Deirdre Irwin, the coordinator of the Florida Water Star program for the St. Johns River Water Management District in Palatka, Fla., says she's probably the only person who's happy about the slump in the housing market. That's because it's given builders the time to participate in Water Star, a LEED-type certification program that rates new-construction homes on water conservation.
"The response has been overwhelming," she says. "Our timing was fortunate. A lot of builders told me if I'd come to them two years ago, they wouldn't have been able to talk to me because they were too busy."
Launched in 2006 with one small, one high-volume, and one custom builder, Florida Water Star completed its pilot in October 2007, finished its criteria for certification, and rolled it out for use statewide.
"We've been educating homeowners about water conservation, but retrofitting is very expensive," Irwin says. "We thought we'd try this approach to get it right the first time around."
Florida Water Star rates new-construction homes in three areas-landscaping, irrigation, and plumbing. Landscaping addresses the plant materials used to landscape the home, irrigation covers the system used to water the yard, and plumbing looks at interior systems, such as faucets, toilets, water heaters, dishwashers, and washing machines.
Irwin says she's been extremely impressed with the enthusiasm she's received from builders, especially large-volume builders.
"Production builders really are the most innovative people I've come across," she says. "They want to run with things and be the best at it."
Obstacles: Cost and Learning Curve
The biggest challenge of the program has been educating landscaping and irrigation installers about micro-irrigation and moisture sensors, which are "very new in northeast Florida," where the program was piloted, Irwin says, "so there is a learning curve. We're providing classes to help these subcontractors overcome these hurdles."
With the program still in its early stages, it does add a fair amount of cost to a house, says Steve Reeger, building science specialist at Daytona Beach, Fla.-based ICI Homes. ICI Homes just debuted the first Florida Water Star-certified house in Volusia County, the 3,400-square-foot Bordeaux plan in the Plantation Bay Golf and Country Club community in Ormond Beach, Fla. While the changes needed to meet the interior plumbing requirements were nominal, ICI Homes spent 10 percent to 15 percent more on a $15,000 landscaping and irrigation package. Most of that was the result of the plants required for the landscaping.
"The native species plants are not commonly used in typical landscaping," he says. "The nurseries haven't grown them, so there's a bit of a premium on those plants. As other builders catch on, I think you'll see more and more of them available."
On the inside of the house, the toughest standards to meet were the water use restrictions on appliances. For washing machines, the standard is six gallons of water per cubic foot; for dishwashers, it's 6 1/2 gallons per cycle, Reeger says. "Those are products that many of the national manufacturers don't have readily available in their entire line," he says. "They have it available [on the low end], but as they go up to higher levels, technology says, 'The more water, the cleaner it will be.' That's like saying the more gas a car guzzles, the better it runs. American technology has to figure out how to do that better."
Without question, Irwin says, irrigation systems provide the biggest opportunity for saving water. Fifty percent of a home's water use-and that's potable, drinking water-goes on the lawn. Micro-irrigation puts water directly on the plants instead of having it run down the driveway, and moisture monitoring measures the amount of water in the soil and waters the lawn only when it really needs it. The Florida Water Star-certified houses are estimated to save more than 50,000 gallons of water a year, with the vast majority of that coming from the lawn.
Melbourne, Fla.-based Mercedes Homes, a two-time winner of the NAHB's National Housing Quality award, has been studying water conservation in landscaping for years, says Stuart McDonald, corporate vice president of operations. Working with the researchers from the University of Florida, they identified 19 plant species typically used around homes that use one gallon of water every fourth day for the first 20 weeks of planting and after that, "require no additional water besides what is supplied from the sky. In the first year alone, you'll save 45,000 gallons of water, and the second year it goes up even more," he says.
Lessons from the West
If the results from other similar efforts are any indication, Florida Water Star has the potential to have a massive impact on preserving the state's water supply. In Las Vegas, which deals constantly with drought-like conditions, the Southern Nevada Water Authority worked with the local HBA to create its Water Smart program in 2005. Today, one in six homes in the market is built to Water Smart standards. Compared to the average house built in the 1990s, each of those homes saves about 75,000 gallons of water a year, say Nicole Lise, the authority's public information coordinator.
"[The problem is] not growth," Lise says, "it's grass. It's not the water you have, it's whether you are using it wisely. ... . Seventy percent of water used in a home is used outside for landscaping. If you just have grass, it's sucking up that water and we never get that back. We're not anti-grass, just anti using it the wrong way."
The Los Angeles area has had a water-conservations program with builders for at least five years. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California administers California Friendly, which targets reducing water consumption by 30 percent. Like the programs in Florida and Las Vegas, it emphasizes a yard design that limits the amount of grass, uses weather-based irrigation controllers, and pushes drip irrigation. Builders who participate in California Friendly receive a $2,500 rebate from the water district, roughly the equivalent of the cost of adding the water-saving features, says Lynn Lipinski, program manager for the district. They're looking at creating a certification program like Florida Water Star, she says, because certification-which builders can use as a competitive marketing tool-may be of more interest to builders than the financial incentive.
That's certainly been the case for Mercedes Homes. In mid-November, it debuted its first two Florida Water Star homes, a 2,100-square-foot, one-story home in Deltona that it's using as a model home, and a two-story, 3,400-square-foot house in Melbourne. "The Melbourne house sold the day of the grand opening, and on the one in Deltona, we've gotten three orders for homes with these features," McDonald says. "So we're seeing some positive influence. I think it will absolutely be a trend."
And while all the programs currently are voluntary, local government agencies are looking at making their standards part of the requirements for site plan approval. Irwin says that wasn't the Water Star program's plan, but "it's working its way into ordinances." With the drought, she says she understands why that's happening, but from her experience working with builders, she's not convinced it's needed.
"I'm on the fence," she says. "I've been so impressed with builders' willingness to participate and comply. Eventually, all builders would do it because the market would demand it."
For more information on Florida Water Star, visit sjr.state.fl.us/floridawaterstar/index.html
To learn about Water Smart, visit www.snwa.com/html/
For information on Mercedes Homes, visit www.mercedeshomes.com
Visit ICI Homes at www.icihomes.com