For years, the prevailing attitude toward energy efficient design and "green" construction has been that it's more trouble than it's worth: increased construction costs; uncooperative subcontractors; and worst of all, indifferent buyers. "Given the choice between the high-efficiency furnace and the upgraded lighting package or the corner whirlpool, the amenities will win every time," one Midwestern sales director told Big Builder.

Production builders, however, are proving that building green can generate more greenbacks to the bottom line for themselves and future buyers. Sound impossible?

"Dozens of production builders are coming on board with energy-efficient construction methods," observed building scientist and energy evangelist Joe Lstiburek, of Building Science Corp., a Boston-based architecture and building science consulting firm ( "Last year, every one of the 400 homes southern builder Ashton-Wood built, and one third of the homes Pulte Homes built (10,000 units in round numbers), were Energy Star certified. Can you imagine that ten years ago? That's huge," Lstiburek said. Looking ahead, Lstiburek said he believes building for high energy efficiency is a no-brainer, especially for production builders.

According to Lstiburek, much of Pulte's success with the program stems from its involvement with Building America. The private/public partnership affiliated with Building Science Corp. helps production builders value engineer their product line in order to increase energy efficiency, while decreasing in-place construction costs at the community level.

Building America uses a "systems engineering approach" which attacks the energy consumption issue on at least four fronts: how a building is situated on a site; improving the performance of the building envelope; sealing and improving air distribution systems (ductwork); and replacing fixtures and appliances with higher-efficiency versions. Savings from design changes are used to offset the cost of high-efficiency building products and techniques.

Builders report that just-in-time delivery, reduced site waste, and more precise construction controls help offset the higher cost of using SIPS.
Courtesy Insulspan Inc. Builders report that just-in-time delivery, reduced site waste, and more precise construction controls help offset the higher cost of using SIPS.

"This is one instance when the builders and the environmentalists can get on the same side of the fence," Lstiburek said. In fact, building green can yield what every production builder is looking for whether they care about environmental impact or not: more qualified buyers, fewer callbacks, a tangible way to set themselves apart from the competition, higher referrals, and a fatter bottom line. Leaking Dollars

Steve Easley, an energy consultant whose firm Building Media ( is working with state energy commissions around the country to educate builders, says that building a high-efficiency house is not rocket science. "It's about doing the things we knew how to do 20 years ago: tightening the building shell, sealing the ductwork, and making good lighting and appliance choices. It's more about implementation than it is about using exotic products."

According to Easley, $5,000 (retail) spent up front on energy improvements will return to home buyers 40 percent of their energy costs -- as much as $100 savings annually in some parts of the country -- for the life of the house. "With the various mortgage assistance programs that exist around the country, that savings could mean the difference between a first-time buyer qualifying for a loan and not," Easley said. A typical sliding glass door allows up to 10,000 BTUs of heat gain per hour, Easley noted as one upgrade investment to focus on; reducing exterior air filtration, and completely sealing ducts are others.

Up to 30 percent of conditioned air is lost due to leaky ducts, according to EarthCraft, a green building program based in Atlanta ( Duct sealing and testing is a key element in the organization's certification of new homes. Program director James Hackler said: "Typically, reducing duct loss alone will reduce cooling loads by as much as one ton, which means that smaller equipment can be used." Properly sized HVAC equipment is more reliable, and can last up to 30 percent longer. That can be the difference between a warranty service call the builder or sub pays for, and an out-of-warranty repair. Hackler recommends re-engineering plans to avoid running ducts in unconditioned space to begin with, but adds it shouldn't cost a builder extra to get a properly sealed duct system. "These are scopes of work issues. In fact, some states already require it -- you're just making sure you get what you pay for."

Shell Game

Another emerging factor is the growing use of Structural Insulating Panels (SIPS), which is predicted to grow from single-digit percentage of the market now to substantially higher percentages in the near future. Mike Morley, a Midwestern builder and SIPS advocate in Lawrence, Kan., says that "If builders haven't looked at the technology in a few years, they'll be shocked. SIPS are absolutely not the jobsite labor intensive nightmare of a few years ago. Now, packages are pre-cut and fully machined using CNC (Computer Numeric Control) equipment. Entire shells can be packaged and delivered to the jobsite with zero waste, and erected in hours -- or at most days -- with no chance of pilferage."

Companies like Insulspan, in Blissfield, Mich. (, can produce single panels as large as 8' x 24', making quick work out of a building shell. And, because SIPS houses are far more rigid and dimensionally stable than their stick-framed counterparts, drywall call-backs are reduced significantly. Currently, the cost of a SIPS shell is 5 percent to 8 percent more than a conventional frame in most areas of the country, but Morley says he feels that is quickly recouped in shortened cycle time and better quality control. Another benefit of SIPS -- peace and quiet. "Buyers are astounded at how quiet a SIPS house is -- a SIPS model will sell the system every time" said Morley.

SIPS' range of sizes and flexibility to fit into distinct shapes is helping builders meet Energy-Star standards while reducing a project's construction time.
Courtesy Insulspan Inc. SIPS' range of sizes and flexibility to fit into distinct shapes is helping builders meet Energy-Star standards while reducing a project's construction time.

Another building shell innovation that's catching on, at least in Southern climates, is Louisiana-Pacific's TechShield(TM) radiant barrier sheathing, which bonds a reflective aluminum layer to standard OSB, or plywood. On average, TechShield adds between $.15 and $.30 per square foot of material used, but will lower attic cooling loads by as much as 30 degrees, saving cooling dollars in the process, and, in storage attics, protecting home buyers' property from heat damage as well, according to the company. Sales Proxy

About 80 of the 400 units that Atlanta-based Homelands built in 2002 were EarthCraft certified, and the company is moving toward 100 percent certification, said Jack Vleden, vice president of construction and customer service. "Besides being the right thing to do, it's the right thing for our bottom line," Vleden said. While the up-front cost of EarthCraft compliance varies from $500 to $2,000 per home (depending on size and complexity), the cost is very quickly recovered by the buyer, and the builder. "For one thing, our salespeople now have something to talk about beyond basic features. An EarthCraft house is a proxy for comfort, indoor air quality, and lower maintenance. We're finding that buyers are genuinely interested in how their home impacts the environment."

Pam Sessions, the co-president of Hedgewood Properties, in Atlanta, says the company builds 200 EarthCraft certified homes per year, and finds attitudes changing throughout the industry. "At first, the biggest problem we faced was educating our sub-trades, particularly HVAC installers. Now, they're totally on board, and in fact, (they) use the EarthCraft certification to promote their own quality to other clients."

Reduce, Recycle

Hedgewood also participates in an aggressive on-site recycling program that uses the Parker 750 horizontal grinder to turn wood scraps into mulch and runoff protection, drywall scraps into soil conditioning, and bricks into aggregate for walkways and temporary driveways. The cost is approximately $.50 per square foot of house. "The recycling program breaks even for us," said Sessions, "but more importantly, it makes for a better neighborhood, and that attracts more buyers." Benefits of the program include far less disruptive truck traffic through occupied streets, because there's virtually no scrap to haul away and much less material to haul in, and lowered cleaning costs because of the temporary drives and pathways created with the recycled material. In Albuquerque, Artistic Homes did even better, slashing disposal costs from $300,000 to only $30,000 by using the $85,000 Parker 750 at its jobsites.

What's down the road won't require a degree in rocket science, but certainly scientific discipline. The next generation has to be building more and more things in a controlled environment so they perform properly once assembled the same ways autos do now, says Joe Lstiburek. "I'm talking about highly machined, precision systems that will cost next to nothing to heat and cool and will snap together like Legos ... . Hardly anyone builds cars in their driveways."

Joe Stoddard is based in Elkland, Pa.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, February 2003