- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
It is true that real estate prices in most of the country have tanked in the past few years.
Many real estate agents acknowledge that most of their sales in recent months with the feeble economy have been in foreclosures or short sales. Yet there is a new dynamic in the floundering housing industry that has resulted from spiraling energy costs: Some have turned “green.”
“Green building has been evolving probably over the last 15 years,” said Jeff Errington of Errington Builders of Valley Lee. “You have to make a bigger investment up front, but in the long term, the benefits are immense.”
There are many different ways builders can go when trying to be more environmentally friendly. They can choose solar or geothermal, going with new AAC R-26 factor block insulation and using products that help hold in the heat but don’t hurt the environment.
Solar panels are expensive, but they are slowly coming down in price. There are grant programs in place for people wanting to upgrade to a more earth-friendly heating system.
Saving the bayBeing that Southern Maryland is for the most part surrounded by water, critical area designations come into play for any new construction. Guidelines and regulations can vary from county to county. Such restrictions can cause problems for builders who aren’t up to snuff on the latest codes.
“On the Chesapeake Bay, we have a critical area concern governing waterfront property,” said Errington, who started building houses in 1981. “When you build on the waterfront, the site has to be permeable. St. Mary’s is different from Calvert, and Calvert has different codes than Charles. If you have all your homework done ahead of time, it helps with the process, otherwise, it can really hold you up. You have to do the extra work early on. There could be some added expense to the house you’re building initially, but a lot of the times we sell them on the fact that the payback over time is much better. And of course, anything in the realm of ‘green’ ecologically is much better for the environment. You have to be able to manage the site and you have to make sure you manage runoff, especially if the house is setting right on the water.”
Errington accomplished that on a house he’s building in Lusby on the Chesapeake Bay by adding sediment ponds to collect runoff.
“I call them rain gardens. There are five on this job,” he said. “They help to slow the velocity of the water when it’s pouring outside.”
Errington noted that there have been a lot of changes placed on the books since Hurricane Isabel and Tropical Storm Ernesto.
“We had more water with Ernesto and a lot more wind with Isabel,” he said. “And that’s part of what you have to consider when you’re building right on the water. You have to ask yourself, ‘What volume of water are we dealing with on that roof?’ A lot of people when they do building will use rain barrels, but I would have had to have a dozen or so for this house. Instead, I put in rain gardens, which are really sediment ponds, but they’re more asthetically pleasing. They have a lot more curb appeal than rain barrels.”
He said that a lot of contractors complain about the planning and zoning requirements. The key to avoiding problems, he noted, is to do one’s homework. Understanding what is required — especially in critical areas — is essential to having the project go smoothly, he said.
“Calvert County, their people were great,” Errington explained. “They really worked well with us through the whole planning, inspection and permit process. St. Mary’s as well. They really showed an interest in what I was doing and showed concern if there was something they saw they thought I needed to work on.
“With this house, we use a lot of recycled products. We have a recycled deck. With most construction, you see one of those big green Dumpsters sitting outside with all of the leftover lumber in it. We use everything.
“It’s very hard to get a completely ‘green’ building in this market,” he admitted. “We have to use asphalt on the roof. You can’t get away from that. But you can take advantage of the orientation of the house to the sun. It’s natural, and it helps you to conserve your energy use. People want way more electricity than they really need. My houses use the progressive light bulbs made to limit consumption of electricity. This house is set up for geothermal heating, which homeowners get a 30 percent tax break on. We use argon-filled, low-glare glass in the windows. We use foam spray insulation, which goes on like paint but expands once it’s applied. Everything is caulked and sealed.
“Of course, when you start talking about making a house green you’re talking about cost. One of our goals is to be as green as our market will allow us to be. Depending on the cost and availability of the product, I am very adamant about buying U.S.”
Waiting for technology to catch up
Fred W. Davis, a broker and agent for Weller-Davis Inc. in Swan Point, is looking to build his retirement home in the Swan Point community where he has sold houses throughout his career.
“The market is pretty dead in Southern Maryland right now. For those wanting to go green, it’s more of a priority for people looking to buy and build here in the future. There’s not a lot happening right now,” he said. “What I’m planning is to build my retirement home on a waterfront lot in Swan Point, and my intention is to make it a green home.”
While he explained that he’s not quite ready to begin construction, he’s hoping technology will catch up to his desires for his “dream green” home.
“What I want is to be able to merge geothermal and solar panels into the same system,” he said. “They haven’t been able to make that happen yet, but I’m really hoping down the road they will. I’m sold on the concept of building a green home. I think the technology will eventually be there, but it’s not there yet.”
In the meantime, he’s planning to use his site to its greatest advantage by orienting the house where it will make the best use of its southern exposure with argon-filled windows to help heat the home, and extra insulation in the floors, ceilings and side walls.
“I think that’s the highest and best use for that kind of house, both in an active and passive sense,” Davis said. “I think it’s all about having an example you can show people. ... We’ve got to have that specific model home to make people feel like it’s worth that upfront money. Like most things, it comes down to money.”
Chip Cousineau, president of American Dreams Inc. in Hughesville, said that while his modular homes always have been built “above code,” his new “planet-friendly green home,” the Greenhaven, introduced two years ago, has received a five-star rating. Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative and other utilities used to conduct energy tests on existing homes to determine where heat loss was occurring due to air leaks around doors and windows, but those services now are outsourced to companies like American Property Consultants, which does inspections to determine a home’s ability to hold heat.
“Let’s face it, being green is more of a feel-good thing,” Cousineau said. “The upside is savings in energy bills and, over a long haul, those savings really add up. Our modular buildings are green by definition.”
American Dreams homes are manufactured in Scranton, Pa. Every section of the home is precut before assemblage.
“They don’t have any waste whatsoever,” he said. “They even sweep up the sawdust and use it to heat their factory.
“Energy Star [a federal program of energy saving incentives] is a changing animal. They’ve just instituted a newer version of that, and I continue to consult with them as the changes come on line. It’s pretty intense. Everything I was doing was that much more than what was required. Maryland is one of the few states that has adopted International Residential Code 2012. Each county is different. Everything I was doing to get these modulars into a favorable Energy Star rating, it could be years before the counties catch up. In St. Mary’s, you have to do it if you’re on a city water and sewer system. In Charles, you have to use the criteria no matter what. Out of all the houses I’ve built — dozens — I only failed to get into the five-star category only once. That was a house on White Point Beach Road in St. Mary’s. I stick-built that house because I couldn’t get the sections on the site because of power lines and trees. I did the best I could. All of our modular homes are foam-sealed. We use the best lights, drywall, every wall, door and window is foam-sealed. We use the best of the best glass.
“Old school tells you you don’t want to build a house too tight, that a house has to breathe,” Cousineau said. “That’s crap. You build a house as tight as you can do it. In order to keep the air fresh inside the house, we equip our models with an energy exchange unit, which takes the stale air from inside the house and introduces air from the outside. With our homes, over a 30-year period, for a family of four it would cost you $154 a month in total utilities.”
For a modular home, American Dreams’ Greenhaven offers some of the best energy-saving features as well, including spray insulation foam in exterior walls; 2-by-6-inch walls with high-density (R-21) wall insulation; high-density (R-57) roof ceiling insulation; spray foam insulation for all windows and doors (“a mouse couldn’t even worm his way through this stuff,” Cousineau said); conditioned crawl space with R-20 foam board on walls; argon-filled windows; argon-filled French patio door; fiberglass front door; green guard building air barrier wrap over exterior walls; ceiling fans in all bedrooms and den; and many other features.
Errington said that when a house is built tight, radon gas could result. He also utilizes the energy exchange unit to keep air circulating, merging the stale air from inside the home with fresh air from outside.
In other words, no matter how green people go, there always will be something waiting in the wings to remind them that they live in a green world with its own set of issues.
As technology advances, however, green will become more affordable. Until that day, or until the real estate market recovers, going green will be something suited for those who can afford to go the extra mile.
Calvert County Realtor Gail Nyman said that despite the economy, the last two years have, ironically, been her best ever in real estate. In 2008, before the housing market took its nosedive, she had sought builders who might be interested in building green.
“Then things went south and the builders I had contacted thought it was cost-prohibitive,” she said. “It sort of died on the vine.”
Regardless of the fact that the upfront cost to homeowners is substantial, she still advocates building green.
“I’m surprised more builders don’t do it,” Nyman said. “It is more expensive initially, but my goodness, down the road the savings are incredible.”