A Place Like Home

In the new reality of resilient construction, there may be no place like home. According to McGraw-Hill Construction, green-built homes will represent as much as 38 percent of the residential market by 2016. What was a $17 billion market in 2011 is estimated to increase to as much as $114 billion by 2016. Like commercial construction, the green trend shows signs of staying power. The sheer number of residential certification programs is one indication of a burgeoning market. The electrical contractor (EC) who learns the requirements of more than one program could be a favored choice for expert builders.

Currently, there are at least eight major residential green certification programs, most addressing single and multifamily. In addition, there are numerous state and regional efforts. Widely known is the U.S Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes. The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Energy Star home certification is also familiar to many. Other noted programs include the National Association of Home Builders’ (NAHB) National Green Building Standard (NGBS/ICC 700) created with the International Code Council and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE). Individually focused programs have also emerged, promoting healthy homes and ultra efficiency.

Eco Achievers, a consultancy based in Chicago, conducts building performance testing during the design and third-party certification of high-performance homes.

“We are definitely in a growth period in residential construction,” said Jason La Fleur, company founder and managing building scientist. “More people are rushing to build and on a timeline ramping up production for builders. Subdivisions are being built. In our region, midsized developers who were doing 30 homes a year ago are now building 50.”

Eco Achievers has focused on multifamily housing. 

“We’re seeing developers and builders pursuing LEED for Homes for 10-story buildings or larger, including apartment rentals,” La Fleur said. “Clients see it as an asset with homeowners equating ‘green’ with value and quality. Though a niche, we’re also seeing interest in net-zero performance and what’s called ‘zero energy ready.’ In this case, the developer makes sure the building shell is tight. Conduit chasing, an inverter and main electrical panels are in place for the buyer who decides to later add alternative power (e.g., solar panels). DOE’s [the Department of Energy] Zero Energy Ready Home program is a good resource. I suspect the custom homebuyer might be more willing to install clean energy up front.”

In fact, homebuilders across the country are providing the greenest of green custom homes that are move-in ready and earning or pursuing multiple certifications to capture nearly every facet of sustainable construction. Serosun Farms is one example. The project developer, Cardiff, Calif.-based John DeWald & Associates bills it as a “wholly green planned subdivision” located outside Chicago in Hampshire, Ill. Serosun Farms is to be built around 410 acres of farm and open space. 

[SB]The Serosun model home is intended to meet certification in LEED for Homes version 4 (gold or platinum), NGBS and Energy Star version 3. It also hopes to earn an ambitious Home Energy Rating Standard (HERS) 30 rating. HERS was developed by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET), a standards-making body for domestic building energy-efficiency rating and certification systems. Called the Swainsen House, the model will be a sales and design center and an education tool illustrating many of the home’s sustainable and healthy elements.

“Though some certification programs are similar, each offers a different focus, path or emphasis to achieve sustainability,” said Brandon Weiss, founder and principal for Evolutionary Home Builders based in Geneva, Ill., and builder for Serosun Farms. “That makes it easier to shop around for the program that best fits what you are trying to accomplish. Clients seeking sustainability look to us as educators and advisers, and the demand keeps growing.”

“We have a market for sustainability-minded buyers,” said John DeWald of John DeWald & Associates. “For them, home certification resulting in a healthy home is just as important as energy efficiency. With Serosun Farms, we are going to discover how each certification plays with the other. While these are luxury homes, I see sustainable housing becoming a mainstream practice.”

Evolutionary Home Builders is working on yet another project. Akin to home certification on steroids, the 2,400-square-foot model is being built to standards that will earn many certifications. Beyond the three programs cited for Serosun, this project will add the WELL Building Standard, Passive House, the EPA’s Water Sense, and the DOE’s Zero Energy Ready Home.

“I started this business 10 years ago out of my desire to build and provide sustainably built homes large or small, all budgets,” Weiss said. ”This latest challenge will further hone our skills as we learn how various green certification programs stack up.”

The value of expertise

DeWald said pushing LEED and other certification programs has stimulated his contractors to better understand the challenges of green construction.

While the tasks at hand for ECs might involve the selection and installation of lighting, comfort and safety controls, Weiss said that home energy monitoring, circuit by circuit, is a newer feature for homeowners and an added challenge for ECs. 

“There are more sensors needed in the home, be they for lighting, VOCs [volatile organic compounds], humidity, CO2, air quality and more,” he said. “They must be properly placed, installed and calibrated.”

La Fleur sees another aspect of green building ECs might miss. He encourages ECs to observe a test required in every green residential program. 

“Join a fellow trade contractor conducting a blower door test,” he said. “It will be transformational as you discover how interdependent each contractor is to the success of a high-performance home. If the main conduit run isn’t adequately sealed, it will allow air to enter the home. The same is true for an electrical box for the ceiling, attic or exterior wall. Something as simple as sealing can help improve certification in pretty much every program.”

Pluses and minuses

Residential certification and rating systems vie for attention. It’s important to know what each offers. Passive House is estimated to use 80–90 percent less energy to heat and cool. The Living Building Challenge begins at net zero in hopes of net-positive energy. LEED offers levels of sustainability looking at whole-home performance. The EPA’s Energy Star focuses on energy reduction. The new WELL Building Standard certifies a building’s health. The NGBS and the Canadian-born Green Globes (multifamily) require less documentation and are less rigorous than some programs.

“Passive House looks to the envelope of a home as the primary vehicle for building heating and cooling efficiency,” Weiss said. “It’s often considered the most rewarding of certification programs for hard-core conservationists. I like how it’s being adapted in the U.S. for individual climate zones; no longer is it ‘one size fits all.’ That makes it more mainstream and economic. The Living Building Challenge with its net-zero prerequisite puts forth a huge construction challenge, but it’s a very rewarding challenge for us as builders.”

La Fleur said a building envelope focus is a current trend. 

“The tighter and better insulated the home, the more economic electric becomes for HVAC, appliances and so forth,” he said. “Interestingly, once you create efficiency and energy flow in the home, going all electric is best. Passive House actually doesn’t allow the use of natural gas.”

To reduce confusion in the array of residential certifications, some are beginning to align with like-minded programs. For example, like LEED, the WELL standard is third-party-certified by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI). That allows it to coordinate with LEED v4 and its points for healthy interiors. Energy Star v3 is a compliance cited in LEED for Homes v4.

Beyond health, there’s a rising call for affordability in green home building. Even the stringent Living Building Challenge has a program for affordable housing. Green senior living, low-income and mid-price homes are cropping up across the country.

“Over half of all LEED-certified homes are affordable housing,” said Nate Kredich, vice president, Residential Market Development, the USGBC. 

Late last year, Congress authorized the NGBS as a minimum for all military residential construction.

“The Enterprise Green Communities program was created specifically for affordable housing,” La Fleur said. “It’s free to certify, but there is a trade-off as its construction measures are more involved and expensive. For ECs, their expertise is especially needed as the program requires individual unit-level submetering, as does LEED for Homes v4 for midrise construction.”

In the end, DeWald feels the homebuyer will expect sustainability in the home.

“Energy efficiency and new technologies that help operate a home cheaply, cleanly, safely, and more comfortably all play into what is an establishing green market,” DeWald said. “I would add that a contractor that does his homework on residential home technologies and better building practices will understand this green market and recognize which certification programs will be the best roadmap to achieving a sustainable home.”

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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