Plugging into Energy Efficiency

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Energy efficiency. Resource conservation. Green. These are the hot marketing buzzwords in new home construction. What do they mean to the professional remodeler? Potentially, they could mean a new market. You can help make any existing home green, and help your clients come to grips with soaring energy costs.

October 01, 2006

 

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Energy efficiency. Resource conservation. Green. These are the hot marketing buzzwords in new home construction. What do they mean to the professional remodeler?

Potentially, they could mean a new market.

You can help make any existing home green, and help your clients come to grips with soaring energy costs. In the process, you can put a different kind of green in your own pocket.

Ready and able

Able Home Builders of Sioux City, Iowa, was founded by brothers Willie, Jeff, and C.L. Delfs in 1987. They average 40 to 60 remodels and two new homes a year, with annual sales revenue exceeding $1 million.

The Delfs started their business as remodelers, but expanded to new construction in 1993. They were traditional stick builders at the time, but quickly saw the business benefits of energy efficiency.

The Delfs dedicated themselves to learning about new techniques and technologies available in the market, and finding those that worked best for them and their clients.

"As we began educating ourselves through the local utility's ENERGY STAR program, we started learning about why energy efficiency was important — how energy efficiency affects all of us," Willie says. "We used ENERGY STAR to create our basic requirements. As time progressed, we became so comfortable with ENERGY STAR that we committed ourselves to 100-percent participation. Then we thought that if we can build ENERGY STAR qualified homes for new construction, why not take it to our remodeling business?"

The Delfs realized there was a large remodeling niche waiting for an energy-efficient contractor.

 

Willie (left) and John Delfs.

"When we first started out, we decided to focus on the working-class market," Delfs says. "As our reputation grew, more affluent clients requested our services based on referrals. For the last ten years, most of our client base has come from referrals. Now we're recognized for energy-efficient remodeling, so when someone is looking for construction services that involve energy efficiency, we're the first company they call."Getting the call

Which is exactly what Don and Susie Townley did when they were looking to expand the kitchen by 400 square feet and redo the windows and siding of their 1970s home. Since they were having the work done anyway, it was a perfect opportunity to address efficiency as well. "A large portion of people's disposable income goes straight to utility companies. As that portion of their income gets larger, it's really a no-brainer for our customers to increase their home's energy efficiency," Delfs says. "My goal is to add space without adding energy consumption."

But not all of the Delfs' customers start out as eager as the Townleys.

 

The crew ensures that window replacements are done properly.

Some clients are reluctant to incorporate energy efficiency because they're concerned it will create delays. However, the Delfs see little or no increase in their construction schedule, whether they incorporate energy efficiency or not. Often it's just a matter of substituting a better off-the-shelf product for the conventional one.

Some clients also assume energy efficiency will make the project too costly.

"I try to make them realize that the measures I'm proposing will pay them back. I'm very persistent because I think it's important that my customers recognize both the short- and long-term benefits of energy efficiency. It's a very easy sell, especially now that energy costs have been rising for the last few years."

The growth of utility, state and federal incentive programs can accelerate the payback. While the incentives are usually larger with new construction, even in a remodeling project, homeowners can recover up to 50 percent of their efficiency investment.

Typically, utility incentives apply to heating, cooling, and water heating only. In some cases, however, you may have to do both HVAC and water heating measures as a package.

Workers level and set a window before caulking.

The new federal Energy Bill gives tax credits and deductions for many of the 12–15 prescriptive measures from ENERGY STAR, which include installing high efficiency windows; adding insulation to sidewalls, basements, or slabs; adding a programmable thermostat; using high-efficiency HVAC and water heating equipment; and installing at least three ENERGY STAR qualified appliances or lighting. Some of these benefits go to the client, but some go directly to the contractor.

The fact that some potential clients remain unconvinced is hardly a deterrent to Delfs.

"We probably lose about a quarter of the jobs we bid on to contractors with a lower bid, which is fine, because we'd rather focus on building our niche than worry about jobs with minimal profit," Delfs says.

Going the extra mile

 

A worker inspects the plumbness of a window.

This means that Able Home Builders is doing more profitable remodeling jobs with clients interested in going the extra mile. Clients like the Townleys.

Knowing Able Home Builders' expertise in energy efficiency, the Townleys were open to suggestions.

The Delfs recommended optimum-value framing techniques for the exterior kitchen walls. These simple techniques, such as spacing studs farther apart and eliminating other non-essential framing, reduce material and labor costs, while improving energy performance. While the system can be applied as a whole package, the Delfs often use many of its components independently, depending on the specific needs of the project.

Cellulose insulation, a greener alternative to conventional fiberglass, enhanced the energy performance of the addition. The Delfs also installed Low-E glazed windows throughout the home and added insulative vinyl siding to the exterior. They completed the job by air sealing the entire building envelope, closing holes, cracks, and gaps wherever air passed in or out of the home.

"I feel that the building envelope is the most important thing to consider when remodeling or building a home," Delfs says. "Create a good envelope with the right combination of insulation, windows, and caulking to minimize air infiltration. Even if the existing HVAC equipment isn't the most efficient, it will work better in an environment that is well insulated, well sealed, and has good windows. In either case, less heating and cooling will be required."

The result: 20-percent energy savings for the Townleys from one December to the next.

Finding the market

Delfs says his clients appreciate the consideration he gives monthly operating costs.

"It helps from a marketing perspective," he says. "If a potential client is comparing us to another builder who doesn't include efficiency in their list of services, it may help us get that project."

"In a small community like ours, people recognize certain business qualities and tell their friends about it," he says. "If we treat our customers nicely and educate them in the process, they end up selling our services for us. In the nearly 20 years we've been in business, we've never had to spend much on advertising. Instead, we've just always tried to give our customers a fair price and do the best job that we could, and word of mouth has sold our work for us."

"The main concept is that a house, whether new or a remodel, is a system and whatever you do to it affects everything else," Delfs says. "We don't start each day going to work to just throw sticks together and do it over again at the next project. By studying energy efficiency, we've become smarter builders than we were ten years ago. Ten years from now, we'll be even smarter because as technology advances, we'll be using it before our competition."


Author Information
Scott T. Shepherd and Dustin Rosa write about better building practices on behalf of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing ( www.pathnet.org). PATH is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Learn more at www.pathnet.org.


 

Resources

Since the majority of green literature and coursework is designed for new construction, learning the best ways to go green hasn't always been easy for remodelers.

"PATH saw a huge need for homeowners and remodelers to get quick answers to their remodeling questions," says Carlos Martín of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing. "So many folks are concerned about their energy costs, but are bewildered by the pea soup of all the green information and resources."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB), and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) are working to make it easier.

HUD's Rehab Advisor, provides guidelines for conducting energy-efficient housing rehabilitation. Written in easy-to-understand language, it's a good resource to help remodelers understand the issues, and also a useful tool to help remodelers market upgrades to their clients.

PATH's remodeler page, http://www.pathnet.org/sp.asp?mc=Inremodelers, provides a wide array of resources to help remodelers navigate advanced building technology issues.

NAHB offers multiple Energy Efficiency Design and Construction Guides on the ToolBase Web site, http://www.toolbase.org/ToolbaseResources/level3.aspx?BucketID=4&CategoryID=42.

In June, NARI rolled out a green remodeling education program focusing on energy efficiency and conservation, indoor air quality, efficient use of resources, recycling of demolition material and renewable energy sources.

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