Courtesy Brad Meyer  

If "physician, heal thyself," can be applied to eco-home building, then Brad Meyer is a shining example. The first energy-smart house he built was his own. At the time, it was an experiment he wasn’t sure would work, but the home scored an impressive 59 on the HERS scale, and that was six years ago. Meyer’s success story helps him sell the value proposition of building an Energy Star-rated home to his customers at Libertyville, Ill.-based Meyer Homes. This week he spoke with Builder about the hurdles of being in the green home construction biz, and how builders can overcome those hurdles.

Builder: What made you start building energy-wise homes?

Brad Meyer: The main reason was to differentiate myself as a custom home builder—I wanted to do something that my competitors weren’t doing.

Builder: You’re in Chicago—isn’t that a pretty forward-thinking town in terms of architecture?

Meyer: Most of my competitors aren’t Energy Star partners; the program is just starting to catch on. A HERS rating is like an MPG rating for your car, and we’ve been starting to see numbers below 50. That’s outstanding for the Midwest, especially because we’re not going crazy with solar and geothermal. The program is focused on the client and saving them utility dollars every month with features like better insulation, windows, and HVAC.

Builder: So why this program and not others?

Meyer: We build mostly on infill lots and don’t always have the benefit of gaining other program points like orienting the house for southern exposure. For us, Energy Star is good because it’s more focused on building the home. It’s also recognizable and so far has been a lot less paperwork.

Builder: Certainly for appliances, but are most home buyers aware of it as an energy rating for the entire home?

Meyer: Many don’t realize that it’s about the whole home, and that’s one of the hurdles. But it’s changing—a home’s HERS rating is now a standard question on an MLS questionnaire. Again HERS is starting to be thought of in the same way as the MPG on a car.

Builder: What are some of the other hurdles you face?

Meyer: Convincing homeowners that they’ll save money. Talking to a family who doesn’t want their home certified and telling them that if we do such-and-such, we can increase our HERS rating by this much. Convincing them that this is the future, and that HERS is like an MPG rating for the home: that energy bills will be lower, that the program is only going to become more popular. Convincing them that it will be able to differentiate the home when it gets put up for sale, and that it increases the home’s value for the life of the home. It’s about long-term value.

Builder: How do you overcome that?

Meyer: The first Energy Star project I did was my own home. It was more of an experiment, and I figured that I could only yell at myself if it went wrong. But it saved me at least 30% in utility bills, if not more, and now I have a great experience to share with my customers. It’s all about lack of education and understanding. The way I build a house is different. Clients are educated at every turn about things like insulation, sealing ducts, and windows.

Builder: Do home buyers usually approach you because they want to be eco-friendly, or do you have to ease them along?

Meyer: Out of hundreds of meetings, I’ve only had one where a client was really into the green movement and wanting to do solar and a bunch of super-green features. Most of my clients don’t really understand how much money they can save if they’re doing the right thing. Most of my clients aren’t tree-huggers, but when I ask them if they want to save money every month, they say yes. Nobody’s upset when they’re saving money.

Builder: What’s your best advice for builders trying to get their clients onboard?

Meyer: Talk to them about utility bills, and let them know that green homes don’t have to be about geothermal, solar, and wind power. Talk to them about options: That the cost of upgrading your furnace to the highest efficiency is a long-term value proposition, but it will save you money. Tell them they don’t have to go for cutting-edge: There are furnace models with modulating gas valves and variable speed blowers that give optimum efficiency—and are much cheaper than drilling for geothermal. Tell them that Net Zero isn’t the goal, but if the budget allows it, great. People need to understand that when it comes to energy efficiency, there’s a spectrum and that the HERS rating reflects this.

Builder: Have you had any big surprises?

Meyer: One of our houses just got a 45 HERS rating—our best yet.

Builder: What’s the most satisfying aspect of working this way?

Meyer: Knowing that what we’re doing works; exceeding our customer’s expectations and having them contact us because they want to show us their gas bills.

Builder: Like baby pictures?

Meyer: Exactly.

Amy Albert is a senior editor at Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Chicago, IL.