EcoHome checks in with Arjay West, a veteran green builder in Falls Church, Virginia, and principal of West Properties.
How long have you been in the home building business?
Formally, 21 years; informally, my entire life. My father was a home builder. He owned his own company which he ran with my mother. I remember getting in trouble one summer when I was young. The next day he took me to work with him to work as a laborer, cleaning up and carrying lumber. The guys even locked me in the portable commode one hot afternoon as an initiation of sorts. I was a laborer through middle school, a carpenter’s helper in high school, and then a carpenter in the summers while I was in college. I learned the business literally from the bottom up, and along the way I developed a healthy respect for tradesmen who worked with their hands building homes. Being able to see the results of a day’s work also really appealed to me.
When did you first become interested in green building?
When I started my company 10 years ago part of our corporate philosophy was to build better, more comfortable, longer-lasting houses. That process led me to high-performance construction and then to green building.
Along the way I learned that over half of the waste taken to landfills each year came from our industry, so I explored ways to reduce waste. Today, we deconstruct rather demolish older structures, recycling, donating, and even selling materials that we would have previously sent to an untimely demise. The term “deconstruct and re-build” has replaced “tear down and re-build” in our lexicon. It is my sincere hope that all builders will do the same.
For our construction waste, we partner with forward-thinking roll-off firms that take the trash bins from our sites to their own facilities where they go through them piece by piece, recycling and salvaging what they can. The records we get back show that less than 35% of the debris we deposit into our trash bins ultimately makes it to the landfill. The garbage company pays less in fees, we pay less for removal, and the community benefits by reduced pressure on existing landfills and upon municipalities to build new ones: a win-win-win if there ever was one.
More recently, we began to shift our focus to energy efficiency, and as energy costs have begun to increase dramatically, so has the interest in our services. We are building tighter and tighter envelopes, altering our designs to take into account passive solar, and changing our specifications to get closer to the zero-energy home. For us, it is a worthy goal, one which we are confident we will reach in the near future.
So you can see my interest in green building has been more of a process than an epiphany. It is ongoing and evolving, and will undoubtedly continue throughout my career. There is always room for improvement.
Why green building?
For me it was the right thing to do. Then I found that it helped with sales. When the right thing to do yields increased profits, it becomes an imperative.
What is your overall philosophy/approach to green building?
We approach green building through building performance, in fact we prefer the term “high-performance construction” to green building. Our catch phrase is “Live in high performance.” To us, green begins with energy and resource efficiency, so if we can minimize the resources that go into a building initially, and minimize the resources the building consumes over its lifetime, then we feel we have done a good job of “building green.” Do you participate with a green building program?
I am a member of the Green Building Council of the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association. I am also a member of the Green Building Institute. I am a NAHB Certified Green Professional (CGP), and I am Green Advantage-certified. Every home we build is Energy Star and is certified through the NAHB’s Green Building Standard.
The NAHB Green Building Standard is the most important program for us. Last year we made the decision to have every house we build certified under the standard. Our customers love that we are volunteering to certify their homes and we like it because we are building a portfolio of certified homes. Requiring certification of our houses was a business decision that we feel separates us from our competition and allows us to compete on an objective scale. It gives prospective purchasers tools to use to judge our work and to compare us to other builders. We like to say that it allows us to “quantify quality.”
We are confident that our houses will outperform those of our competition, which gives us an advantage with increasingly educated, discerning customers who are trying to look beyond the greenwashing to find a contractor who knows the difference between a thermal bridge and a thermal break, who understands how to site a house to maximize passive and active solar concepts and who has the experience and the scores to back him up.
What have been some of your biggest challenges in terms of the green movement?
The biggest challenge we faced was putting the right team of subcontractors and vendors together. We were essentially asking our subs to relearn their jobs in a manner of speaking and to incorporate our new philosophies into their businesses. Many simply weren’t up to the task, so we had to identify those who were.
What are some of your greatest green triumphs?
Winning custom home contracts on the basis of my green knowledge. During the past year, one of the most challenging of my career, I have been able to stay busy because of my commitment to green building. My competitors simply were not as educated or experienced in green building as I was. In the past, I quite possibly would have lost those jobs. But now I have a skill set that sets me apart from most of my competition and one that is increasingly in demand.
What is your favorite piece of green advice or green building tip that others may not know about?
For those who build on infill sites with existing houses that need to be removed, I suggest that you do not demolish the structure and instead work with a non-profit deconstruction firm. First, you can divert the vast majority of the materials from the local landfill. These materials can be re-used or recycled. In our area, we have a variety of options including Habitat for Humanity Restores, Community Forklift, and Second Chance, all of which will happily take used building materials and sell them for re-use.
Secondly, because the deconstruction firm has non-profit status, there are incredible tax implications. You can actually write off the difference in the appraised value of the house before and after deconstruction. Depending on the quality of the structure being dismantled, it is not uncommon for this tax credit to be significantly more than the cost of the deconstruction. The owner essentially gets paid for deconstructing instead of paying to demolish. I am surprised by how few contractors are recommending this method. It is yet another example of a win-win scenario in green building.
What do you think the future holds for green home building?
Each year more new homes will be built green, until eventually they all are. The home of the future will be zero energy or even net positive energy. We will build super-efficient buildings that are sited to maximize solar photovoltaics and/or wind power generation. To me, the thought that the purchase price of a new home will include ALL of the energy that the house will need is very exciting. Imagine locking in your energy costs at today’s dollars and writing off the interest expense to do so.
Net-positive-energy homes are even more incredible. The possibilities of your house actually becoming an income stream for your family are simply amazing to me. Each year that your home produces more power than you consume, you would get a check back from your local power company for the difference. This is not a fantasy. Washington state has already rewritten their net metering laws to accommodate net–positive-energy homes. More states will follow simply because it makes so much sense for them to do so.
Decentralizing our power supply has obvious advantages and there are tremendous costs savings from not having to build new power plants. Imagine a time when the more homes we build the fewer power plants we need, and the more coal-fired plants we can close. The power company in Austin, Texas, did just that, and their success is a model for the rest of the country to follow.
Utility companies across the nation are creating programs of their own to reduce peak consumption as they realize that the least expensive options for them to meet the demand for power in the future is to reduce consumption in the present. We have many challenges to face in this arena, and this is an oversimplification to say the least, but the solution starts with energy-efficient construction.
The bigger societal challenge we face is what to do with our existing housing stock. We have millions of houses in use today built before 1980 which are terribly inefficient and cost a fortune to operate. There is hope. Our industry is working very hard to come up with cost effective solutions to remodeling these homes to increase energy efficiency, and we will soon have regional templates detailing best practices to reduce energy consumption in our aging housing stock.
Further, the new administration has emphasized energy-efficient construction with tax credits of up to 30% of the cost of energy upgrades. This should have a dramatic impact, and it will put people back to work.
Lastly, there is a program called Architecture 2030 and its 2030 Challenge, which is a very creative and ambitious plan to improve the performance of our buildings and how to finance the improvements. We have taken the 2030 Challenge and encourage all builders and remodelers to do the same.
What are some of your favorite eco-friendly building products?
* The Metlund Hot Water D'mand system
* Velux Sun Tunnel skylights
* James Hardie fiber-cement siding
* Dow Styrofoam SIS structural insulated sheathing
* Ecoloblue 28 atmospheric water generator
* radiant barrier foil
* ground-source heat pumps
Jennifer Goodman is Managing Editor of EcoHome.