Residential Greening

Homes become more eco-friendly as energy costs rise

By Sarah Baker

There was a time not so long ago when potential homebuyers had to demand energy efficiency in new homes.

Joe Callaway looks at expandable foam and the ductwork in the attic of a Vesta Home Show home being built by the Dave Moore Cos. The houses are being built according to the MLGW EcoBUILD standard. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Nowadays, green features are more of an expectation than an extra.

“I would venture to say that just about everybody asks about energy efficiency,” said Martha Fondren, director of sales and marketing for Grant & Co. “They may not say it in those words, but they ask us about what kind of furnaces we are using, what kind of faucets, what kind of insulation. What are the standard things that people can expect when they walk in the home in order to save them money on the utility bills because that’s a huge expense.”

All of Grant & Co.’s builders – Keith and David Grant Homes LLC, Richard Grant LLC and Kim Grant Homes LLC – have the Certified Green Professional designation from the National Association of Home Builders.

Since the cost of doing an all-green home would take several years to recoup the initial investment, Grant & Co. offers a variety of packages for buyers to choose from, allowing them to align saving money with their lifestyle. Those green features run the gamut from low-emissivity windows, foam wall insulation, tightly sealed air ducts and house wrap to keep air inside, to the builder’s most popular item, the tankless water heater.

“We’re already doing so many things that are so much more energy efficient than a standard homebuilding process was even five years ago,” Fondren said. “But now, we’re adding other things that can go beyond the typical, beyond the standard.”

Tennessee leads the nation in average annual household electricity use and has for virtually all of the years Memphis, Light, Gas and Water Division has been tracking. In 2009, the state’s average was 38 percent higher than national, and the MLGW household average was 32 percent higher.

“We’re just starting to see 2010 data and it does not show improvement,” said Becky Williamson, MLGW strategic marketing coordinator. “Energy waste – due to inefficient equipment, bad habits and poorly weatherized homes – results in higher utility bills, increased power generation and more demand on the nation’s electric grid.”

In 2010, a study by Younger Associates determined that every $10 million saved on utilities would yield 152 new jobs in the local community. To put that in perspective, just a 2.5 percent reduction in average household electricity use in Shelby County would yield $11 million in avoided utility costs and savings.

Helping in the fight to lessen energy consumption is MLGW’s EcoBUILD program. Launched in 2003, it was designed to deliver 30 percent average energy savings on electric and natural gas compared to homes built to typical practices and codes.

“Our goal in developing EcoBUILD was to achieve considerable savings for minimum added cost, so the program would have a return on investment of five years or less,” Williamson said of the homes that use 14 SEER air conditioners, R-15 wall cavity insulation, recycled materials and more.

To date, 711 homes have been EcoBUILD-certified in the county, with more under construction. Although this accounts for a very small percentage of total housing stock, EcoBUILD applications as a percentage of new building permits have made leaps and bounds – accounting for 19 percent in 2011, compared to 1.5 percent in 2005.

“As the economy stalled, several local building initiatives – especially those with federal and/or grant funding – continued, so green building didn’t slow locally,” Williamson said.

Builders participating in the Memphis Area Home Builders Association’s 2012 Vesta Home Show are currently building to EcoBUILD, as are Habitat for Humanity, Memphis Housing Authority and builders of some pre-sold custom homes.

“If it weren’t for the size of these (Vesta) houses, I can promise you that they would all be built to the Energy Star standard as well,” said Don Glays, MAHBA executive director. “The problem is that two of them exceed the maximum size limit for Energy Star, but the other three will meet the criteria. We’re very happy with that.”

One of the builders for the Vesta Show, happening in October at St. James Place in Germantown, is Jon Ruch of Ruch Builders LLC. His home will be built to meet Energy Star guidelines and will be heated and cooled using efficient geothermal technology, among dozens of other applications from Light Emitting Diode lighting to low-volatile organic compounds paints and finishes.

“Green is a standard. It’s something that’s going to stay,” Ruch said. “It costs more, which typically means I end up only doing custom homes because it’s hard to compete with the spec market that doesn’t do it right.”

It’s similar to a custom Insulated Concrete Form home he recently completed in the University of Memphis area. Ruch said the owners keep their thermostat at 69 degrees for the 2,500-square-foot house and have yet to see a utility bill exceed $50.

If solar panels were installed on that house, it would be completely self-sustaining. But Memphis is slow to jump on the solar train.

“The solar question is there, I get that a lot, but nobody has taken the plunge to say, ‘I want to invest $30,000 or $40,000 into solar,’” Ruch said. “When we start looking at the budget and what they want to do, they’re going to take that money and spend it elsewhere on energy efficient things.”