childers is a freelance writer and the Editor of Wake Living.