Green Building Update - 11/25/2008 (Plain Text Version)
In this issue:
Indiana Builder Certifies 8 Homes -- and Counting
From left: builders Chris Byers and Eric Veldman, C.E.O. Robert Coolman, V.P. Ronald Fisher and builder Doug Rogers are responsible for making sure the Coolman Communities home is built the way promised.
Bob Coolman likes to tell the story of his mother, a biology teacher, who decided with his father, a farmer, to develop a subdivision on a portion of their land not suitable for cultivation.
This was back in the 1950s, when the term “green building” hadn’t been invented yet. As the work began on clearing the property to develop the lots and streets, “My mother literally stood in front of a grove of trees to keep the bulldozer away,” Coolman recalled.
It’s the next logical step for the company, which has been experimenting with energy-efficient and green design concepts since the 1972, when Coolman was discharged from the Navy and started building homes.
“We are small-town builders. We had no thoughts about some high-falutin’, esoteric concepts of saving the world. We were just trying to figure out how to be responsible, how to sustain a quality reputation and do the right thing,” he said. “Our focus was never green design – it was always about creating better neighborhoods.”
Like his mother, Coolman’s initial focus was preserving trees and open space, but he soon realized that the definition of environmentally friendly development is fluid, at best. His company has been recognized by the Soil Conservation Service for his work on draining swamps – “we didn’t call them wetlands then” – and honored later for creating wetlands where lakes and farmland used to exist. “We’ve come full circle,” he said.
And along the way, he developed a business philosophy that he said has helped him remain successful, even in today’s housing market. Coolman expects to build about 25 homes this year, instead of his usual 40 to 50, but that’s better than many Indiana builders are doing right now.
His long experience – along with reading the annual NAHB surveys on the costs of doing business in the home building industry as well as learning from other members of his Builder 20 Club – has helped him form this philosophy. “You need to have margins of 18% to 20% just to cover your costs . . . operating margins that allow you to stay in business,” Coolman said.
“In small Midwestern towns, the easiest way to get into the building business is to get into the middle market,” which in Valparaiso means homes priced between $275,000 and $400,000. In the last three years, builders produced homes for that market at a record – and unsustainable – pace," Coolman said.
Coolman decided to aim a little lower and dominate a different niche. “We decided years ago to develop a reputation for responsibly building a quality product in an affordable price range,” he said. “We have always focused on ways of using new concepts and technologies - not to produce high-end housing, but to create more sustainable, affordable neighborhoods.”
In the 1970s, the company experimented with passive solar techniques and building well-insulated, well-sealed homes. It discovered early on that a tight house needs to incorporate good ventilation to help avoid moisture and indoor air quality issues. “You have to be careful with this stuff because there are ‘healthy house’ issues that go along with it,” he said.
The company worked with the city of Valparaiso to incorporate rain gardens in a Traditional Neighborhood Development targeted to entry-level buyers – and that feature, combined with the development’s location, made it attractive to move-up buyers as well.
His work with development and landscaping techniques that incorporate native prairie grasses and xeriscaping, avoiding turf grass where possible, also helped him with storm water management issues and water conservation. When combined with energy-efficient building practices and indoor environmental quality techniques the company was already using, certifying the home as green was the next logical step, Coolman decided.
A Coolman Communities home was the eighth home in the nation to be certified by the NAHB Research Center, which administers National Green Building Certification for NAHBGreen. Since then, the company has certified seven more. “Our anticipation is that everything we build will be certified from now on,” he said.
“Certification fits into our overall business plan. In the marketplace, there are different ways people define themselves as green, but for some reason, the green-built market is perceived as a much smaller market segment than we feel it needs to be,” Coolman said. “Having the [NAHBGreen and National Green Building Certification] label gives third-party verification to what we have done and what we continue to do.
“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to be green, and it concerns me that people think it costs so much that it’s a limited market that can afford to be green. When we think that, all we have done is shoot ourselves in the foot,” he continued.
“Nobody is going to come though the door and say, ‘I don’ t want insulation in the walls,’ or ‘I want the storm water [discharge] shipped down to the next subdivision.’ Buyers would like to be green, and in a sustainable house, the lifecycle cost is going to be down and your initial acquisition cost is not going to be significantly different.
“This is part of our business strategy – I’d rather deal with people who are willing to pay for what they get as opposed to [those who are] entirely driven by price. I wouldn’t be building green if I didn’t think it helped us set ourselves apart – everything we do is about differentiating ourselves from the competition,” he said.
That includes experimenting with new technologies, but not incorporating new products until they can be used in a cost-effective way. “This market won’t pay for tankless water heaters - but a modest expense upgrade gets us a water heater that is rated high enough to get what we are looking for, Coolman said. “There are compromises involved and we have to look at how we are spending our customers’ money and make sure we aren’t spending it foolishly.”
The next frontier for Coolman: Seven of the eight certified homes scored at the Silver level, and now the company is ready to go further. “Our local utility company has come out with a rebate program that allows us to put in higher efficiency heating equipment that makes it economically possible” to score at the NAHBGreen Gold level.
All because of his mother, the biology teacher. “This is where our green DNA began,” Coolman said, “when Mother insisted the road had to go around the trees.”
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