Atlanta region’s housing rebound poised to have a green energy glow
By Guest Columnist LUIS IMERY, president and CEO of the Imery Group, a full-service construction, green rating and real estate group
The housing industry is showing signs of recovery, but it will never be the same.
I’m not referring to the size of the industry — though it’s unlikely we’ll reach again the tremendous volume of construction that took place in Atlanta before the Great Recession. I’m referring to the product. The new homes themselves will certainly never be the same. They’ll be much better.
The National Association of Home Builders says single-family housing starts have risen steadily since January 2011, a figure that supports McGraw-Hill Construction’s 2013 Construction Outlook, which predicts a 21 percent year-over-year growth in new single-family homes.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Realtors says buyer traffic is up 25 percent over a year ago; and the Case-Shiller report shows home prices on the rise in Atlanta, which has the fifth-most new construction permits in the country (Atlanta Journal-Constitution).
However, there are other figures pointing to a much more significant trend transforming building practices here in Atlanta and across the entire residential industry. According to McGraw-Hill Construction, the green share of new single-family residential homes increased from 2 percent in 2005 to 17 percent in 2011, and will grow to as much as 38 percent of new homes by 2016.
Builders themselves are even more bullish on green homes. Half say they expect to employ green building techniques on more than 60 percent of their projects by 2016, and a third expect to build green on more than 90 percent of projects.
As a contractor who specializes in green building and is involved with numerous green home certification programs, these numbers undeniably match my experience in the field. Even through the depth of the recession — or perhaps because of it —t here has been an ever-increasing interest in homes that are vastly more energy efficient, sensitive to limited resources and healthier to live in.
The recession has adjusted consumer priorities and confidence such that a new home is understood to be a financial liability, and increasing utility bills are part of that equation. At a time when energy prices are only going up and tiered water rates are becoming the norm, it only makes sense to build homes that comfortably use less. All things being equal, if home A averages $120 a month in electric and water bills and home B averages $320, which would you buy?
Providing homebuyers with this kind of comparison is one of the things driving the industry towards greener homes. The Home Energy Rating System (HERS) is becoming the industry standard and a great way for developers and builders to differentiate the investment quality of their homes to both buyers and lenders.
A home’s HERS Index Score can be equated to a vehicle’s miles per gallon rating. In Georgia, per the 2012 Energy Code, a new home would typically receive a HERS Index Score of 90, but a home that is designed with a holistic approach to integrating best practices in building science can score 20 to 40 points lower.
Comprehensive HERS ratings for existing homes, which include cost/benefit analysis for recommended improvements, also are driving growth in green renovations and influencing buying decisions in that market. The U.S. Department of Energy says a typical resale home has a HERS score of 130, but an old drafty home could easily go to 200. HERS Index Scores also provide a useful tool for comparing energy efficiency across different third-party certified green building programs.
Programs like the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes or EarthCraft House (developed by Atlanta’s Southface Energy Institute) provide training programs and green building standards for the construction industry. They grant three tiers of certifications based not only on energy and water efficiency, but also on other attributes such as indoor air quality, sustainably sourced building materials and even proximity to public transportation.
So it’s possible for a new green home to earn certification through one of these programs without necessarily offering best-in-class energy efficiency. But combined with a HERS Index Score, buyers know exactly what they’re getting.
Naturally, many buyers will be concerned about paying a premium for green homes. But most are surprised to learn that certified first-tier green construction on average adds only 3 to 5 percent in costs. This initial investment saves money throughout the life of the home, reducing monthly ownership costs and quickly repaying the upfront investment.
Upper-tier green homes can achieve astounding levels of resource conservation both in the construction phase and in day-to-day living. For instance, I’m currently building a 2,600-square-foot home in South Fulton’s sustainable community of Serenbe that is the focus of an online research center at ProudGreenHome.com.
It employs the very best in green building materials and techniques and is projected to earn EarthCraft House Platinum certification and a HERS Index Score of 45. With the addition of solar panels, we expect the home will produce as much energy as it consumes, making it one of very few “net-zero” homes in Atlanta.
The concept of net-zero homes might seem to be a thing of the distant future. But green building science makes it readily achievable today. In fact, the United Kingdom is on the verge of mandating net-zero standards for all new homes by 2016.
Here in Georgia, the new energy code that goes into effect January 2014 is nowhere near as stringent, but it will tighten our energy standards for the second time in three years. There’s no doubt we’re waking up to the importance and benefits of green homes, and the forward-thinkers in the industry are getting trained and prepared.
Luis Imery is a civil engineer and a technical advisor for the EarthCraft program, a HERS rater, and a LEED for Home green-rater-in-training. The Imery Group is currently involved with the certification of more than 200 homes in the Southeast. In 2010, Imery Group won the Earthcraft House Platinum Project of the Year award, followed by the coveted 2011 Green Project of the year award from the National Association of Home Builders.