Choosing Greener Homes
If you haven’t lived in an energy-efficient home, you don’t know what you’re missing.
The benefits that green buildings offer – lower operating costs, healthier indoor air, greater comfort, and the satisfaction of a smaller environmental footprint – are hard to grasp on building plans or in house tours.
Many homebuyers assume that moving from a leaky, older house to one that meets contemporary building codes will increase their comfort and lower utility costs. Choosing something built to higher standards that costs more upfront is too big a leap for many buyers, as builders of energy-efficient subdivisions planned for Yarmouth and Wells discovered. What could change the minds of those homebuyers?
It might help if more of them understood that they could recoup any upfront cost differential two ways – in lower operating costs and in a higher resale price. More appraisers are now getting trained in the valuation of sustainable residential buildings, and studies are finding that green homes offer a resale premium.
Both appraisers and realtors struggle to assess the value of energy-efficient homes because it can be hard to find comparable properties. The quest for real estate comps may become easier now that Maine’s statewide Multiple Listing Service database has added new fields to help brokers and clients search for energy-efficient homes and those with “green” home certifications. The National Association of Realtors (NAR) offers a “green broker” training and designation, but few Maine members have yet to pursue this (only 21 to date, according to the NAR website).
If Realtors become better versed in green home features and technology, they could help buyers make sense of what has become a daunting array of standards and certifications, including Passive House, Net Zero, LEED residential, Energy Star and the Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Home Program.
Some architects and builders are pushing back against this trend, concerned that certifications make green homes less affordable. A group of Maine professionals who meet routinely to discuss green building science launched a discussion in 2011 that ended up drawing national attention – articulating the basis for what they deemed a “Pretty Good House.” These homes don’t carry obvious labels or certifications but function well – offering efficiency without unnecessary complexity or cost. (And you don’t have to build one new; you can renovate an existing home.)
Pretty Good Houses tend to be well-insulated (typically with R-40 walls and R-60 roofs) and relatively airtight, since as Martin Holladay, a senior editor with Green Building Advisor writes, “reducing air leaks is the most cost-effective way there is to lower energy bills.”
These houses have sensible design features, orienting primary living areas on the home’s south side and placing spaces like pantries, mudrooms and mechanical areas to the north. Rather than having trendy, pricey building components, they rely on proven elements – like Energy Star kitchen appliances, a tankless water heater or an air-source heat pump.
Pretty Good Houses embody Yankee thrift in the best senses of the word, being economical, unpretentious and durable. That, in marketing parlance, makes them a great value proposition for prospective buyers. Realtors and appraisers can help make this case, but for more people to appreciate the long-term value of energy efficiency, those of us who live in Pretty Good Houses need to start sharing our stories.
Our 15-year-old home has no fancy certifications but was built to keep costs (both personal and planetary) minimal. Our intent was to build a well-insulated structure with a small footprint, use locally sourced resources when possible, and take advantage of passive solar energy.
There’s always a gap between vision and reality, and we were concerned about how our house would perform. One place we had rented was a case study in green design gone wrong. An expanse of south-facing, single-paned windows – with no protective overhangs – made the house scorching in summer and drafty and expensive to heat in winter.
While having a basic layout in mind for our home, we worked with architects well-versed in the mechanics of green design. Even if all you seek is a Pretty Good House, there better be sound building science behind it.
Fortunately for us, there was and the house has performed beautifully – so well, in fact, that we never finished installing one heating system we envisioned using. Between passive solar heat gain and minimal woodstove use (less than two cords each season), we’ve enjoyed comfortable temperatures year-round with no home-heating bills and no need for air-conditioning.
The year-in and year-out savings are welcome, but it’s not just the economics that make energy-efficient homes so appealing. A green-designated broker, Marc Chadbourne, recently asked a builder of highly efficient homes who buys them and what reasons they offer. The answer he received is one I would echo: “It’s a combination of everything.” Whether you value a healthier living space or reduced energy costs, a smaller environmental footprint or a higher resale value, the promise of greener houses is clear. We all desire and deserve a “pretty good” place to call home.
© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.