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May 3rd, 2011 - Vernon McKown

Expert Q&A: Construction

A quick chat about LEED and energy-efficient homes


Vernon McKown
Co-owner, Ideal Homes

Is it worth it to build LEED-certified homes?

VM: The short answer is “no,” but as with many short answers, there’s more to the story. Let me tell you why Ideal does not build LEED-certified homes.

Our company built the nation’s first residential LEED-certified home, and we were involved with developing the LEED criteria. We found the results from our LEED test project to be similar to findings from building other concept homes, such as the American Lung Association Health House, the Zero Energy Home and the NAHB Gold Certified Green Home. When we tested these advanced building concepts, we got a firsthand look at how they work, and we learned something from every one of them.

When you look at the big picture, we’ve found that the concept houses are more expensive than our market will bear. For example, certifying a green home adds more than $10,000 to the cost of the home. That just doesn’t make sense for young families buying their first or second home.

While you can spend a lot of money and build homes that are 100% green, only a few buyers can afford them. From our work with test homes, we learned that strategic upgrades will improve energy efficiency by about 40% and still keep the home at a price point that most buyers can afford.

If certification is not the best route to energy efficiency, what is?

VM: We look for strategies that pay back in five years or less. In today’s mortgage market, it costs about $5 a month for every $1,000 added to the loan. Let’s say we spend an additional $3,000 to make a home energy-efficient, costing the customer $15 a month.

These upgrades save from $60 to $100 a month on heating and cooling costs, depending on the size of the house. That leaves every customer with a net gain of $45 to $85 a month, a payoff that continues year after year. Our customers think that’s a great deal.

“When you look at the big picture, we’ve found that the concept houses are more expensive than our market will bear.”

What upgrades make a home more energy-efficient?

VM: The big opportunity is in heating and cooling, since that is the largest cost. We believe the smartest approach focuses on whole-system design, understanding all the variables and ensuring that everything is installed correctly.

•Ducts: Sealing ducts gets the best performance out of the system, and you won’t need as much tonnage in your air conditioning.

•Windows: Low-e windows reduce solar heat gain by 50%, and less heat gain means less air conditioning tonnage required. Upgrade windows for a few hundred dollars and lower air conditioning requirements by a half ton.

•Insulation: It’s relatively inexpensive to upgrade from one R-level to the next, but it has to be installed correctly to ensure the best performance.

•Heating and cooling equipment: Now that the variables are taken care of, it’s easy to right-size equipment, then upgrade the caliber of the equipment one or two levels and see a three- to five-year payback.

•Fresh air: With the ducts sealed, insulation working correctly and upgraded windows, the house has to have fresh air in order to work as a system.

That sounds pretty straightforward. Why don’t all builders do it?

VM: I mentioned the importance of correct installation. I can’t overemphasize how important that is. Everything we do is based on creating detailed instructions for how we want things done and our expectations for how the finished product will work.

We expect the work to be done correctly, and we supervise carefully to make sure it happens.

How do people know what to look for?

VM: That’s a great question. People spend more time researching their computer or TV purchases than on learning about buying a house, because we, as builders, haven’t taught them the right way to buy.

It’s our job to tell them about performance and energy efficiency, to help them understand that all homes are not built the same, and that high-performance homes can deliver thousands of dollars in savings.

It’s not easy because people have a hard time appreciating what they can’t see, and most of the upgrades we’ve discussed are “behind the walls.” But people are really looking for a home that’s efficient to operate and durable. So we build them a quality home that’s 40% more efficient than a home built to code that saves them money on their heating and cooling costs.

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