LYLE RAWLINGS IS PUSHING THE CUSTOM home building envelope. Take, for instance, the six integrated solar homes he recently built in Atlantic City, N.J.'s Millennia Square neighborhood. Advanced design and technologies make them extreme energy misers—their solar electric roof panels provide as much energy as they use in a month, leaving the occupants with a net monthly utility bill of zero dollars. The homes do this within a traditional design that includes all the amenities that middle-income buyers want. But what's really impressive is that Rawlings has learned to build such homes for roughly the same price that it costs other builders to build conventional ones.

Rawlings, who has been building solar homes since 1980, is one of a small group of dedicated designers and builders who has continued to learn about and refine sustainable building—the art of building homes that minimize the use of energy and other resources and that provide their occupants with a healthy, comfortable environment. He credits much of his ability to do so to his involvement with organizations such as the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA), a group of designers and builders who shares information on advanced building techniques. “I go every year to the NESEA green homes conference in March. I get to talk with a lot of other builders and learn from their experiences.”

That learning is paying off big time. Eight years after starting his own construction company, Advanced Solar Products in Hopewell, N.J., he says he has figured out how to offer super-efficient homes to buyers with average incomes. And he finds the number of buyers interested in his product is growing.

What's In A Home?

Rawlings' success wouldn't be possible without the huge strides that makers of sustainable technologies have made over the past decade. Solar electric, or photovoltaic (PV), systems are a good example. When Rawlings first started in the business, installing PV panels was a labor-intensive process requiring custom-made mounting brackets and the installation of conduit between panels. Today, he says “it's all plug and play” with off-the-shelf mounting systems that let installers quickly place the panels and plug them together.

RESOURCE SAVER: Builder Lyle Rawlings says that simple shapes, efficient floor plans, and simple trim work can save money without sacrificing comfort. He uses the savings to make his homes so efficient that they cost little or nothing to heat, cool, and light.

RESOURCE SAVER: Builder Lyle Rawlings says that simple shapes, efficient floor plans, and simple trim work can save money without sacrificing comfort. He uses the savings to make his homes so efficient that they cost little or nothing to heat, cool, and light.

New Jersey, where Rawlings does most of his work, is one of the few states that offers subsidies for PV systems. But while such systems still aren't cost effective where there's no subsidy, he insists that the other features in his homes will give builders anywhere a competitive edge.

Most of these features aren't new. PV aside, the technologies Rawlings uses have become fixtures on construction sites throughout the country. They include high R-value insulation (he uses a combination of water-blown spray insulation and 1-inch-thick exterior foam sheathing), high-efficiency windows, Energy Star–rated appliances, high-efficiency heating and cooling systems, and compact fluorescent lights.

Sustainable By Design

But creating a home that uses minimal energy yet provides the comfort that buyers want, goes well beyond a laundry list of advanced features. The expertise Rawlings offers has as much to do with the art of sustainable design. That art has evolved as far as the technologies it relies on.

Rawlings' homes are a combination of sophistication and simplicity. They include the obvious, like lots of glass: He faces the long wall of each house as far to the south as possible and fills it with windows. He arranges the floor plan to make the best use of light, putting the most used rooms on the south side, for example. And he uses properly sized overhangs to ensure winter sun and summer shade.

To keep down costs his homes tend to have very little of what he calls “architectural bells and whistles”—decorative trim or unusual roof surfaces, for instance. “We don't build homes that are full of unneeded amenities like granite flooring when you can get just as much beauty by cleverly using slate and marble.

PLUG AND PLAY: When combined with financial incentives offered by some states, photovoltaic systems can be an affordable choice in a properly designed home.

PLUG AND PLAY: When combined with financial incentives offered by some states, photovoltaic systems can be an affordable choice in a properly designed home.

And instead of making a house sexy with complicated shapes, he focuses on creating floor plans that make the most efficient use of space. “We don't do things like home theater systems in a room specifically for home theater,” he says. His homes do have a slightly smaller footprint than comparable homes, but by carefully thinking about how to get the most use from the least square footage, he insists that his buyers don't have to sacrifice comfort. “We're building to a fairly luxury spec in terms of flooring, cabinetry, and other finishes.” His construction costs are $90 to $110 per square foot for private homes.