“McMansions” are quickly falling out of favor. They have been replaced by green homes — houses that emphasize energy efficiency, a healthy living environment and minimal negative ecological impact. There are many ways to make a home greener, and builders say different buyers have different ideas of what “green” means, as well as different priorities.
Baby Boomers’ Green Homes
“It’s the last home we’ll ever build.” When upscale home builders hear that phrase — and most of them have heard it many times — they know it’s not just referring to permanence. It’s also referring to luxury and personality, and to the identities and lifestyles their clients hope to maintain while raising a family or in retirement. The strange thing, considering how these “last homes” are supposed to endure many decades, is that the standard make-up of those houses fluctuates dramatically with trends.
The baby boomers are interested in making their homes as energy efficient as they can. They know it will cost a little more, but they also know it’s the wisest investment they can make,” says Don Ferrier, owner of Ferrier Builders in Fort Worth, Texas, and winner of the National Association of Home Builders’ 2007 Green Builder Advocate of the Year. “There’s another group that’s 30-45 who are doing this because it’s the right thing to do, and they’re interested in making less of an environmental impact — using fewer materials in construction and making the home more environmentally sustainable.”
Both groups value indoor air quality, so features such as low- or no-VOC paints and good air-filtration systems are a given. Beyond that, buyers make choices about which potential green upgrades they value most. While energy-focused buyers might invest in solar or geothermal heat to generate their own electricity, buyers focused on minimal impact might emphasize locally produced or renewable materials.
As an investment, the allure of spending on energy efficiency is that it will reduce the long-term costs of home ownership. Ferrier says that while features such as a high-efficiency furnace, thicker walls, upgraded insulation and alternative energy sources, such as solar or geothermal, typically increase the cost of a new home by $200 per month, he can save his clients $300 per month right away by lowering their energy bills. The investment also provides a hedge against future spikes in energy prices.
The Long-Term View
Still, the investment is large enough to give some buyers pause. Installing a geothermal system in a typical home costs at least $20,000 and can double based on the size of the home, the difficulty of drilling and other factors, according to the California Energy Commission’s Consumer Energy Center. It may save you more money than it costs you each month, but in terms of straight return-on-investment, it could take a decade or more to pay for itself. That’s where the “it’s the last home we’ll ever build” mentality comes into play.
“These buyers are taking a long-term viewpoint and are looking at a long-term return-on-investment,” says Brad Beeson, vice president of Bethesda Bungalows, a Chevy Chase, Md.-based green builder. “Investing in geothermal makes perfect sense to them.”
The Greenest Building of 2009
When the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff planned a new building to store the items in its collection that aren’t on public display, it made sense to build green. The museum’s leadership — and the community members they involved in the planning process — wanted a building that blended into the environment and would last a long time, which required minimizing its reliance on fossil fuels while protecting the museum’s collection from swings in temperature and humidity. The resulting building, the Easton Collection Center, has thick walls, an elaborate green roof, flooring and wall coverings that don’t off-gas (the process of releasing potentially harmful chemicals into the air through evaporation), and rooms that rely on UV-filtered natural light. Additionally, much of the energy required is provided by photovoltaic panels. As a result, it was named the greenest building of 2009 by McGraw-Hill Construction in New York.
“We had a commitment from the very beginning to make this green to the core,” says Robert Breunig, the museum’s executive director. “We had donors that shared our values and said, ‘Yes, we think this is the way you should go.’”
The museum is a nonprofit; most corporations and developers who are considering building green with their commercial projects don’t have donors to rely on. Instead, they have to weigh the higher up-front costs of green building with the long-term energy savings. But many are building green anyway; more than 22,000 commercial projects are pursuing Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.
“The only reason that [commercial developers build to LEED standards] is because it makes financial sense. There are financial opportunities here, and we see them achieved every day,” says Marc Heistercamp, director of commercial real estate for the U.S. Green Building Council, the Washington, D.C. organization that administers the LEED standard. “What green building offers is a plus in this economy, because it saves money by saving on operating costs — you’re using less energy, less water and producing less waste.”
Additionally, Heistercamp says businesses are aware that the government may impose regulatory standards in the future, so building to LEED standards may help insulate them from potential penalties or violations.
In contrast, a younger buyer focused on building a home with minimal environmental impact might order bamboo flooring (bamboo is considered to be a more renewable resource than hardwoods because it grows more quickly), emphasize recycled or locally produced materials, and insist that construction waste be recycled. These buyers will also look at energy efficiency, but primarily through the lens of doing right by the environment, and are less concerned about a return on their investment. Builders say even these buyers are more likely to pay for tangible benefits such as green flooring and cabinetry than, for example, the recycling of construction material.
“Flooring, cabinet and energy-efficient products were big hits at our recent shows because they could be visually seen and enjoyed,” says John Heller, president of Seattle Street of Dreams, an upscale green home and garden tour in Seattle.
People who are interested in building earth-friendly homes are perhaps more likely to think long-term and spend altruistically than a typical homebuyer. But Don Ferrier, the Fort Worth, Texas, green builder, says his clients still get sticker shock.
“Sometimes the pain of the upfront cost may be greater than [my clients] want,” Ferrier says. “I just tell them to look down the road. Once they’re in the home, and this may be 10 or 20 years from now, they’ll look back and say, ‘I’m so glad we made the choices we did.’”