From botched investment to model green remodel

MyGreenBuildings transforms a bungalow into a luxurious green home

October 31, 2008
Sidebars:
Company Snapshot
The Financials

MyGreenBuildings incorporated courtyards and Florida-friendly landscaping into the design to help expand the living area of the small home. Several large glass sliders also made the ourdoors easily accessible.  
After photos by Everett Dennison, SRQ360

In late 2005, Steve Ellis bought a small 1,100-square-foot, two-bedroom house in a nice Sarasota, Fla., neighborhood for $480,000 as an investment property.

Oops.

“Only in the heights of all heights could you sell this for half a million bucks,” says Ellis, principal of MyGreenBuildings. “The value is probably half that now for the same house.”

Ellis had done a quick remodel of the kitchen before trying to sell the home as a cleaned-up, two-bedroom, one-bathroom bungalow. Despite being in a very attractive neighborhood, by late 2006 Ellis knew “that wouldn’t fly.”

Rather than throw in the towel and take the loss, though, Ellis decided to use the house as a model of sustainable remodeling for MyGreenBuildings, the company he was starting with Grant Castilow.

The home sits in the popular West of Trail neighborhood in downtown Sarasota in an area known as the Flower Street District. It is close to the water and beaches and within walking distance of public transportation, shopping and restaurants.

“We thought it’d be a prime candidate for a green remodel because its location encourages a green lifestyle,” Ellis says.

The MyGreenBuildings team had launched the company to take advantage of what they saw as the coming trend in remodeling. Both had spent years running businesses in the construction and environmental fields and thought the time was ripe to combine the two. Ellis’ property would be the first test of their business concept.

Before

Beyond green

As a small house on a large lot in an attractive neighborhood, the home was one that many expected to be torn down and replaced by a brand new home, as had been done throughout Sarasota’s downtown. Ellis and Castilow saw it as an opportunity to promote the green message and garner attention for their fledgling business.

“We wanted to prove to the community that you don’t have to tear these houses down,” Ellis says. “You can make them stronger, more fortified, better-looking, and for a lot less money and substantially less energy than a brand-new constructed house.”

The 1946 home also had good bones — 100-year-old heart of pine structural framing that was better than anything the company could buy today.

“There’s a massive amount of embodied energy in these older structures,” Ellis says. “Imagine the energy it takes to go out somewhere in Pacific Northwest, cut down a tree, pull it out of the forest, send it to a processing facility, make 2 by 4s out of it and get it on the shelf here in Sarasota.”

Although both are big believers in green remodeling, Ellis and Castilow knew the home needed more than a green upgrade to make it attractive to potential buyers. It also needed to be bigger and brought up to modern Florida hurricane codes. Most importantly, it had to show that green could also mean attractive.

“We wanted to make sure this house showed people that you didn’t have to be smoking weed and walking in flip-flops to go green,” Ellis says. “People didn’t realize that a green, truly sustainable home could be just as elegant as anything.”

MyGreenBuildings owners Steve Ellis and Grant Castilow wanted to show potential clients that a home could be green and still be luxurious. They did that by incorporating environmentally friendly yet high-end features such as low-energy, sun-fired Saltillo tile and reclaimed vintage hardwood doors.

The company nearly doubled the building to 2,100 square feet, adding a new wing that contained two new bedrooms and bathrooms, including a master suite. The existing bedrooms were converted into a dining room and study. MyGreenBuildings took advantage of the scenic Florida outdoors to create the illusion of even more space. The company incorporated two large courtyards and several wood overhangs into the home and designed a landscaping plan that reflects a natural Florida style.

“If you’re going to have a small house in Florida, you can open up all these big sliders and feel like you’re living outdoors when you’re in,” Ellis says. “The lines get blurred.”

To meet modern storm codes, the home also had to be structurally strengthened. Ellis and Castilow did this by using accel-E wall panels, which are made of steel framing combined with expanded polystyrene foam. MyGreenBuildings then combined the panels with poured concrete and rebar on site to create a “hugely fortified structure” that was also energy-efficient, Ellis says.

Solid green

Sustainability was considered in every aspect of the remodel. Beyond the fortified wall panels, the team upgraded the exterior with all Energy Star windows and doors and insulated the home with soy-based spray insulation with an R20 rating. The Jeld-Wen wood doors (both interior and exterior) were also FSC-certified. The “Florida-friendly” yard didn’t require any potable water thanks to rain barrels.

The old-growth pine that had been used for the original framing was used for both structural and non-structural applications, such as framing outdoor and window openings. In total, Ellis estimates that the company salvaged 85 to 90 percent of what came from the original house.

“We deconstruct things very carefully,” he says. “We recycled everything we could.”

Materials that couldn’t be reused by MyGreenBuildings were sent to others. Habitat for Humanity received the appliances and doors. Pieces of the original concrete roof went to a local aggregate company that ground it up and used it for road base. A local nursery used extra tiles from the new roof to shore up its irrigation ditches.

One of the biggest challenges of the project was getting the trade contractors to understand this approach to remodeling.

Before undertaking the project as a model green remodel for his new business, MyGreenBuildings co-founder Steve Ellis first tried to modernize the two-bedroom bungalow by remodeling the kitchen. The decision to expand and go green came after the house didn't sell.

“We had to educate the subs and the trades, making sure they weren’t wasting materials while they were working on our site,” Ellis says. “It was new for many of them to have to worry about taking extra care to carefully remove materials.”

MyGreenBuildings put signs up around the job site in both English and Spanish that said it was a green project and reminded the field laborers to minimize waste and recycle materials.

The tight schedule — MyGreenBuildings was trying to complete the project in three months — also meant that trade contractors were stacked up on top of each other, making it all the more important that Ellis and Castilow kept a close eye on the project and communicated with the subcontractors frequently.

Marketing masterpiece

Although not a success for Ellis financially, the project did result in a tremendous amount of attention for MyGreenBuildings. After completion, it achieved the highest Energy Star score to date in the state of Florida. It was the second-highest-rated green home under the Florida Green Building Coaltion standards and the first ever to be certified as a green remodeled structure. It’s also won several regional and national design awards and garnered extensive coverage from the local media.

Before the home was sold in late 2007, MyGreenBuildings opened it up for tours. Ellis also created a video tour and slide show that he presented to several community groups, as well as local trade associations.

“Everybody wanted to know about it,” he says. “We were invited to a lot of conferences, and we became part of the local discussion. We were elevated to experts almost overnight.”

That publicity has led to numerous jobs for the company, allowing MyGreenBuildings to increase its projected volume to more than $2.5 million this year, only its second in business.

Ellis says: “This is our first masterpiece, but we’re doing even better work now.” 



For Budget History, see the November issue of Professional Remodeler.

 

Company Snapshot

MyGreenBuildings 
Owners: Steve Ellis & Grant Castilow
Location: Sarasota, Fla.
2007 volume: $348,000
Projected 2008 volume: $2.65 million
Web site: www.mygreenbuildings.com 
Biggest challenge of the project: Educating the trade contractors about the techniques and importance of green remodeling and resource conservation

The Financials

Originally Steve Ellis bought this Sarasota home as an investment, with the idea of doing a quick remodel and turnaround, taking advantage of what was then a booming Florida housing market.

After renting the home and marketing it for several months, it became clear to Ellis that the home wasn’t going to sell without some other major work. So Ellis essentially became the first client for MyGreenBuildings.

“When we were starting the business, I decided to make it a case study, with the idea that if we built a better house, I’d get a better return on my investment,” Ellis says. “I don’t think it would have sold for the price it did if it wasn’t green. If it wasn’t for that, it would probably still be on the market.”

During the three-month project, Ellis made payments to MyGreenBuildings every other week. The project was completed in March 2007 and sold in December for $650,000 — $170,000 more than Ellis paid for it, but about half the price tag for the remodeling. What that doesn’t include is the benefits the newly formed company and Ellis as an owner received because of the extensive publicity the home generated.

“We lost money on it because we bought it at the wrong time and sold it at the wrong time,” Ellis says. “The thing to remember is we sat on it for quite a while, and we used it for marketing and tours, which all generated more business. So it’s hard to say what the real value of the home is.”

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