Green Home Business Brisk in Slow Delaware Market
In a beach resort market that is afflicted with the same cyclical doldrums slowing home building activity in most of the country, Sussex County, Del. green builder Robert Thornton says his business is flourishing.
“In a supposed down market, my bank says I’m their best performer,” Thornton said. He’s closed on seven homes on the first 25 lots open in Silverwoods, a new 350-home, 131-acre development in Ocean View, Del., near the town of Bethany Beach. The average sales price was $450,000.
Thornton is one of the founders of the new Home Builders Association of Delaware Green Building Council, along with the project's verifier, Howard Fortunato of JCM Environmental.
Last month, Thornton set a milestone for the NAHB National Green Building Program, when one of his Ocean View homes became the first gold-certified project in the program — and the first home certified in the state.
One customer from Maryland who had heard about the home’s certification stopped by for a look and signed a check for a downpayment on a house that hadn’t even been started yet, Thornton said. “We’re doing absolutely fantastic right now in a market where everyone is saying that we’re looking for the market to come back in another year. This is what green building can do for you,” he said.
Already a high-end small production builder, Thornton said that the cost of converting to green was comparatively insignificant, especially in light of today’s market. “We’re getting traffic right now that can’t be bought in a brochure or a full-page newspaper ad,” he said.
The obstacles he has encountered as a green builder have not come from potential home buyers, but from trade contractors, he said. It can be difficult at times to convince them to try new materials, work on waste reduction and pay attention to environmental concerns.
Referring to the positive impact of green building on their bottom line is the best way to gain the cooperation of subs, he said.
“You sit down and have coffee with them, and you ask, ‘do you guys understand that this is what is going to give you your paycheck?’” Thornton said. The business is going green, and contractors who are not willing to go along will be left behind, he says. “If you tell them it’s the right thing to do, that’s not going to motivate a tradesman. You have to get to the economic impact first, and they understand later.”
Thornton’s gold-certified home scored 480 points in the NAHB Green certification program, well above the 385 points needed to reach that level.
Thornton highlighted a number of green choices in the seven areas measured for certification:
- Lot Design, Preparation and Development. Thirty-one of the development’s 130 acres are being preserved as open space. In the first phase of development, this will include wooded nature trails using boardwalks to minimize the impact on the flora and fauna. Two ponds were stocked by JCM Environmental with “Gambusia” fish to help keep the mosquito population in check, which earned points for the project for integrated pest management. More ponds are planned for subsequent phases of the development.
Access to public transportation is spotty in southern Delaware, with the closest bus stop about two and a half miles from the development’s entrance. However, Thornton provided a letter of credit for the Delaware Department of Transportation to construct a five-foot-wide bike trail along the length of the project, which will connect to an existing bike trail that vacationers use to pedal to the beach.
The house scored 62 points in this category.
- Resource Efficiency. Thornton recycled his construction waste onsite, separating cardboard, wood and metals for delivery to the local solid waste facility. He also took special care to make sure there was less waste generated in the first place, he said.
Working with a local lumberyard, Thornton ensured that material shipments were accurate and that supply orders did not include overestimates — which also made the shipment costs competitive with lower-priced “big box” lumber dealers, he said.
The trees that need to be removed from the property are being taken to a sawmill and made into dimensional lumber that will be used to frame homes at Silverwoods, and the waste is ground into mulch for the landscaping.
The house scored 109 points in this category.
- Energy Efficiency. Thornton’s homes include an air sealing package to reduce air infiltration, and the furnaces are Energy Star-rated at 88% efficiency with a SEER rating of at least 14. Rather than using 2x4s for exterior walls, 2x6s were employed to accommodate R-19 insulation. The ceiling has R-38 insulation and the concrete crawl spaces — basements are rare this close to the ocean — are comprised of a pond liner installed under four inches of concrete slab, which Thornton said also does an excellent job of helping to control the humidity in the home.
The house scored 148 points in this category.
- Water Efficiency. Thornton is especially pleased with a new device he’s installing in all the Silverwoods homes: an intellisensor irrigation control panel that’s connected to weather satellites collecting information for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The sensor controls the irrigation systems and calibrates how much water is needed based on weather forecasts and estimated rainfall. “You don’t have a day when you are watering and it’s not needed,” he said.
He also reduced the size of the water taps coming into the development from one inch to five-eighths of an inch to reduce the flow, and he is installing native plants, which are more drought-resistant, and grouping them together by the amount of water they need.
Tankless water heaters are standard features of Silverwoods homes, which increase energy-efficiency because the water is only heated when it's needed.
The house scored 65 points in this category.
- Indoor Environmental Quality. In southern Delaware’s humid climate, builders are concerned about liability for mold, whether it’s the harmful variety or not. Thornton took special care to make sure that no building materials got wet during delivery — utilizing a just-in-time system — and on the job site by storing them properly. “We need a program to follow the materials through the supply chain. Once it’s damp, it’s all over with,” he said.
The HVAC contractor also installed a MERV10 filter and saw that the air supply was balanced in the house. “During the construction process, his technicians masked all the HVAC outlets. It keeps dust and pollutants from getting into the HVAC system,” Thornton said. “If the thing is faulty from the beginning, you can’t go back and tear it out, so we make sure nothing can get in the HVAC system before it’s fired up.”
The project scored 111 points in this category.
- Operation, Maintenance and Home Owner Education. No matter how efficient you make a house, Thornton points out, the systems break down if they aren’t maintained and operated correctly. Silverwoods home owners receive a thick manual, a list of covenants and plenty of follow-up.
The covenants describe what kinds of trees and other plants can be grown in the development and where they are prohibited — “you can’t plant a weeping willow near the water line,” Thornton said — and his subcontractors help educate the home owners. “The HVAC contractor has a one-year follow-up visit to make sure the systems are operating at peak efficiency,” Thornton said, “and while he’s there, he can sell them a maintenance contract.”
The project scored 19 points in this category.
- Global Impact. This category is part of the NAHB Model Green Home Building Guidelines, upon which the NAHB National Green Building Program is based. When the National Green Building Standard is ready for use, builders will see that many of the points available in this category have been transferred to other categories, notably the Indoor Environmental Quality section.
Thornton compiled points by specifying low- and no-VOC paints and low-VOC sealants and adhesives. The project scored 11 points in this category.
Costs of Going Green
Thornton estimates that it cost him less than 1% more to get his homes to a gold certified level — with the benefit of building a high-end product in the first place.
Some features won’t pay for themselves now, but may in the future, when costs go down. Silverwoods homes are pre-wired for photovoltaic panels and they are “zero-energy ready,” but solar panels weren’t installed because they were considered cost-prohibitive.
“A year from now, I may find a solar company that is going to do every roof in our development, and now that we have the piping, now that it’s in the walls and the chases, it won’t be as costly,” he said.
Thornton said he will continue to talk to contractors, building inspectors, appraisers and tax officials and try to get them to see the value of going green. The biggest obstacle is education — or the lack of it. “But they come to the site, they see the traffic,” he said. “Once they are educated, they aren’t disbelievers anymore.”
For more information on NAHB’s green home building resources, click here; or e-mail Calli Schmidt, or call her at 800-368-5242 x8132.
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