Over 23 years, New Town Builders has built a reputation in the Denver area—and, eventually, across the country—for its energy-efficient homes. This year, the company scored a Zero Energy Ready Home Housing Innovation Award from the U.S. Department of Energy for the third year in a row, in addition to a National Best Green Home Design 2015 award and the Best in Green Award 2015 in the single-family production homes category from the NAHB.
How is Gene Myers, owner and CEO of New Town Builders, celebrating this run of success? By changing his company's name to Thrive Home Builders and focusing on constructing healthy homes, free of toxic chemicals.
"I feel the marketing potential of health is much stronger than energy efficiency," Myers says. "Our buyer is a 35-year-old woman who drives a Prius, shops at Whole Foods, and cares about health. She knows more about the cereal she buys and puts on her breakfast table than the homes that she lives in."
But, with any luck, Myers plans to change that. Judging from his past success of capitalizing on market opportunities, it would be hard to bet against him.
Myers is an idealist at heart. He'd like to build affordable housing but realizes it's hard to do that and keep the doors open if he's not getting subsidies for a developer or local government.
He's also an environmentalist. But he knows the origin of the products in his homes matter less to buyers than cost.
"At the end of the day, if we want to take energy efficiency to the mainstream, we have to build an economic case for it," says Myers, who was offering a guaranteed heating bill to buyers 20 years ago. "We rarely talk about carbon or BTUs saved or anything. We talk about dollars per month and how the additional cost of the zero energy is more than offset by the energy ratings as predicted by the HERS ratings. Dollars per month is something that all of our customers understand."
Opportunity also has driven Myers. He was one of the original builders in the Stapleton master planned community, but his role changed when Louisville, Colo.–based home builder and developer McStain Enterprises declared bankruptcy in 2009. "When they filed bankruptcy, Gene stepped up in the last five years and has gotten into the building science with the Z.E.N. [Zero Energy Now] series," says Lisa Hall, community development director for Forest City Stapleton.
Ultimately, Z.E.N. has proved to be a success, but there were growing pains. He opened his first zero energy home in 2009, at the depths of the recession, to great fanfare with TV cameras and a visit from Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). "It was a great launch," Myers recalls. "Then, we sold one."
But Myers doubled down, preplanning half of the houses in his next phase at Stapleton with a forced zero energy option. They all sold.
After shaving $20,000 off the $35,000 price tag of a zero energy home, Myers made the home standard in fall 2013 and called it the Z.E.N. series. By March 2014, he had sold out those 40 lots.
Myers' value proposition seems to be working. He explains that if buyers pay approximately $100 extra each month for their home, they can get about $300 back in energy savings.
"A baby boomer couple came up to me and said, ‘We saw we could buy a zero energy home in our price range and we bought it,'" Myers says. "All of my career, I've been trying to get my fair share of people that were out there in the housing market. But, I never had a compelling enough value proportion to get someone who isn't in the housing market off their couch to buy one of our houses. It was at this point that I concluded that this thing had legs."
The Next Evolution
Despite the success of Z.E.N., Myers thinks he can get more people off their couch by evolving beyond energy efficiency to health, which he believes "is the next big thing" in housing.
"When someone comes into our sales office, we have to convince them that should care about energy efficiency," Myers explains. "Then we have to educate them about it. With health, they walk in the door knowing that they care about it. All we have to do is align with them."
Hall thinks the move makes sense. "As he's changing his name, he's addressing the healthy aspect and what a house can and should do for you," she says.
The best part is Myers can use his existing homes as a springboard to the Thrive strategy. "In zero energy ready homes, we've already been building homes in compliance with the EPA's Indoor airPLUS standards," he says.
But health is only one part of the equation. Myers is still selling Thrive's energy efficiency, along with its local Denver roots.
"We think being a home grown builder has a lot of marketing power," he says, noting that there's no guarantee that the rebranding will take off. "Call me back in a year."