Twenty years ago when Todd Usher would bring up the idea of green homes, he’d typically receive an apprehensive response.
“They would ask with great suspicion if a green house was a straw-bale house,” said Usher, founder and president of Greenville’s Addison Homes. “They’d say, ‘I don’t know — I don’t want a tree house.’ We’d have to say, ‘Wait, it will look like a normal house.’ And now, I just got off the phone with a client who said they sought us out because they were looking for a green home builder. There are now people seeking out builders who have knowledge and expertise in this area.”
Todd Usher (provided)
Indeed, things have changed. Energy efficiency is top of mind for many homeowners given how it directly impacts their wallet. Terms like Energy Star, LEED and WaterSense have become common in consumer vocabulary. And environmental concerns sparked by climate change are as prevalent as ever, leading some clients to want a home built with a smaller carbon footprint, or perhaps produces as much energy as it uses.
Steve Carson, partner in the custom home building firm Carson Speer, said he recalls clients first asking about green homes around 2007, when U.S. Department of Energy programs like Energy Star began to gain traction with the general public. “Those really started becoming something that clients were aware of, and architects and builders were aware of,” he said.
But what exactly is a “green” house? In Greenville and elsewhere, that can still be a matter of debate. “What a term that’s been used in so many different forms, maybe even overused in some cases, certainly over-claimed in a lot of cases,” Usher said. It’s not about going off the grid, and not necessarily about solar panels. It’s definitely about high performance, energy efficiency, and superior air quality—and whether it goes beyond that, into the realm of materials that are recycled or require less energy to manufacture, depends on the consumer.
“Some people are just targeted at energy efficiency, and want the lowest power bill they can possibly get. Others have a more sustainable approach: I want to have the lowest impact on the environment with the house I’ve built and how I’m going to live and operate that house,” Usher said. “Others who may have allergies are dialed in specifically to indoor air quality. To each of those clients, I think their individual interest is quite different, but a green home generally delivers on all of those fronts.”
Steve Carson (provided)
Energy efficiency and more
Another difference from 20 years ago is that every client today wants a more efficient home, said Carson, whose firm has won 15 Bridge Awards from the Greenville Homebuilders Association. Indeed, for many consumers, a green home simply means one loaded with appliances and other accessories that help them waste as little energy as possible. That type of home costs a little more to build, but typically saves homeowners much more in monthly energy costs on the back end.
That means equipment like 25-SEER HVAC units with variable speed compressors, which don’t turn fully on and off like a standard air conditioner, but only as much as needed to cool the home. That means a device called an energy recovery ventilator, which reroutes air from throughout the house rather than
blowing it outside the home. That means crawl space encapsulation or spray foam insulation, which expands to fill every crack and crevice that energy could otherwise escape through.
“Spray foam is the single best building product to come along in 30 years,” Carson said. “Have you ever been in a house when the heat or air comes on, and the doors pull shut? For a second, there’s a pressure imbalance. The way traditional homes are built, the system is trying to pull in air that’s not readily available. So it pulls it around all the gaps in your baseboards, around the doors and windows. When you use spray foam, all those gaps get sealed up. You don’t have outdoor air leaking in. And it helps with air quality, because you don’t have nasty air pulled up from the crawlspace.”
Clients looking to reduce their impact on the environment, though, are after more than just lower energy bills. That’s when green builders turn to recycled building materials, or those that don’t take as much energy to produce. “Fortunately, there are far more products that meet that green criteria today than there were 20 years ago,” said Usher, who has won numerous awards—including three Bridge Awards for green building—since starting Addison Homes in 2002. “We used to have to really hunt, and there were some green or sustainable elements that just didn’t make sense from a practicality standpoint.”
A home can be as green as a client wants it to be. Even programs like LEED and the National Green Builders Standard have levels depending on how well the home conserves energy, water or resources. And the green home movement is clearly still catching on; Energy Star, the lowest rung among green programs, is in just 7.9 percent of all new single-family homes built today, Usher said. One of the highest levels, NGBS, certifies just 4,000 homes per year. “So it’s still just a small, small fraction of the homes being built,” Usher said.
The solar panel debate
To many, the signature of a green home are solar panels—after all, what can be more environmentally friendly than gathering your home’s energy from the sun? And yet, the idea of solar panels can be a polarizing one given their high up-front costs, and questions about their effectiveness in a place like the Upstate.
“It’s a trendy thing and people want to do it, but solar panels are a terrible investment,” Carson said. “You almost never make your money back. That’s partly because of the region we’re in, where it can be overcast and dreary from December to February. And so you don’t see the kind of power production that you would maybe in an arid climate where it’s clear all the time.”
And yet, solar panels can still be favored by more environmentally conscious clients who are in it for the planet, and not necessarily to save themselves money. Tax credits can help offset half the cost of installing them. And they’re an integral part of a “net zero home,” one of the home types Addison Homes is known for, and which Usher said net out on an annual basis to an energy cost of zero.
“It’s not anything we push down anyone’s throat. I’ll be the first to say, ‘Solar is your choice,’” Usher said. “If you’re interested in it, we’ll give you the facts and the data and let you make a decision. Every home we build is equipped to go net zero, all you would add is solar. So it all comes down to personal choice. Some people can’t take the tax credits, so they don’t see the advantage of solar. Others feel that that energy costs are going to just continue to get higher, and so they want to put solar on their house.”
Other green home elements, though, have evolved into tried-and-true ways of conserving energy—and can translate into substantial savings even many years down the road.
“You’re saving money from day one,” Usher said. “You power bill can be half of what it would have been had you built only to code. Not to mention other intangibles like comfort and air quality, which aren’t evident until you live in the home. And then you suddenly say, ‘Wow, this home is quieter and more comfortable in addition to being more energy efficient.’”