In a growing pool of green, sustainable product certifications, builders face a challenge of whether to appeal to consumer recognition or to respond to true metrics.

With the reNEWable Living Home, the 2018 BUILDER concept project, Meritage Homes had to determine which certifications were the right ones to verify the performance of the home and also capture the attention of would-be buyers. In the home builder’s quest to outperform the rest of its home building history, this project has captured three certifications to respond to brand recognition along with cutting-edge higher performance.

“The first two are the foundation and something that we believe assure the consumer of the critical basic components to better building practices; they have high customer perceived value and awareness,” explains CR Herro, vice president of environmental affairs at Meritage Homes. “The third certification from the Department of Energy represents a lesser-known program that we hope to inspire our company and other companies to emulate going forward.”

The Energy Star program is the MVP in terms of consumer recognition, making it a good choice for builders to stamp on their homes. This product appeals to consumers with limited knowledge because of its simple, understandable criteria, and its long-time brand strength. It also provides the buyer peace of mind by offering third-party testing and certification.

The recognition of Energy Star is analyzed on an annual basis by the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) and in 2016, 91% of U.S. households said they are familiar with the Energy Star label. This jumped from 88% in 2015 and is the highest in its history.

"The Energy Star program is a vital asset in helping consumers make an informed energy-efficient choice, and it continues to serve as our national marketing platform for energy efficiency,” said John Taylor, deputy directory at CEE and Energy Star liaison, in a release. “The credibility and independence brought by the federal government, combined with the boots on the ground of efficiency programs and industry partners, continue to bear fruit. When it comes to energy efficiency, Energy Star is truly one of our nation’s most valuable assets."

As further evidence, the “Housing Preferences of the Boomer Generation” published by NAHB in 2015, based on a survey of 4,326 home buyers, showed that more than 90% of them rate Energy Star appliances and an Energy Star rating for the whole home essential or desirable, leaving little doubt that EPA has created a successful brand.

The reNEWable team chose cutting-edge products that would contribute to the Energy Star rating, such as spray foam insulation that helps create a thermal envelope capable of controlling the air inside the home, and allowing for a downsized HVAC. "Energy Star rated Sucraseal Spray Foam Insulation lowers the carbon footprint of every building in which it is installed, giving builders, architects, and homeowners the peace of mind that comes with using safe, sustainable, energy saving building products," says Reid McCall, president at Build Marketing.

Other features of the home contribute to its Energy Star rating, such as a high-efficiency heating, cooling, and ventilation system and energy-efficient lights and appliances. The project's improved building envelope also features high-performance windows and sealing that ultimately all works together to improve comfort, lower utility bills, and earn a HERS index score of 16.

The criteria for becoming Energy Star certified is growing more intense as it follows the progression of products and new technologies over the years.

“Certifications over the past 10 years are constantly elevated in response to the improved products and processes,” Meritage's Herro says. “Homes that are Energy Star certified now are significantly better than they were in 2010.”

2. Indoor airPLUS
The second certification for the reNEWable Living Home is the EPA’s Indoor airPLUS. It layers on to the Energy Star program to future provide comprehensive indoor air quality protection in new homes. This measure focuses on reducing indoor pollution to improve health by monitoring the use of moisture control systems, HVAC, combustion-venting systems, radon resistant construction, and low-emitting building materials.

The reNEWable Living Home exceeds all of those parameters and even goes beyond them by using CertainTeed AirRenew formaldehyde-scavenging gypsum. The board has an ingredient that not only attracts formaldehyde, but also draws it in and “kills” it. All gypsum board has formaldehyde passing through it, but this claims to be the only board that captures it and eliminates it from coming out again to improve indoor air quality.

The product "has been out for about 5 years now,” says Francesca Vaughn, segment marketing manager at CertainTeed Gypsum. “It’s slowly gaining traction. Meritage is first large home builder to take it on and adopt it as something that they want to use in the future.”

Meritage's commitment to trying new products and new programs is the main premise for the BUILDER concept home that will be on display in January in Orlando, Florida.

3. U.S. Department of Energy Zero Ready Home Program
The third certification for this home is the US Department of Energy (DOE) Zero Ready Home Program, which Herro says represents the best third-party standard that exists in the industry today. The program requires the Energy Star label along with additional insulation and fenestration criteria, a higher performing duct system, and more stringent water efficiency guidelines. The project also must meet the EPA Indoor AirPLUS guidelines and be PV ready.

This program layers on additional health and resiliency factors to the energy performance, making it a higher level of certification than most others.

The Why Behind the Certifications
Builders must choose certifications that make sense for their business. Some certifications have a positive impact on the cost of construction, along with the lower cost of operating the home. And some codes and certifications help push the edges of innovation to drive builders to develop new solutions.

The decision is complicated by assuring that voluntary additional practices represent real and perceived value to the homeowner. The 2015 NAHB housing preferences study showed that only 14% of home buyers are willing to pay more for a home out of pure concern for the environment, which was lower in 2015 than it was in 2007. The report also suggests that home buyers more often require a higher rate of return on their energy efficiency investments, but they will pay more for a home if they can get lower annual utility costs in return.

The reNEWable Living Home scores a HERS 16, in the 1% of high performing homes.
The reNEWable Living Home scores a HERS 16, in the 1% of high performing homes.

The Meritage team had to consider all of this and create meaningful proof for the thought leadership provided through the BUILDER concept home.

“We look to LEED and other good building programs to inform our materials and building selection," Herro says, adding that LEED's "cost of certification is comparably higher to document, and we don’t perceive that it added enough value versus the cost to our buyers. The key with all certifications are to provide expert criteria, third-party validation, provide public trust, and be cost effective to receive. The additional costs of certification beyond implementing design criteria makes it impracticable to certify each home to all the programs that meet the criteria.”

The HERS rating system is gaining momentum as a widely respected program because of its metrics, explored in this article from BUILDER's John McManus. The reNEWable Living Home received a 16 HERS Rating, which is among the top 1% of ratings. The national average HERS score is 62, and of the nearly 1 million homes included in the RESNET Registry in the past five years, less than 60,000 have scored a HERS lower than 50 .

Brand awareness of these labels and the energy performance data that they represent is becoming more important. Technology is also enabling the industry to gather data that can drive purchase decisions. New data providers—such as Hotpads, Estately, Energy realScores, and Redfin—are providing the public with more education, and also may be a path to different financing options in the future.

The reNEWable Living Home will be on display in Orlando on January 8 to 11, 2018. Register now to see it in person.