Turnkey Building Science
Many builders who boldly expanded their business lines a few years back (think mortgage lending, home warranties, lawn service) quickly retreated to their traditional competencies once the economy turned south. Not Doug Selby, founder of Meadowlark Builders in Ann Arbor, Mich. His team is diversifying with the launch of Meadowlark Energy, a triad of companies offering a full spectrum of green building services.
As one of only four Building Performance Institute (BPI) Gold Star Accredited contractors in the state, Meadowlark Energy offers new construction and remodeling, retrofit insulation and air sealing, HVAC system right-sizing, thermographic and blower door testing, follow-up data tracking, and green financing, rebates, and incentives management.
Energy audits, Selby says, have become an important step in quality control. “We do test-outs during various stages,” he explains. “For example, we find all our thermal short circuits and fix them before the drywall goes up. With diagnostics, it’s easier to make corrections [early], as opposed to after the fact when they’re harder and more expensive to resolve.”
Will other builders follow Selby’s lead? It’s pretty likely. A recent study by Pike Research predicts that home improvement spending on energy upgrades will reach $50.2 billion worldwide by 2014.
“There are 116 million homes in the U.S. that need basic retrofit services,” Selby says. “We hope to be a national leader in an industry that will save American homes hundreds of billions of dollars in energy costs over the coming years.”
Not that anyone needs proof that the housing industry overbuilt during the bubble, but here’s an exclamation point: Overstock.com, the online retailer that heretofore has served as a discount clearinghouse for small inventory items such as bed linens, TVs, and luggage, has gotten into the real estate business. It’s even amassed an army of “participating agents” and has formed a financing affiliation with Bank of America, with a particular emphasis on unloading foreclosures and auction properties.
Want to see what your local competition looks like? Visit http://realestate.overstock.com and type in your zip code and the price range you’ve been charging for new homes. Then take an aspirin.
First there were greenfields, then brown-fields, and then grayfields. Now a new color has been added to the lexicon of land acquisition and urban revitalization. Enter “redfields,” a descriptor for underperforming commercial properties that are bleeding, “in the red,” and unlikely to survive their current use. The term, however, is more semantics than groundbreaking, writer Jonathan Lerner surmised in a recent story for Miller-McCune. “Redfields describe a financial condition, not a development type. So brownfields and grayfields are often redfields, as are other distressed, outmoded, or undesirable built places,” he explained.
Call them what you will, but a handful of major cities are setting their sights on redfields and seeding plans to convert them back into greenbelts—public parks, conservation areas, tree-lined boulevards, and the like—as a means of counteracting sprawl, reducing dead commercial inventory, and creating local jobs.
Conversion studies have already been completed for Cleveland, Denver, Miami, Philadelphia, and Wilmington, Del., Lerner reports, with more in the works in Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Savannah, Ga.
Ride the Money Train
Building in infill locations near public transit has many advantages—shorter commutes, lower vehicle emissions, built-in amenities, and, in the best scenarios, established school systems. Now add one more perk. Jumping on the TOD train could provide access to construction financing you otherwise wouldn’t get in the way of grants, loans, tax credits, and other fiscal incentives.
To find out what’s available in your neck of the woods, the nonprofit Reconnecting America has released a handy inventory of state, regional, and local programs around the country providing funding for TOD projects. Visit www.reconnectingamerica.org for more information.
The local food movement is all well and good until it pits neighbor against neighbor. Take Sarasota, Fla., where the proverbial question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” has been supplanted by squabbles over whether or not the chicken is allowed to be there in the first place.
In December, a local group operating under the name CLUCK (Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping) proposed a zoning amendment that would allow residents to keep up to four chickens in enclosed coops in their backyards for purposes of farming fresh eggs. Opponents were quick to raise concerns about smells and the cost of animal enforcement, reporter Carrie Wells wrote in The Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
As the urban farming movement gains traction, this debate is likely to play out in plenty of other municipalities around the country. New York, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., Minneapolis, and Miami are among a growing number of cities that have passed ordinances allowing chickens. There’s even a Facebook page keeping track: www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=36843735217&topic=5209.
Dangle a Green Carrot, Would Ya?
Americans want green homes, but most still assume they can’t afford them, according to a recent survey conducted by the NAHB Research Center on behalf of Whirlpool Corp. and Habitat for Humanity.
In the study, 77 percent of consumer respondents said that having a green home was at least “somewhat,” if not “very important,” citing reasons such as environmental impact, long-term financial savings, and health benefits. But 59 percent espoused a belief that the cost of green products and materials would have to come down in order for homes for average buyers to become attainable.
And they’re counting on Uncle Sam to make that happen. Some 69 percent of consumer participants said they think state and local governments should provide greater incentives for homeowners and builders to purchase green building products.
Builders in the survey tended to agree with those sentiments. Some 75 percent of builders said the cost of green products and materials needs to come down, and 40 percent said they believe incentives for homeowners and builders would help bolster momentum for sustainable building practices.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.