By Dennis Tharrington of Innovative Green Builders, Inc. in Henderson, NC
About 20 years ago I earned my first license to practice as a building contractor. It was the start of my fourth career, one in which I am still practicing. It was also the start of my commitment to build the most energy-efficient housing that I can build and still be affordable to those residents in my hometown that could not afford expensive housing.
I had read about Advanced Energy, a nonprofit training and consulting firm based in Raleigh…founded by some NC State professors…that were doing research and coming up with methods and processes to make housing more energy efficient. That was a big draw for me. So I took my framing crew, my HVAC crew, my insulator, and my plumber to a full day’s workshop at the Advance Energy Office in Raleigh.
It proved to be quite a day. All of my crews were doubtful that the procedures recommended would make any difference in customer bills, but they all agreed to do the work as recommended and we would check with the homeowners to see if they were pleased.
Our first home was a real work in process. Although the subs had pledged to do the job as recommended, they were still doubtful. We used better windows and doors and framed everything as recommended. The HVAC sub thought we were using a heat pump with too high a SEER value and it wouldn’t work enough. And the framers complained about having to “plug all the holes.” But we finished it, and the buyer was delighted.
As said, that was 20 years ago. Today, I’m still trying to improve the procedures and use more and/or better materials to build an affordable energy efficient home. I now build every home with a sealed condition crawl space. Live Green in Raleigh provides this service and does an excellent job. I’m sure there are other companies that do the same, but I’ve worked with Live Green for a long time now.
I use roof sheathing with reflectix to eliminate the penetration of the sun’s rays in the summer and reflect the heat back into the living space in the winter. I discovered through personal experience that this product makes a tremendous difference in electrical bills.
I also used 6” exterior walls with r-19 insulation and zip siding to help make a tighter exterior. Of course, I also use 16 SEER HVAC systems, low water toilets and energy efficient appliances. I’m presently using heat pump hot water heaters but I am very curious about on-demand tankless electric heaters as I’ve read they are much more efficient than early models and perhaps more efficient that the heat pump models.
Finally, I have all my homes tested by a HERS rater, and they generally get very good results. This provides for a rebate from Duke Energy (in the old Progress Energy area) that serves to almost cover the additional cost in building the home with materials that provide more energy efficiency.
It’s been a remarkable journey for me. I’ve now completed about 150 homes in the affordable housing category and about 50 upscale homes. The last home I completed had solar cells on it and could be off the grid. The owner gets a payment each month from Duke Energy. He’s delighted!
I would encourage any builder to investigate and pursue the various energy-efficient options available. The homeowners love having the lower energy costs and the homes provide comfort that is untouched by construction that ignores the benefits. I actually built a 2000 square foot home in Henderson for an elderly lady…she lived in the home for 5 years and never got a bill over about $65! She told me that. I was delighted!
Speaking to my home building peers that still build to minimum code, I urge you to do what I did and increase your education (and that of your subs) on energy efficient and green construction. I know firsthand that it’s not as expensive as you think, and the returns that you’ll receive, and the added satisfaction of your customers, are certainly worth it.
For me, the real reward is providing a comfortable home to someone that never thought they could afford to live in a nice house that they can own! They might have a house payment with insurance and taxes that approaches $750-800 a month, but their electrical bill is only $50-80 a month! That is a real benefit to them. And it is benefitting the rest of us as well…making for a cleaner climate using less fossil fuels to keep us comfortable!