On the evening of Feb. 8, architect Phil Kean left his newest house with an armful of accolades, including certificates signifying NGBS-Emerald and LEED for Homes-Platinum ratings. Six other awards for achieving various energy-efficiency, water-saving, and indoor air quality standards also made it onto the mantle in his Winter Park, Fla., office.
For any builder familiar with the process of earning certification for even one green building program, Kean’s haul might appear herculean ... and maybe a little gratuitous.
In fact, there are those who suggest that even one such certificate is too many; that spending the time and money to gain a glass plaque takes time and money away from realizing even higher levels of housing performance or investing in more renewable energy offsets.
But to a large extent, Kean didn’t have a choice. His newest house is The New American Home 2012, an annual idea home promoted nationally to builders, architects, and consumers as the latest and greatest in residential design, products ... and, more recently, environmental performance. Achieving NGBS-Emerald or LEED-Platinum is an edict, not an option.
Sponsored by the NAHB Leading Suppliers Council and Builder magazine (EcoHome’s sister publication), and built for the last 29 years in the host city of the International Builders’ Show, The New American Home has always been an anomaly.
Conjured by committee, supported by suppliers often outside the builder’s comfort zone, and serving as a test bed for new building products and practices, the idea house is almost irrelevant in terms of its design, product selection, and production process to that of every other home built in America.
“It’s different from anything else because of all the different requirements and things you don’t normally do,” says Kean, whose design-build firm also managed the home’s construction.
Except when it comes to green building certification. In that respect, The New American Home 2012 is probably the perfect specimen for the process of submitting to and earning such standing.
Under its public microscope, there’s no room for error, not left uncrossed or i undotted. It’s all by the book, and to the highest levels, which is exactly what builders who question the value, costs, and hassles of gaining green certification need and want to know.
Like most builders seeking the pinnacles of current building performance, Kean didn’t start from code minimum with The New American Home. “I’ve been committed to green for years, so it wasn’t a big stretch for us,” he says.
As a result, he understood and applied the concepts of proper building orientation, shading and reflective surfaces to mitigate solar heat gain, and centralized mechanical systems to reduce thermal loss and energy consumption along their respective runs.
“The house was a certifiable level when we walked in the door,” says Drew Smith, president of Two Trails of Sarasota, Fla., who came on board at the design stage and navigated the project through various certifications. “From there, we optimized what we could to take it to the highest levels,” such as adjusting the framing to enable even shorter duct runs and running energy models to verify the respective performance values of the windows, cooling system, and PV array.
But if hard costs associated with better building practices were not going to stand in the way of the home’s green certification, certainly the soft costs of registering and eventually certifying the house, of commissioning an accredited expert and an energy rater, and for a handful of extra (and more intense) inspections in addition to those mandated by the city would add some cost burden.
To be sure, those costs add up, but they’re still not where the bulk of the estimated 5% premium to reach emerald or platinum status originates. It’s the administration, the paperwork, filling out forms, and verifying specs. The t’s and the i’s. The costs you never book.
Which is where Two Trails helped the most. In addition to serving as a one-stop shop of inspection, energy rating, testing, and verification for all things green (a bundled option that saved time and money), Smith and his team tackled the paperwork for Kean. “We take almost 80% of it away,” he says. “We want the builder to focus on what he’s doing instead of calling the concrete supplier to check a slump mix.”
Especially with production builders, but even with custom shops like Kean’s, Smith says most of that documentation is templated after one or two houses, assuming the bulk of the specs and suppliers remain the same from one house to the next. “We have it in the file, so as long as you keep the same trade partners, we don’t need to call them every time to verify their specs,” he says.