South Mountain Company was among the first wave of green custom builders, back in the 1970s, and the Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., design/build firm has maintained its environmental focus ever since. In 2002, we named the employee-owned company Custom Builder of the Year for its unique balance of resource conservation, community values, aesthetics, and craftsmanship. And while the business of green building has evolved rapidly in the years since, South Mountain has made significant strides to remain in the forefront of the industry.
Amid heightened concerns about energy and climate change—and a listless custom home market—in 2007, the company added a new division, SMC Energy, to perform energy evaluations, design and install solar and wind energy systems, and provide energy efficiency retrofits. Perceiving an urgent need to improve the existing building stock, founder and CEO John Abrams says, “we decided to learn how to do deep energy retrofits.” Such projects upgrade an older building envelope to a current standard of superinsulation, achieving at least a 60 percent reduction in energy use while, Abrams says, “increasing durability, health, and comfort.”
Last summer the company’s capabilities received a major boost when engineer and building performance guru Marc Rosenbaum moved to Martha’s Vineyard and joined the South Mountain staff. Abrams and Rosenbaum met about 20 years ago while organizing conferences for the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. In the years since, Abrams says that Rosenbaum became “our constant consultant on all of our projects, any that warranted it.” But full-time access to Rosenbaum’s building science expertise “adds a different kind of backbone to the energy part of our business,” Abrams explains. “There’s a constant dialogue [on building performance] in design. Before, Marc may never have seen the house until it was completed. Now he’s part of the construction administration. He’s talking to the guys doing the work.” That fosters a higher level of consistency and rigor, from designers down to subcontractors. “He has much more exacting standards than anyone else here,” Abrams observes, “because of his experience—and also because he’s a fanatic.”
With Rosenbaum on board—South Mountain absorbed his company, Energysmiths, in June 2010—South Mountain is doing more monitoring of its buildings. “So the feedback loops are very short and quick,” Abrams notes. The results are impressive. “The airtightness of our houses is such that three years ago we couldn’t imagine them being this good,” he says. South Mountain recently completed a cluster of eight “zero-net-possible” houses and offered a prize to every owner who finished the first year at net-zero energy use or better. “That deadline just came on June 1,” Abrams reports with satisfaction, “and two of them made it.”