The march towards turning new single family homes from energy wasters into energy savers seems to finally be picking up speed. An increasing number of builders large and small are offering Energy Star and Greenhouse rated homes as options and upgrades to buyers.

Some custom home builders are even starting to focus on delivering high-end Greenhouse rated homes, the third of the four levels of environmental certification.

“Yes it is encouraging,” says Corey McBurney, president of EnerQuality Corp. the organization set up in 1998 by the Ontario Home Builders Association and the Canadian Energy Efficiency Alliance to certify the four different levels of new so-called Green low rise housing, to train trades and professionals in how to design and build them and to be a consultant to the industry.

In 2008 only 13% of new homes were rated Energy Star or better, according to EnerQuality figures. In 2009 that had risen to 22% with the Energy Star rating accounting for 21% of new homes.

Energy Star is the lowest of the ratings and focuses solely on energy efficiency. The other levels include the R2000 standard, Greenhouse Certified Construction and then the two highest LEED levels – Gold and Platinum. Each ascending level addresses more and more environmental concerns.

There may be a caveat to that big jump last year however. “It may simply be because we built so few new homes last year that the average rose,” Mr. McBurney says.

So why are new home buyers still not embracing energy efficiency in much greater numbers? There’s lots of research and many case studies available that show the Energy Star rating can cut heat and light bills by 25 per cent to 30 per cent a year. Go up another level or two to Greenhouse certified and you can count not only on greater energy savings bit also additional benefits like seeing water use drop dramatically – not to mention the environmental benefits.

Two reasons, says Mr. McBurney. The first is consumer education and awareness. Buyers want to be able to look, see and feel what green energy efficient and green house certified homes look like before they commit. The second is that creating certified energy efficient homes demands quite different skills; training designers and trades in those skills takes time and money.

“Most builders can only take on so much in the way of innovation a year,” says Mr. McBurney. “Going green is a big jump and builders are facing so many problems right now that making that commitment is hard.”

Difficult yes, impossible no. Brookfield Homes (Ontario) Ltd., of Markham, for example, decided to address both those challenges by creating two levels of green model homes at its Grand Valley Trails project in Brantford this spring. In the fall it will do the same for its Grand Central community in Bradford.

“We felt we had a responsibility to educate buyers about the great benefits of green housing,” says Marc Thibault, director of sales and marketing. “At the same time we knew we had to start educating ourselves in the new skills and technology required.”

As a result, the Brantford project now has an Energy Star rated model home and a Greenhouse certified model home. Yes, Brookfield charges a premium for going green. Energy Star homes cost $10,000 more but that price includes $4,000 in upgrades. Greenhouse certified homes cost $12,500 more but they also come with $4,000 in upgrades.

At the other end of the spectrum Greenbilt Homes Inc. of Oakville opened the doors to its first Greenhouse certified custom home in Bronte in early May. The company was launched two years ago to focus just on green custom homes, says vice-president Catherine Ann Marshall. It took two years to get that first home to market, however, because the recession put plans on hold.

The model home is a 3,300 square feet and sells for $1.4-million but has 85 different green features including a cold room suitable for a wine cellar; the chill comes from geothermal cooling. Tubing placed two metres below the ground chills water to a constant 55 degrees farenheit; the water is then pumped through the walls and floor of the cold room. The cost of the system is surprisingly low, says Ms. Marshall: Just $700.

“The reason we did a model home first was to show people that green could be beautiful as well as practical,” she says.

The model home seems to be doing the trick for Greenbilt. Ms. Marshall says the company has already been approached by three potential new clients interested in creating their own new green custom homes.

While most builders have yet to take steps as advanced as Brookfield and Greenbilt, they are willing to consider adding energy efficient certification as an upgrade. Marz Homes of Stoney Creek, for example, is willing to turn standard models into Energy Star rated homes for as little as $3,500 or $4,500 extra, says Dan Gabriele, vice-president.

“We already include many of the Energy Star features as standard,” he says. “So to upgrade to certified status is not a major step.”

by Terrence Belford

via the globe and mail