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Cost and Effect

Sustainable Building, Remodeling Is an Investment in the Future

Andrew Crane

Andrew Crane says some clients are more environmentally sensitive than others, but they typically appreciate the long-term cost benefits of sustainability.

Andrew Crane says homeowners love the idea of energy efficiency and green construction — it’s the price tag they don’t always like.

“Whether building or remodeling, as far as energy efficiency and sustainable building, people all care about it; they all mention it, they’ve heard about it, and it’s advertised like crazy — ‘save this, low-flow that,’” said Crane, president of A. Crane Construction in Chicopee. “But it comes with a big cost. Everybody wants to include it, but many times, cost will prevent them from actually doing it.”

It’s true that, in most cases, switching from traditional to energy-efficient products will save money over time, the initial cost can be an obstacle to homeowners remodeling on a budget.

“One example would be LED lighting,” Crane said. “LED is great — it lasts forever, and it uses very, very little electricity, but the products themselves oftentimes are cost-prohibitive. The cost of regular incandescent lightbulbs might be 87 cents, fluorescent might be $2.50, but one LED bulb might be $22.50.”

Nick Riley, president of N. Riley Construction in Chicopee, agreed, but added that some energy-efficient home improvements are already becoming standard, including Energy Star-rated appliances and insulating window glass.

“As you get more in depth into remodeling, as far as ripping down walls and reinsulating, people are concerned about it and ask about ways in which they can do it — but cost sometimes can be a pretty big factor in whether they decide to do it or not,” Riley explained.

“We’re definitely seeing more people interested in ways they can make that happen,” he added. “But you want to be more energy-efficient, there’s going to be a little more cost, obviously.”

Still, sustainable building is on the rise. The National Assoc. of Home Builders (NAHB) recently surveyed members about the features they’re most likely to include in new homes this year, and the top 10 included Energy Star-rated appliances and windows and programmable thermostats. Meanwhile, the organization reports an overall uptick in construction that incorporates energy, water, and resource efficiency; improved indoor environmental quality; and sustainable and locally sourced products.

“More people care about the footprint, so we kind of have to feel that out,” Crane said. “Many clients come to us as environmentally sensitive people, and others don’t care. But there is a growing passion for protecting the environment, and they’re not afraid to spend more up front if that’s what it takes.”

Energy Stars

John Majercak understands sustainable building and remodeling. As president of the Pittsfield-based Center for EcoTechnology (CET), he helps clients — who include both contractors and homeowners — go green in their projects.

For example, “we do what’s called a home energy rating for homeowners; we work with builders and architects and try to figure out how we can make a home the most energy-efficient it can be,” he explained. “We predict how the home will perform from an energy perspective and whether the work being done will qualify for different code requirements or certifications, whether LEED or Energy Star or others. It really depends on the scale; a lot of those programs are set up for new construction, but they can be appropriate for remodels as well.”

Another resource is CET’s EcoBuilding Bargains store in Springfield, which sells reclaimed building materials.

“We have a lot of folks who — when they’re remodeling and need to throw away a lot of materials from their home — can donate them here and keep them out of the landfill, which is a very green thing to do,” Majercak said. “We’re also seeing more home builders and architects reusing green materials in their building and remodeling. It can be both visually appealing and green.”

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says today’s contractors feel a responsibility to explain sustainable options to customers.

Another resource, he noted, is the Mass Save program, which provides energy audits for homeowners and introduces them to incentives and rebates available for certain sustainable upgrades, from boilers and appliances to insulation and windows.

Those incentives make a difference in decision making, he added. “People are concerned — ‘what is this going to cost me? Is this super expensive?’”

But as more contractors become skilled in sustainable construction and building codes begin to move in that direction, growing competition should bring up-front costs down for customers, he said. “Everyone is paying attention these days. It’s a big concern for people; they want their home to perform in a way that uses a lot less energy. That’s a good long-term investment, and homes that are built better will last longer and have fewer problems.”

The NAHB survey revealed that nearly 25% of home builders have installed alternative-energy-producing equipment in new construction, including geothermal heat pumps and photovoltaic solar panels. The current 30% tax credit available for homeowners who install this equipment is set to expire at the end of 2016, which makes this a good time for interested buyers to consider purchases.

“Our builder members are telling us that more and more buyers are looking at new homes for their efficiency in design and functionality,” notes NAHB chairman Tom Woods. “Whether it’s improved insulation or sustainable building materials, today’s new homes can reach higher energy performance and greater durability than was possible even 20 years ago.”

Millennial buying trends suggest that sustainable building options should outlast any expiring rebates. Another NAHB survey revealed that Energy Star certifications are a priority for these young home buyers, and 84% of this group is willing to pay 2% to 3% more for an energy-efficient home as long as they can see a return on their power bills.

One example is spray-foam insulation (see related story, page 23). “Generally, it’s twice as expensive if not more,” said Crane, whose company uses the product in 90% of its residential projects.

“It adds a substantial cost — in a 2,000-square-foot home, it could be $5,000 just for insulation in the walls,” he said, noting that expenses like granite countertops are easier purchases for some people because they can see and enjoy them every day. “Insulation is behind the walls, so you don’t notice it once you pay for it. But when your house becomes energy-efficient, you notice it in the monthly bills.”

Code Green

There’s no doubt in Majercak’s mind that sustainable building and remodeling is poised for continued growth, if only because building codes are increasingly reflecting green priorities.

“That’s just upping the game for everybody, the same as if you or I buy a car or appliance, and it’s more energy-efficient because the standards are making it happen,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s what’s happening with building codes. I think a lot of requirements in codes are improving, and building contractors are complying with these. We offer a few workshops to builders about energy-efficient codes, what the changes are, and how to comply with them.”

At the same time, Majercak said, more homeowners today are doing their own research and recognizing the value of sustainable choices.

“I think there are a lot of reasons people want to build green,” he said. “One of them is to help protect the environment, but they also like the durability, having the house last longer, using better materials that resist moisture. Then there’s the comfort and performance inside the home, where it really feels comfortable in summer and winter. Another thing is indoor air quality and health. A lot of people want to make sure the house is successfully ventilated. So it’s not just environmental benefits.”

Reflecting that public mood, Riley said, builders today feel a greater responsibility to inform customers of ways they can make their homes more green and energy-efficient.

“I think it’s our responsibility as contractors to educate the homeowner and then leave it up to them,” he said. “The initial conversation usually includes something about how to make it happen.”

Meanwhile, even homeowners who aren’t remodeling can take steps to cut into their utility bills, Crane said.

“There are some simple things people can do, like wrapping heating pipes with insulation. That can be done by anybody. Or wrapping duct work for the bathroom fan, which is basically a hole in the ceiling letting heat out. You can get a little bit of energy savings there. Or low-flow showerheads and faucets.”

When remodeling homes, Crane said, his company donates as much “gently used” product as it can to organizations that recycle it. “Tubs, walls, recycled countertops, cabinets, flooring — they can be recycled, and you wouldn’t even know the difference.”

Meanwhile, “we’re careful about what we buy and where we buy it. We want to be that person that cares about their environment.”

At a time, it seems, when homeowners increasingly want to do the same.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]