Don Ferrier, president of Ferrier Custom Homes
, serves on the NAHB
's Green Building Subcommittee Board; is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America
Consortium team; has been on the Structural Insulated Panel Association's
board of directors for five years; and has received Energy Value Housing Award
honors in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
HousingZone.com staff writer Jennifer Powell spoke with Ferrier about green practices and his opinions on what green means today.
What inspired you to build green homes?
It started back in 1982. At that time, we were doing structural concrete work as a general contractor, and we had some folks approach us—a couple—wanting to be an earth-sheltered home, which is an underground home.
You'd have three sides of the dirt and the roof covered, be water-proofed, insulated, and covered with dirt. One side is like a storefront—have a lot of glass. Some of them have skylights and things inside to let more let light in, but we built our first one of those in '82 doing primarily the concrete work, and then had another, then another. And [I] just really was fascinated by the whole concept—the extreme energy efficiency. And the owners of these were very concerned about health, indoor air quality and were very really green-minded, although that wasn't a term any of us knew at that time.
Within a year and a half we were turn-keying the whole house — building the whole house. And that started my journey down this green building road.
So your start in green building was unintentional then?
That's right. [A] first couple approached, said "We want to build this; you're qualified, we hear, to build the concrete structure. We've talked to eight or 10 contractors; everyone will do the concrete floor, half of them will do the concrete walls ... but nobody wants to do the concrete ceiling roof."
We were doing structural concrete everyday. The whole concept just really intrigued me. So it began with the concept of building these homes that were covered in '82. In 1984, I was introduced to structural insulated panels (or SIPs), and the architect I was working with, who specialized in earth sheltered homes—name is Ray Boothe, Ray was a real pioneer and taught me a lot about the sustanability aspect of it and such, and we built several earth sheltered houses together. We then built several SIP structures together—both residential and commercial—and then Ray went and did historical remodeling completely. But I just continued to build what is now called a green home.
Really, I've learned about as much along the way from the homeowners coming and saying, "Hey, we want to do this." Probably 8-10 years ago the first homeowner came and said, "We want to do a remodel." We probably do 75 percent of what we do new constructruction, but about 25 percent or so in the remodeling. And they wanted to use bamboo. I'd never heard of bamboo being used. And I said what I typically do, "this is our approach." The average builder is credited with saying, “You do it my way or the highway,” or “We ain’t never done that, ya know, we don't do it that way.” We take the approach and say let's look at that and see if that makes sense for the both of us. So that's kind of how it started and how we progressed.
Do you think it is more expensive to build green?
More expensive—there are things that you can do that help to build green that are not more expensive. There are things that you do to build green that do cost more. I use, as an example, what I consider the two major green building standards that are out there. One is the NAHB
Green Building Program. The other one is the USGBC
's LEED-H program
. Both have a lot of similarities. Both are, of course, a point-based system. You have to get a certain amount of points to get into the lower level, then more points to get to the next level, then more points for the next, and then finally to get in their highest level, which is Platinum for the USGBC's LEED-H, and it's—under the new, improved NAHB program—it's Emerald, or dark green, to get to their highest level. And by the time you get to both of those levels, you get into this, really this, dichotomy. The short range cost is more, but the long range cost is less.
Our two basic clients, I think, are a good representation and example of this. Somewhere between 75 percent of our clients are baby boomers. They come to me saying, "We're looking to retire, that's 2, 4, 10 years—we believe energy prices are only going to go up, and we believe that the home you build, we understand it's going to cost us more upfront to get to the level you build 'em to, but we believe it's going to be one of the wisest investments we could ever make. Because basically right now if we spend an extra $100 a month in our mortgage with you, it looks like we'll save about $150 month in our utilities. And as utilities go up and up, then we save more and more. And we also know the home will be more comfortable."
It will have better indoor air quality, and it will be much more durable—and those are real cornerstones of green building. You don't want to put a paint on it that's going to have to be repainted—or material—in 5 years; you want to put something on there that, like a hearty siding, painted with a top-of-the-line Sherwin-Williams
Sherwin-Williams guarantees the paint to last 30 years, which 10 years ago was unheard of, having a paint last that long. And I even say, what if it lasts 25, even 20—ya know, I'm a baby boomer, I'm 56—if it lasted 20 years, well then I'm 76, if it does last for 30, then it's 86, so I would probably never have to deal with it again in my lifetime. Somebody else might, but not me. And as people move in that baby boomer generation, they don't want to have to do a lot of maintenance. They will pay more because it's going to last longer, cost less to maintain and be less work. They also typically say "and it's the right thing to do"—it's the second comment they make.
The other main client of ours is kind of young, successful people—late 30s, early to mid-40s. They come to us and say almost exactly the opposite. "We're concerned about our earth, about what we're leaving to our kids and grandkids, great grandkids, and this is the right thing to do. We want to make as light of a footprint as we can, and we're willing to pay more for it now than to save later, because the long-range cost will be less. And we do believe it's going to cost us less in our energy consumption dramatically." Most of our homes are using 50-75 percent less energy than the average new home being built, so it's kind of a reversal there.
And then interspersed between both of those we get a good amount of comments saying the indoor air quality—because of allergies, asthma problems—is extremely important to them. Therefore those are the three things we hear over and over.
Do you see green building as a fad or is it here to stay?
I think it is [here to stay] because I saw the beginnings of it, so to speak, back in the early '80s, and I saw, in a sense, the light came on in a very small section of the population. And they said, "Yes, we will spend more for a house upfront because the long-range cost of that will go down, and it's a wise decision." Well, to build that same—what's often called a high performance home today that's extremely energy efficient, comfortable, healthy, durable—is less costly today because we've got so many more materials.
Those materials have become so much more readily available. They're not as expensive as they used to be, so there are some very basic elements of those things that because of their availability and their cost not being so expensive, are not as much of an increase as they were back in the '80s.
And I think a huge difference here, too, is the amount of education and information that's available to the general public. Back in the '80s, people had to read books, write letters, make phone calls. We can all now jump on the Internet and get anywhere we want to basically. And it's so much faster and easier to do research on, "OK, what do I want from my home, how are these kind of homes performing, let's look at some case studies, let's look at some examples." And the vast majority of the people who come into me, for us to build, have a good—if not great—idea of what they're wanting to do with their home.
As we have been fortunate to get a lot of articles written about our projects and about us, over the past three and four years, the number of people have just about—we've gone from having an average of probably four people a month contacting us four years ago to today having—it goes up and down with the articles—but somewhere in average of probably 50-60 [people contacting us]. And it just shows me that there's this huge demand for this kind of product. And one of the most common things we hear is, "We have looked and looked for a builder that knows how to do this, and we are so thrilled we finally found you, and you know how to do this."
It is pretty cool.
If a product is marketed as being energy-efficient, but the manufacturing and delivery is not energy efficient, in your opinion, is that product still green?
I guess it would, to me, get into what is called shades of green. You know, if we can get an extremely energy-efficient product that is not energy efficient in its manufacturing and its delivery, it's got some green benefits but it's got obviously some adverse side effects, so I would call that a "light green" product.
If we got into a product that had great extreme energy efficiency—its manufacturing and its delivery were all very efficient—then you're getting into a "dark green" product.
And this is why, in some ways, that both the LEED-H and the NAHB Green Building Program have a lot of areas in here that differentiate. They ask some of these questions. It's not all inclusive, but if you buy products that are harvested within a 500 mile radius, there are additional points because you're not transporting it across the United States or overseas.
And they don't really get into its manufacturing—well you know I guess in a sense they do—because if it's a third-party Green Guard-certified and that's one of the things they look at, there's some input on that but probably not a lot. And we have used and regularly use both of those programs in our homes just to verify to ourselves and to our clients where the end product ends up, whether it is a new home, a new commercial building, or a remodel of residential or commercial.
Do you prefer LEED-H or NAHB’s program?
In the overall sense I find the NAHB to be, I guess, easier to facilitate and less expensive. They both aim to accomplish the same thing. There is more of a burden with the LEED-H; it's more onerous, so to speak, and more costly, but it's kind of like anything you do. Once you've done it, you are used to it.
We have been honored to apply and win an Energy Value Housing Award four years in a row that we've applied for four years in a row, and it's about a 2.5-inch thick three ring binder that we put together to turn in for the application. We were just honored last week (Wed., Feb. 13, 2008). The U.S. Department of Energy, the NAHB Research Center, and the National Renewable Energy Lab jointly give that award.
The first year we did it, it was very overwhelming. After that, we've got a system, and we basically just go back and fill out the same thing. It's still very intensive but it's kind of the same things with either of these. The NAHB or LEED-H, but especially the LEED-H, has much more third-party verification. And you have more cost with the program but really I find the majority of the cost comes from the third-party verifications and then the time we spend with those third-party verifications, but it's after you get your feet wet so to speak. It's something we say, "We've done it, we can do it again." It can be intimidating the first time, both of 'em can, but especially the LEED-H.
Should there be a national green building standard?
I think you'd combine those two [NAHB Green Building program and USGC LEED-H program]. I think there can be a national green building standard—and that's both what the NAHB and LEED-H is attempting to do—that has regional climate variances.
is a green program for energy only, doesn't deal with indoor. Well, it can deal with indoor quality now, but it's not going to deal with resource efficiency, or your site planning, or anything like that.
They don't care what kind of density you're building to, so Energy Star deals with what its name implies: energy. But Energy Star is a mandatory requirement of either one of those two programs, and Energy Star has variances for the regional areas, as does the NAHB and the LEED-H. Both take that and use that, but they also supplement that with other things. So under both of 'em, you're also gonna get different points according to how you, say, shade your East and South and West windows in the southern areas.
Where we are in Texas, we're of course in a predominantly hot climate. Our biggest enemy of energy efficiency is the sun. If you go up to Maine or Massachusetts or Minnesota or Michigan—any of those Ms—or a lot of those other Northern states—they want to let the sun come in the house as much as they can. In these hot climates here in Florida, Southern California, you want to keep the sun out.
Now the beautiful thing is the sun goes through that annual rotation from high in the sky at June 22nd to low in the sky here of Dec. 22nd, so you've got the passage of solar rotation. We're very careful about placing our homes that way, but there are points that if you do appropriate—regionally appropriate—shading to control the sun, especially in your moderate-hot climates, you get additional points. So there is a good bit of that factored in. And I think on any national [program], it only makes sense that you can have that standard. But here's what that looks like: the EVHA application has categories for cold, moderate and hot. And there's really very similar things in the standards for the NAHB and the LEED-H programs.