Green Light: Environmentally friendly building becoming the norm

Livwell Homes earned People’s Choice in the top price category last year during the Parade of Homes.

When it comes to building, it’s now easy being green.

According to the United States Green Building Council, roughly 40% of the single-family house market is made up of green homes and 84% of new residential construction projects incorporate “sustainable features.” The Traverse City Business News spoke to several local green builders to see how mainstreaming has impacted their approach.

Broadly, “green building” can be defined as a mix of processes in construction that result in more environmentally friendly and resource-efficient buildings. According to Ryan McCoon, owner of the Traverse City-based green builder Endura Homes, green has become a “very loose term” in the building industry, to the point where it’s assumed – or even required – that virtually every new house being built today is green in some way.

Far from pushing specialty green builders out of the market, McCoon says the growth of green building has allowed companies like his to focus in on specific niches. For Endura Homes, the target niche is now what McCoon calls “performance-based construction,” which refers to the functions of a house in terms of energy expenditure.

“It used to be that everyone wanted to get the biggest home they could for the lowest amount of dollars per square foot. Now, it’s transitioned to ‘What is the cost for me to live per square foot in this house?’” he said. “It’s one thing to have a nice house and some room to stretch, but if you’re strapped with a $300 or $400 per month heating bill, you’re not setting yourself up to have a quality life in that home. A lot of your money is going to operating expenses.”

McCoon says that, while many consumers understand environmental impact, the push for green homes – and specifically for performance-based homes – is driven by dollars and cents. Just as fuel-efficient cars allow motorists to get more bang for their buck, home buyers are looking at the life-cycle costs of their homes – from monthly utility bills to ongoing maintenance – to benefit their bottom lines.

Changes in building codes are also pushing this shift. Michigan, McCoon says, is one of the 10 or so states in the country with robust energy codes. Those codes, including the Michigan Residential Building Code and the Michigan Uniform Energy Code, are a part of the reason most of the new housing stock in the area and throughout the state is very green-conscious. McCoon says that Michigan’s requirements mean that even the baseline code home is fairly efficient. Companies like Endura Homes push things even farther, going above and beyond code requirements to live up to their “performance-based” focus.

So how can a buyer tell the difference between a code-built home and a true performance-based home? According to McCoon, the closest thing the construction industry has to an accepted “miles per gallon” type rating is the Home Energy Rating Score (HERS), a software modeling metric certified by a company called Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET).

A HERS rating takes a slew of factors into consideration – including the number of windows in a home, the direction the windows face, the type of insulation in the walls, the efficiency of the HVAC system, and more – to present a single-figure analysis of the home’s performance. Performance-based builders like Endura get HERS assessments done on every house they build. However, any buyer can also hire a RESNET-certified rater to inspect a home they are thinking of purchasing. McCoon says there are several raters locally and that a HERS inspection will typically cost between $300 and $600.

Livwell Homes, another local green builder, is serving a different niche in the industry: the “healthy home.” Founder Chad Kotlarz is a physician by trade who spent nearly 20 years of his life practicing medicine. His interest in natural healthcare and environmental medicine ultimately brought him to the construction industry, where he strives to build houses that are healthier places to live.

“We spend the majority of our time in our homes, so is important to think about how our homes affect our health,” Kotlarz said. “What kind of building products are we using and how are they affecting air quality? How can we design and engineer a home to be healthy? There are a lot of factors that go into that equation.”

The EPA estimates that indoor air in homes and other buildings is up to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air. Quality ventilation, regular changing of furnace filters, and even routine vacuuming and dusting can all play a role in reducing the buildup of toxins and debris in a home’s air. Even before these basic steps of home upkeep come into play, Kotlarz says it is possible to design a home with interior air quality in mind. For instance, installing rain screens behind siding can reduce the risk of mold growth in wet and rainy areas, while using building products that are low on volatile organic compounds can reduce the prevalence of potentially harmful vapors in a home.

More than just protecting the environment, as most green building is intended to do, healthy homes create a healthier indoor environment that is conducive to long-term well-being, improved quality of life, and perhaps even longer lifespans.

“These are homes that people want to live in long-term,” Kotlarz said. “They are places that people really care about. They care about the design. They care about the health factor. They care about the efficiency.”

If Livwell Homes focuses on the interior of a house, then Inhabitect has the exterior covered. Founded seven years ago, Inhabitect is the local leader in green roofing solutions. Owner Nathan Griswold says these types of plant-based installations can impact a building’s overall environmental footprint, especially in a waterfront area like Traverse City.

“Green building to me is not just within the walls of the home or business,” Griswold said. “It’s the whole picture of the site. Green site design and management is where we come in, which can be anything from green roofs to rain gardens to permeable pavement. It’s called green stormwater infrastructure, and the goal is to try to get that water back into the ground and to slow it down and cool it down, which helps reduce erosion and runoff.”

Typically, rain falls on a rooftop, flows off, and eventually makes its way toward a drainage system. This type of stormwater runoff is a concern for the local Watershed Center, both for how it can cause erosion and for how it can sweep contaminants into rivers, streams and Grand Traverse Bay.

Griswold says green roofs help by soaking up some 60% of the water that hits a roof over the course of a year, effectively reducing the flow and limiting the volume of sediment being displaced. As for cooling water down, Griswold explains that this benefit of green roofing helps protect nearby aquatic ecosystems.

“When rainwater hits your black shingled roof in the summer, and then runs off and hits your driveway, it’s heating up from all that ambient temperature that those surfaces absorb,” Griswold said. “On a summer day, that rainwater is way too warm for the coldwater species that live in our lakes and streams. By slowing that water down and cooling it down, you’re benefiting the ecosystem.”

Inhabitect added green roof features to the Cherry Capital Foods building a few years ago.

Locally, Griswold has noticed an increase in demand for green roofs since starting Inhabitect in 2013. His business has installed green roof features on many local buildings and developments, including the Uptown Traverse City condo and townhome development, the Cowell Family Cancer Center at Munson and the Cherry Capital Foods building on Barlow. Residential projects are growing in popularity, too: while homeowners are typically building much smaller green roofs than commercial developers, Griswold says about 50% of the projects he bids are residential.

As with performance-based homes and healthy homes, green roofs have benefits that go beyond environmental sustainability. Griswold says buyers are interested in what Inhabitect does for a variety of reasons, from simple aesthetic and lifestyle appeal (many green roof spaces are incorporated into rooftop patio designs) to added property value. In addition, by absorbing and reflecting sunlight,

Griswold says a green roof protects the roof underneath from UV radiation – a factor that can make a roof’s waterproofing membrane last up to three times longer than it would without that natural barrier.
Griswold is hopeful that future local regulations could drive even more people to embrace the green roof trend. Already, Traverse City requires that developers have a certain amount of green space per lot. The city has also looked at a policy called “stormwater utilities,” already active in Michigan cities like Ann Arbor and Detroit. If adopted locally, such an ordinance could drive up sales of Inhabitect roofs.

“With stormwater utilities, you pay a tax or fee for every square foot of impervious service you have on your property,” Griswold said. “So, if you’re not green, you’re paying extra for that.”