Is Green Building Still Golden?

Is Green Building Still Golden? – Canadian Contractor

Four years ago, before the economy hit the skids, sustainable building and environmentally-conscious renovating were all the rage. Now, after a nasty recession, it’s fair to ask: will customers still pay for green?

By Kim Laudrum

The past decade has seen a massive growth in green building products and techniques. These days, every home show screams “green”, with manufacturers selling everything from geothermal heating and cooling systems, to dual-flush toilets, low-flow shower heads, low or no-VOC paint, fiberglass windows, cork flooring… and on and on. But these products are generally perceived to be more expensive. Coming out of the biggest economic slowdown since the Great Depression, some contractors say that green building is too expensive for their clients. But others, like the green building specialists we interviewed for this article, say that the perception that green is prohibitively expensive is outdated and misleading.

Ben Polley’s straw-bale constructed homes wowed homeowners at the National Home Show a few years ago. By using what is essentially an agricultural waste product, Polley’s company proved that it is possible to build a home that is not only more energy-efficient, but also uses materials that contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions than conventional building products.

A passionate group of environmentalists, Polley and his team have carved a niche for themselves with Evolve Builders Group and its straw bale home construction division Harvest Homes. In green building circles in Southern Ontario at least, Ben Polley is well known. Which means he spends less money on marketing. His company’s reputation attracts clients to him like butterflies to milkweed.

“While we saw a brief slowdown post-2008, in general we haven’t really missed a beat,” he said. “We’ve always had a far more work opportunities in front of us than we’ve been able to take on. The opportunities might have been a little bit fewer just after 2008, but that was still more than enough to satisfy our capacity. But now it’s really returned. We’re back to having to turn down numerous jobs.”

“Our clients have a set of ideals that are important to them,” Polley says of his typical customer. “They might not be making decisions about immediate payback. Energy efficiency, for example, is important to them. They aren’t as directly money-motivated as most people. As a business culture we present ourselves as being similarly motivated. I’m certain we could reduce our work further and increase our prices and actually be more profitable. But it would mean turning down projects we might be interested in professionally.”

“The other side to that argument,” Polley points out “is that there’s room for competition but nobody seems to enter.” Why not? “It’s hard to argue with success and for a long time conventional builders were making excellent money… until the slowdown. The better and more entrenched of those builders are back to doing that again now,” Polley said.

Chris Phillips is president of Greening Homes Ltd., a green-specific renovations company in Toronto, founded in 200 with the mandate to improve existing housing stock while minimizing the environmental impact of both how they work on a project and the final result.

“We practice a holistic, green approach to how we do a renovation or a remodel,” said Phillips, who has a masters degree in philosophy and ethics from Deakins University in Australia.

That means, for example, Greening Homes runs a paperless office. Staff ride bicycles to work on projects whenever possible. They rent trucks only from Zipcar when they need them. They are mindful of how they deal with the waste from a demolition, taking wood torn out of older homes to furniture makers to be re-purposed. They choose healthier, less or non-toxic building materials. And they include systems that will make the most efficient use of energy and water within the home.

“It’s important to look at all facets of a green build renovation – not just energy efficiency,” said Phillips, a LEED Accredited Professional. “For example, some companies might claim that doing a green renovation is simply adding insulation to the walls or changing light bulbs. But really it’s about understanding so much more about the building science behind it.”

“You need to understand that if you are going to seal up an old home and you’re adding spray foam insulation, for example, what will that do to the building science of the home? Some old homes were buildt to ‘breath.’ If we make a change in one aspect then we have to bring in fresh air in another aspect.

A green renovation doesn’t necessarily need to cost more. Phillips notes, “There are a lot of things you can do in a renovation without adding any cost, that can actually make an environmental impact,”

Phillips’ next project is creating a Passive House for clients in Toronto. The Passive House (or PassivHaus) is a very stringent eco-building standard that originated in Germany in the late 1980s. The building is highly insulated, with very careful detailing in the walls, and minimal air changes per hour. There are some 30,00 PassivHaus-certified buildings around the world but Greening Homes’ Passive House project will be the first such residence in Toronto.

Ty Robinson and business partner James Harris graduated from Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario in 2008 and started Sustainable Renovations the same year. “We came out of school with the idea that sustainable building was the way the industry was going,” said Robertson. “So, we hoped that focus would give us a bit of a foothold to start.”

It did. “But as a young and new company, we also have found that we need to stick with the standard type of renovations to get business and keep busy,” Robertson said. “Not every renovation has to be green. We’ve also found that having more green practices – like reusing materials or reworking existing materials – has definitely helped us in this economy because people are looking for ways to do it cheaper.” he said. “A green job is not always more expensive.”

Yet that is often the perception among customers. “Coming out with a name like Sustainable Renovations we did find that people thought we might be a little bit higher-end and more expensive.” Robertson said. “But that’s not necessarily the case. Though responsible waste management, as well as better building practices, reworking existing material, for example, we can keep costs down and still give them a great product – even in this economy.

A Ruben Beattie says, sustainability is becoming more and more of a mainstream idea.

“People have done a lot of research before we get to their homes” he says. “They are becoming more conscious of the impact that renovating or building their homes can have on the greater environment.”

Beattie is co-owner with Michael and Curtis Leggett of Equinox Home Innovations, a Saskatoon-based residential general contractor specializing in building new homes and renovating existing ones to green standards.

Equinox does its research. “What we’re learning now is that there’s a pro and con to everything. For example, cork and bamboo flooring: Yeah, it’s a good green product, but what’s the offset in transporting it here? We’re sourcing fiberglass windows now rather than vinyl. They last longer, and there’s less off-gassing,” Beattie says.

There are still those customers looking for a general contractor to renovate their kitchens, bathrooms or basements. And then there are those who appreciate the efforts taken to source green materials, Beattie says.

There are certain practices we do as general contractors, but there are certain things we won’t do – vinyl siding, for example, when there are better alternatives out there. Much of what we do is educating our clients on alternative choices. But we’re also finding many of the educated clients are now coming to us.”

The concept of green is changing a lot, notes Beattie. “It’s not as much about products now as it is about methods. How do you decrease waste, increase efficiencies not only in energy and water use, but in man hours. Can something be re-purposed? People respect that.”

Beattie also points out that incorporating sustainable practices in a renovation, for example, requires a closer relationship with the client, which can pay off with referrals in the long run.

Nestled next to early twentieth century craftsman homes in the Dunbar neighborhood of West Vancouver is the first LEED Platinum certified single-family dwelling in Western Canada. Designed by architect Frits de Vries, it is a sophisticated modern, open-concept home with over 3,000 s ft of living space. Among its green features is a low-maintenance green roof where solar tubes gather energy. The project won the 2010 award for Best Green Home in Canada. At press time, the property was for sale for a cool $3.9 million.

Nick Kerchum, president of Natural Balance Home Builders, the team behind the Dunbar project, says that the project helps to dispel one common misunderstanding about green building: “It’s a myth that you give up aesthetic or quality when you go green. I think it’s just the opposite,” Kerchum said. “Sometimes a green product is just a better quality product. You’re buying a better quality window, for example. It’s more efficient. Or you are buying a product that is more durable and has a longer lifespan,” he said.

Kerchum notes awareness from the public about how construction of a home impacts the environment is definitely increasing. “I can tell you that for our business – we’re a young company – but we are getting more and more people coming through the door. They’re asking better questions and wanting to have greener homes,” he said.

The fact that Natural Balance Home Builders incorporates green materials and processes is one of the reasons why clients seek them out. “But it’s not the only reason,” Kerchum notes. References from clients or business partners who have had a positive experience working with them are really important,” he says.

“Also the style of homes that we build attracts customers. We specialize in West Coast contemporary style homes. We have a lot of experience in building those. Structurally they can be a little more complex and the detailing is much different than traditional style homes,” Kerchum notes. With increased demand for green building, it’s becoming easier to source green products and to build beyond code. “A number of years ago there were code issues related to green roofs. Everyone recognized that putting a green roof on your house was a great idea but you weren’t able to do it within BC building codes. Now those things have changed. Definitely it’s becoming easier and easier and products are becoming better and better,” Kerchum said.

Kim Laudrum is a contributing editor to Canadian Contractor.