Home Buyers Like LEED For Homes

October 8, 2007
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While the housing market is in a continued free fall and most homebuilders are struggling to find work, those who have embraced green building are seeing strong volume and even reporting growth.

“The green builders happen to be the ones that are working everyday,” said Michael Holcomb, principal of Home Inspector General in Byron Center and founder of the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability, administrator of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes program in the Great Lakes area.

“This is a market that is supposed to be dead, but these builders are seeing growth. I’ve got one builder who is actually building three times as many homes this year as he’s ever built in his best year.”

The residential version of the council’s highly successful Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system, LEED for Homes has far surpassed its first-year goals. According to Holcomb, the council set a “pie-in-the-sky” first-year goal of 144 homes. There are nearly that many in the immediate West Michigan area, with 140 projects currently registered, including 70 currently completed and pending certification.

In the alliance’s service area, which stretches across Chicago, Des Moines, Indianapolis, Minneapolis and Detroit, there are a total of over 300 registered projects. Nationwide, the council has registered nearly 9,000.

“The majority of it is coming from a very small number of builders,” said Holcomb. “Most of the involvement has come from architects, designers and homeowners requesting this, and a handful of builders jumping in and learning how.”

This was the case for New Urban Home Builders, which recently completed a unique LEED home on Burton Street in Ada. Home No. 1 in the fall Parade of Homes, which ended last weekend, the 5,600-square-foot home is a showcase for green design.

The structure’s heating and cooling is maintained by a geothermal system that pumps the air in the home through 1,200 feet of tubing buried beneath the ground. The exterior walls are made from a combination of energy-efficient, structurally insulated panels, commonly called SIPS, soy-based foam and recycled newspaper. These materials are not only more environmentally friendly, but stronger as well, proven to hold up to earthquakes and storms better than standard frame construction.

Outside, the deck and porch are made from a dense wood source that is impervious to pests and decay, removing the need for chemical treatments. A rain garden helps retain all of the property’s rainwater on site, feeding the well that supplies the property’s irrigation system.

“I think we’re going to start getting busy again because we are capable of building LEED and Green Built homes,” said New Urban Principal Tim Brinks, referring to the less comprehensive Green Built Michigan standard.

“I opened up the latest National Geographic today and every ad was tied to green. People are definitely interested. We’ve gotten a lot of leads just from people coming through with the parade.”

For several years, New Urban has built homes to meet either Green Built or Energy Star standards, and has regularly practiced many of the foundations of the LEED guidelines. It has even had previous experience with geothermal systems, including one routed through a nearby pond, a more complicated and slightly more efficient deployment. The parade home is a step above the firm’s previous projects.

An energy analysis of the home revealed a HERS Index score of 44, making it one of the most efficient structures in the state. Each point on the HERS Index is equivalent to a 1 percent increase in energy efficiency.

The Energy Star reference cites a HERS Index of 100, making the Burton home 66 percent more efficient than the standard energy-efficient home.

“You might spend a little bit more to build green, but you’re going to make that back pretty quick,” said Scott Branc, New Urban principal.

Designed by Via Design in Grand Rapids and built to stylistically reflect the century-old barn on the property — and in a desirable Ada neighborhood to boot — the Burton house is not a home for the entry-level buyer. According to Holcomb, many of the projects currently being registered are priced in the $350,000 to $550,000 range or higher. But with that said, nearly half of the registered homes in the region are affordable housing priced below $150,000.

Leading that market, Habitat for Humanity of Kent County has registered all of its projects for the next fiscal year for LEED certification.

“If Habitat for Humanity can afford to increase their budgets marginally to take advantage of LEED, it’s because there is a definite payback,” said Holcomb. “We’re seeing a lot of those, which is remarkable because they have the least amount of money.”

Bazzani Associates in Grand Rapids, which has long built to green standards and is headquartered in the city’s first LEED building, has found limited use of the LEED for Home standard. Its business is primarily focused on downtown Grand Rapids, where there is little room for new construction. The firm has only registered two homes for the LEED standard.

“Our largest interest has been in how to take an existing home and make it green,” said Bazzani broker Rachel Lee. “That business has grown 50 percent since last year. People are attracted to the neighborhoods and the style of historic homes. The maintenance and utility costs of an older home can be high, so people have even more reason to look for ways to make the building tighter and more efficient.”

There is no certification, LEED or otherwise, currently available for renovated homes.

The council reported its first Platinum rating last month at a home in St. Louis. The top designation requires a nearly perfect score on the LEED rating system. Holcomb is expecting Michigan’s first Platinum rating in the coming weeks when a highly rated home in Ann Arbor receives its certification.

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