Green Builders Take Root

By David Kaplan, Houston Chronicle

Local architect LaVerne Williams has been green-minded for decades. After designing one of Houston’s first green homes in Alief in 1979, he recalled that in summer, workers from nearby construction sites would drop by his nearly completed project on their lunch hour because it was cooler inside.

Since then, many people in Houston have adopted green home building practices, Williams said.

Green home building can refer to lower energy bills, indoor air quality, use of recycled building materials, overhangs for shade and protection, sensitivity to the surrounding land and much more.

Home builders of all stripes, from national powerhouses focused on affordable suburban communities to family-owned builders of Memorial mansions, are going green, although there is plenty of disagreement over what “green” is.

Several them – including David Weekly Homes, Perry Homes, KB Home and Meritage Homes – have a strong focus on energy-efficiency. Some builders, including Houston-based the Dinerstein Companies and Frankel Building Group, are seeking the rigorous LEED certification. Others, like Lennar, have signed on to a new certification program sponsored by the Greater Houston Builders Association, called Green Built Gulf Coast.

While some builders may be waiting until the green movement is more accepted by the public, others see an advantage in being at the forefront.

“If I can market it as green, it outweighs the costs of bringing it up to green standards,” said Alan Dossey, senior purchasing manager in the Houston office of Miami-based Lennar Corp.

The Houston home building community’s embrace of the green movement has been “a little bit slow,” but home builders do watch trends and green building is the future, said Toy Wood, CEO of the Greater Houston Builders Association.

“It’s a marketing tool and a better way to build,” she said.

“Some builders are deep green, some are light green and some are shady green,” said Williams, who owns the architecture firm Environment Associates and helped found the original Houston chapter of the American Institute of Architect’s Committee on the Environment. He used “shady” to refer to any builder who does business as usual while spinning it as green, which is known as “green washing.”

Wood offered a reason why so many builders are emphasizing energy efficiency when going green: “The average homebuyer just wants to save money,” she said, and energy efficiency translates into lower utility bills.

Tough choices

Some homebuyers are conflicted, she said: “You still have a situation where I can have a tankless water heater or a granite counter top.” Some will take the granite counter top, although eventually prices on more sustainable items and practices will go down, she said.

“We think having a choice is a good thing,” said Nate Kredich, vice president of residential market development at the United States Green Building Council in Washington, D.C., the developer of LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certification.

LEED certification, which is third party-verified, rates a commercial or a residential building on criteria such as energy savings, water efficiencies, indoor air quality, carbon dioxide emissions, waste reduction and how its location fits into a community. Third party verifiers undergo training by the USGBC.

Some people think mostly about energy efficiency, but if a home owner’s child has asthma, they might care more about air quality, Kredich said.

LEED certification had its origins in the commercial market but is now taking off in the residential field, Kredich said.

Third-party inspections

Certification programs such as LEED involve third-party inspectors, and some builders don’t like somebody else looking over their shoulder telling them what to do – not to mention the extra cost, Williams said.

If LEED had greater brand recognition in the home market, Lennar’s Dossey said he would consider it, but for now he believes the cost to enroll in LEED is not worth it. He said enrollment in Green Built Gulf Coast is much less.

The Dinerstein Companies, national builders of apartments and student housing, is committed to LEED projects, partner Brian Dinerstein said: “It’s the right thing to do, and it’s a way to differentiate ourselves.”

The company has capitalized 12 LEED-registered projects nationally.

Dinerstein’s 393-unit Millennium Waterway Ave in The Woodlands opened in December, and he expects to have 90 percent occupancy by June. Rents are from $1,200 to $2,700.

His partner on the project, Woodlands Development Co., is like-minded when it comes to green initiatives, he said.

An urban LEED-certified apartment projects cost 2 to 3 percent more, said Dinerstein who is planning a LEED-certified apartment project in the Galleria area.

Flight attendant Amy Perry moved to the Millen-nium Waterway apartments a few months ago.

“I love it,” she said. “My utility bills are so much lower.”

After working in their family’s local home building business three years, brothers Scott and Kevin Frankel decided they wanted make the company greener.

“Every Realtor, banker and others we talked to said green is just a fad – a way for suppliers to make more money,” Scott Frankel said, but they were undaunted. They have since registered 25 homes for LEED certification, Frankel said.

Adding value

It may cost their client $15,000 to $20,000 more to build LEED but it adds much more than that in terms of energy savings, durability and resale value, he said.

Ranging from $750,000 to $3 million, their homes have high-efficiency furnaces, tank-less water heaters and dual-speed air conditioning condensing units.

Several large home building companies are focused more on energy efficiency.

“All Perry Homes meet or exceed Energy Star specifications,” said Jerry Zamzow, chief financial officer of Perry Homes. Developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Star criteria include effective heating and cooling equipment and insulation and high-performance windows.

On Wednesday Meritage Homes will open an “Extreme Energy Efficient” Community in Cinco Ranch in Katy. The Energy Star- qualified homes cut utility consumption dramatically, said C.R. Heelo, vice president for environmental affairs at Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Meritage homes. It costs Meritage about 10 percent more to build using energy efficient homes, but the houses remain competitively priced, he said.

Much more efficient

David Weekly, founder and chairman of David Weekly Homes, said the homes he’s building now compared with five years ago are twice as energy efficient.

His energy-efficient Energy Star-qualified homes cost $3,000 to $5,000 more to build but home owners spend less per month to own one because of lower energy usage, he said. His homes come with an energy usage guarantee, he said.

Gene Swang, division president of David Weekly, said the company also strives to be green in the healthy sense. The home builder uses cycled fresh air ventilation, for example.

Health and indoor air quality should be a bigger part of green building conversation, Williams said, because some building materials are made with toxic chemicals.

“Eventually, all home builders will have to build green to be competitive, GHBA’s Wood said: “One day we won’t call it ‘green building.’ It will just be the way that everybody builds.”

Andrea Palmer, national program director of Oklahoma City-based GWS, an engineering firm offering third-party certification and consulting services, said a good way for consumers to determine the greenness of a home is to see if it has been certified by a trusted source such as LEED, Energy Star, Green Built Gulf Coast, the National Association of Home Builder’s “National Green Building Standard” and the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Builder’s Challenge.”