Builders and Contractors Turn Green

February 27, 2006
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"Go green," suggests builders, consultants, distributors, and contractors who've tried the idea. Exactly what green means, however, isn't always easy to pin down.

Some HVAC contractors who embrace the green building concept are actually finding more black in their bottom lines. Others may belong to green-named organizations, but they generally employ total comfort, total performance, or Energy Star guidelines.

"Green buildings are really resource efficient buildings and are very energy efficient," reported a guide for builders, consumers, and realtors from Building Environmental Science and Technology. Author Bion Howard added that such buildings "are typically more comfortable and easier to live with due to lower operating and owning costs."

"If the HVAC contractor isn't doing these things today and they're working in new construction, they're not going to be successful in the future," said Dave Schrock, partner in Comfort Air Distributing, Denver. "The codes and cost of energy today are driving the green approach as well as the liability to the builder."

EXPANDING THE MARKET

Builders and HVAC contractors are demonstrating that building green doesn't have to involve extremes such as straw bale or adobe walls, but does provide heating and cooling comfort efficiently and economically.

Middle-class and entry-level homebuyers want comfort. They often care as much about monthly utility bills as they do about their environment. This makes them a good market for high-performance equipment and new installations, according to equipment distributors and HVAC contractors.

Fewer callbacks and lower rates for extended warranty coverage are among the other benefits of going green, contractors recently told The NEWS.

Maximizing the green concept can extend to site orientation, overhang specifications, and the use of environmentally friendly building materials. For HVAC contractors, a green approach often means ensuring a house is right and tight with good insulation, proper ducting, and correctly sized heating and air conditioning systems.

According to Chris Strand, Strand Brothers Inc. president and Austin, Texas Green Building Program member, the performance concept is marketable. "With the new federal tax incentives for high-efficiency equipment, insulation and duct improvements, we can help customers get up to $500 to help make their homes more energy efficient," said Strand. "I want to sell solutions, and I don't want to buy problems. It makes sense to me to look at the total system rather than put blinders on and put the equipment in without looking at the whole house."

Strand said his company could successfully compete with low-bid equipment change outs. "Eighty percent of our business comes from customer referrals, from those who have found their house is comfortable and their utility bills have gone way down."

Because of the company's quality and performance emphasis, Strand gets fewer callbacks and enjoys one of the lowest premium rates to purchase extended warranty coverage.

FOR BUILDERS ONLY?

Not everyone can get a green label, and not everyone wants a green label. "I do not think that a contractor can get a green designation," said Larry Sinn, founder of The Service Co. in Greer, S.C. "The green building designation comes from home builders and general contractors."

Sinn approaches the house as a system, and goes beyond the boxes with his Mechanical Air Distribution And Interrelated Relationships (MADAIR) solutions.

"Pressure boundary, thermal boundary, and duct repairs or a combination thereof can all save the owner more in energy and provide greater comfort than replacing the boxes," said Sinn.

"This explains why many homeowners have complained to us that someone replaced their system, but they weren't saving any money." His firm also insulates when needed, to ensure home comfort. With a complete energy makeover, Sinn can guarantee 50 percent to 70 percent savings in total energy cost.

Dan Depontbriand, Mountain Air Comfort Systems, Castle Rock, Colo., is a whole house contractor in the residential replacement market. He also installs indoor comfort systems for Engle Homes, a builder in the central and northern Colorado market. Engle has become rather performance aware in its new home construction business.

"When we run ads, we don't say, ‘Call us for air conditioning,' but more ‘Call us and make your house comfortable and efficient,'" said Depontbriand.

"In add-ons or new construction, building departments and other standards are requiring measures of performance. We do the same testing in the replacement market that we're required to do for new construction."

Depontbriand converted to performance contracting after attending a conference at the behest of Schrock. "I had zero idea of what the speaker was talking about and felt embarrassed, but at the break, I found a lot of other guys that had no idea, either," said Depontbriand. "Now I can go into a house confident that I know how it works." He checks insulation performance and air infiltration as well as making sure equipment is properly sized.

Mountain Air Comfort Systems employees, "have really bought into this," said Depontbriand.

"You can't just throw some pookey on it; you have to seal it right. We're going to duct blast it. If it's leaking too much you'll have to come back and fix it, so do it right the first time."

The biggest obstacle to more widespread use of whole-house performance is the industry itself, believes Depontbriand.

"A lot of contractors will tell you this isn't my problem, I have nothing to do with insulation and it doesn't matter to me. But I think contractors who refuse to learn the whole-house approach will find it harder to compete."

"The overarching incentive" for HVAC contractors to take part in programs on green building or the emerging Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes "is an enhanced reputation for quality. Secondarily it would be, as far as the bottom line goes, reduced callbacks," said Steve Andrews, a consultant for E-Star Colorado and a board member for the Energy and Environmental Building Association (EEBA).

Andrews conducts training sessions for builders, code officials, material suppliers, utilities, and other stakeholders in construction and energy industries.

SHARE THE LOAD

"From an HVAC contractor's point of view, better building practices, improved performance, and green building, whatever you want to call it, is definitely beneficial if those practices are done right," said Max Wade, president, Comfort Air and Plumbing, Albuquerque, N.M.

"Historically, the burden of all the comfort issues has been placed entirely on the HVAC contractor, but the reality is that the way a home is constructed has everything to do with whether that home is going to be comfortable and be conditioned correctly."

A drafty or leaky house, poor insulation, and the wrong type of windows all can have dramatic effects on how the house performs said Wade. The home's position on the lot can impact performance also.

Not every builder is green minded, and building a green relationship can be awkward. "Most builders we work for are green minded, but some are not," said Wade.

It's difficult to tell a builder what you, as a contractor, would like to see done to improve comfort and energy efficiency, he said. When Wade does custom homes, he recommends that the builder or owner employ some green building concepts such as a good thermal package.

Residential building company Artistic Homes' salespeople also bring up the subject of energy efficiency and indoor air quality to prospective buyers, said Wade.

Employees hand customers a checklist of what the company provides to assure comfort and good performance. They then ask the customer to compare those items when they visit another builder's offering, according to Wade.

"As better building practices take hold, some of the green concepts will be moneymakers for the HVAC contractor who is on the same path," commented Wade. "Builders will seek out those contractors who are following these practices."

Publication date: 02/27/2006

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