Real Estate

Chandler Design Build wins big with home’s energy-saving envelope

After 33 years in the residential construction business and even longer as an environmentalist, Michael Chandler of Chandler Design Build stood before renowned sustainability professionals at Build Well 2010 in Sausalito, Calif., and argued against subsidized weatherization and tax credits for improving energy efficiency.

He hasn’t changed his green outlook. If anything, he’s more intensely focused on saving energy. And he’s getting more vocal about his ideas.

“It’s something I’ve been pushing for a long time,” Chandler said, “how to get more energy saved with less paperwork.”

Chandler, long a local leader in the green home-building market, received national recognition in January when he was named the National Association of Home Builders Certified Green Building Professional of the Year. He was presented with the award at the NAHB’s annual conference in Las Vegas on Jan. 18. At the ceremony, he also learned that a green-built house he entered for the Energy Value Housing Award won a silver award. Given the competition he was up against and the cast of green-building stars he shared the stage with, “That was one of the biggest thrills of my career,” Chandler said. “It’s like the Olympics of building to me.”

The conference provided Chandler the opportunity to exchange ideas with thought leaders from around the country, learn about new products coming on the market and hear what’s new in the green-building industry. For instance, new window companies are opening every day, he said, and a whole new class of air conditioning is coming online that works particularly well in the humid South. The units are capable of drying the air even when it doesn’t need to be cooled, well-suited for energy-efficient houses that aren’t plagued as much by heat in warm weather as they are by humidity.

Because the research organizations that sponsor the EVHA contest use the data from the houses entered to see what the best green builders are doing, the application for entry is complex. Filling it out took Chandler a good 40 hours, and he had most of the information in his computer already.

“We’ve got five certifications on this house,” he said: LEED certification, EnergyStar certification, Builder’s Challenge accreditation, and local and national green-building standards.

“You don’t want to put a house in unless it’s the very best you can do because the application process is so hard,” he said.

The house that garnered the silver award for Chandler didn’t have much cutting-edge technology in it, part of the reason he was able to keep its cost to about $158 per square foot, significantly lower than many of its competitors. Chandler focused on insulation and integrated systems so that he didn’t have a heating and cooling system that was more powerful than the 2,500-square-foot house warranted. He spent about $4,500 extra to put 12 inches of insulation in the walls instead of 6 inches, boosting the insulation level to R-46, and put 8 inches of foam under the roof. He had an independent engineer design the HVAC system, thus avoiding “the kind of oversizing that can happen when you let the guy who sells you the equipment also do the design,” he said.

Chandler did invest in one bit of high-tech sophistication: The radiant floor heating has a thermometer outside the house that anticipates whether the day is going to be warm so as not to overcharge the heat in the concrete slab. “The rest is pretty straightforward,” he said. “Simple durable systems.”

Because the payback for energy efficiency comes in reduced power bills, and energy is relatively cheap now, it can be hard for homeowners to justify expensive systems like geothermal heat pumps and photovoltaic panels. “The real payback is in improving insulation and integrating your systems better,” he said. “You have to take care of the basics before the fancy stuff.”

Even though tax credits cover high-priced solar and geothermal systems, installing them without properly insulating the house first is like swapping out a car’s engine without first inflating the tires. “You can put in a hybrid engine, but that won’t help if you have four flat tires,” he said.

Which leads back to his weatherization proposal. Rather than mire homeowners in the paperwork of federally financed home weatherizations for low-income households, subsidized loan programs for solar heating equipment and tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements, Chandler proposes an affordable weatherization package that homeowners could finance through a 15-year note that would be covered by the resulting monthly energy savings. Sealing leaky ductwork, tightening drafty crawl spaces, and upgrading insulation in basement ceilings and attic floors would cost $3,000 to $6,000 per household and save $300 to $600 a year on power bills. Power companies would collect the money and pass it along to the bond holders. Homeowners would enjoy a more comfortable environment and better air quality in the home. Chandler believes more homeowners would participate, thereby reducing power consumption overall and helping stop global warming.

“Existing tax credits and subsidized weatherization programs are missing the boat because the houses that need to be fixed aren’t getting fixed,” he said. Government experts assumed that the public would take the initiative to weatherize their homes if programs were put in place, and that banks would make small loans for the work to be done. Neither assumption has proved true. Training and hiring people to assess energy leaks and install weatherization might have been a better use of taxpayer dollars.

“Most of the weatherization and tax credits for solar have been badly designed, all the way back to the Carter administration,” he said. “Had we changed just a couple of assumptions, we could have gotten so much done. The missed opportunities are killing me.”

Nancy E. Oates is a business and real estate writer in Chapel Hill. Reach her at neoates@earthlink.net.

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