The demand for green homes is on the rise in Chicagoland, a demand that has many in the industry jumping for joy, while some buyers are left frustrated at the lack of available homes. In order to continually be successful in today’s increasingly green-friendly real estate market, being aware of all of the green options available is a must.
By K.K. Snyder
Admittedly, many folks still don’t have a clue when it comes to green construction and sustainable living. But others in and around the city are leading the efforts to make Chicagoland a more green-friendly place to live, something agent Matt Rose banked on when he completed requirements for EcoBroker certification, specializing in environmentally-friendly residential property. However, the green industry hasn’t quite taken off like he’d hoped.
“I’m not finding a lot of application in Chicagoland,” says Rose. “When I got into EcoBrokering about a year ago, I expected to find more homes available and more sellers interested. There are plenty of buyers interested in the Chicago area, but not a lot of available homes.”
Turning Existing Homes Green
In addition to learning the elements that qualify a new construction as green, Rose, who works out of Baird & Warner’s Glenbrook office, also learned how to advise clients on making an existing house more environmentally friendly.
“Not everyone can afford a new green house. There is a lot you can do to green your home, such as purchasing recycled carpet, putting solar panels on the roof and installing a more energy-efficient heating and cooling system,” he says, noting that becoming an EcoBroker was a means of offering clients an added benefit and resource for such information.
While Rose says it’s hard to recommend clients invest in those green updates when the existing items don’t need to be replaced, sometimes that information will sell green-friendly buyers on a house that might not already be green. For example, there are a lot of products on today’s market for improving homes built long before “going green” became a household phrase. Roofing, for example, can be replaced with shingles made from recycled tires.
“They’re architectural tiles and look really nice,” Rose says. Using cement board siding rather than vinyl is also more eco-friendly, as is using renewable wood sources for flooring.
Unfortunately, he continues, there aren’t many inexpensive ways to green a house in preparation to sell, which is why most sellers don’t bother. For example, while recycled carpet is 20 to 30 percent more expensive than regular carpet, it doesn’t require special installation. Many features are expensive to retrofit and, while it is a selling point that might catch a buyer’s attention, sellers often aren’t the ones reaping the rewards.
“New windows are always a good thing to do. You can get excellent windows that improve the energy efficiency of the home,” Rose says, and replacing the furnace or hot water heater is also a money saver where efficiency is concerned. “We’re used to affordable convenience, but it’s typically less environmentally friendly,” adds Rose.
If you can find one of few lenders offering them, Energy Efficient Mortgages (EEM) are about the only incentive on the market for buyers looking to buy green, he adds. This special financing basically changes the borrowers income-to-debt ratio allowing them to borrow more money than a traditional loan to buy a green home, or to make energy-efficient changes to the home they are purchasing.
Robert Lord, president of Robert Lord Builders Inc., is this area’s poster child for green construction and is nationally recognized for his efforts to help establish industry standards for building green. A Graduate Master Builder and Certified Green Professional, Lord’s The Ultimate Green Home has created a lot of buzz in the city. The company will host a ticketed event mid-August complete with tours of the home and vendors on site with info on green homes.
“Right now we’re off the chart; they don’t even know how to rate it,” says Lord regarding green efforts in his building projects, specifically The Ultimate Green Home, which Lord took over the top with green features. “We’ve landed on Mars and have a story to tell. We’ve changed the way houses will be built forever.”
Located at Red Oaks, a single-family home community in St. Charles, the home is considered among the most environmentally-friendly homes ever constructed in the Chicago area.
“Our goal was to craft an extremely spacious, intricately-detailed dream home that would exceed everyone’s expectations in terms of luxury and comfort as well as energy savings,” Lord says of the completely custom residence. “As a result, we incorporated a variety of new, innovative green and renewable products and ultra-energy efficient systems — the combination of which, I believe, is uniquely resourceful and inventive.”
Among the green innovations in the home are an underground geothermal heating and cooling system that provides a renewable fuel source to maximize energy efficiency. A series of ground source geothermal heat pumps capitalize on the earth’s constant temperature, approximately 55°F, to effectively heat and cool the home using water or an environmentally-friendly antifreeze liquid circulated through a closed-loop pipe buried in the ground. The conditioned air is then distributed throughout the house via forced air blowers and traditional ductwork.
“A geothermal system will save homeowners up to 70 percent in heating costs and up to 50 percent in cooling costs compared to a conventional system,” Lord shares. “With a conventional air source heat pump, the air flow is seldom warmer than 80 degrees. But because water transfers a greater volume of heat than air, the ground source heat pump is able to deliver warmer air, typically about 110 degrees.”
Construction also included use of ThermaWrap by DuPont, to help keep radiant energy inside during winter for warmth and reflected out during summer to help keep the house cool. An AtticWrap, also by DuPont, creates an airtight seal to reduce air leakage and energy loss through the roof.
To boost energy efficiency even further, Lord employed closed-cell foam insulation — a spray-applied polyurethane foam that surrounds the home’s building shell in a single blanket of airtight insulation from the foundations, up the walls and across the roof. The product is said to reduce energy costs by up to 75 percent, says Lord, noting that the home is replete with Energy Star-rated appliances and products.
Additionally, Lord installed new low-E, ultra-efficient windows by Hurd, as well as a hybrid septic system. The aerobic digester also helps reduce the time it takes for waste matter to decompose, making it an earth-friendly system. In addition, the water well uses a constant pressure demand technology and is up to 75 percent smaller than the size of a traditional well — saving space, water and energy.
Builders preserved as many existing mature trees as possible when planning the home, and portions of the trees unable to be saved will be renewed in the form of custom woodwork and trim throughout the home. Plus, 75 percent of the company’s construction waste is recycled, and all of the suppliers and vendors they chose to work with are local, which helps cut down on gas consumption and pollution.
The home qualified for an Energy Star certification label by meeting rigorous energy performance criteria established and regulated by the government. In addition, a number of notable green amenities are utilized throughout the home, including ultra-efficient Energy Star-certified appliances and lighting fixtures, environmentally-sensitive plumbing fixtures and green flooring materials.
Lord says much of the technology today considered green has been around for 20 years and believes those dragging their heels to get on board this movement are wasting time and money, not to mention valuable natural resources. He also sees a lot of half-baked efforts to create a green building, much of which is “eye candy” and not truly green. He’s encouraged, however, by the interest he sees and the number of agents and builders coming to him for information.
“Everyone wants a formula. Our pay forward and our legacy is to help anyone who wants to do this,” says Lord, who offers free seminars to Realtors interested in green construction. “The agents are first and foremost. Every transaction we do is based on an agent so it’s crucial that they have the information for clients and for themselves to help clients understand and move forward with the green movement.”
What Makes a Home Green
Another agent specializing in green residential property is Celeste Karan, with Keller Williams’ Lincoln Park office. With seven years in the industry, Karan’s specialty is helping people buy and sell green homes.
“Unfortunately, it’s not 100 percent of my business yet. Here in Chicago, it’s taking forever for green buyers to get a foothold,” she says. “The market hasn’t caught up to demand.”
Like Rose, Karan recognizes that buying green is expensive and says people in that upper bracket are generally looking for obvious things such as renewable energy sources, solar panels, recycled materials and other “outer signs of green.”
“People at the more affordable end of the scale are looking for energy savings on utilities and water,” she says. “When the difference between $200 a month and $50 a month on your energy bills makes a difference to you, you’re going to look at the energy efficiency of your home.”
While many of her buying clients say they want a green home, they are finding the supply much shorter than the demand right now.
“If buyers can’t find a green home that fits their other criteria – location, price, size – they’ll buy a conventional home instead,” says Karan, noting that green homes can be more comfortable because, if built right, they won’t be drafty and won’t have any hot or cold spots. Another consideration is the resale market for green homes, especially those with Energy Star certification, which sell at higher prices than conventional homes.
Much of what constitutes a green home has to do with where the home is located, continues Karan. In states such as Arizona, for example, where water is a main concern, green homes must have a high focus on water conservation. But in the Midwest where water is more plentiful, cold winters and hot summers mean green homes must reduce energy consumption by use of energy-efficient building shells.
“[In Chicagoland] we’re still in the process of forming a consensus of what you have to have to say it’s truly green … We tend to insist that if it’s not energy efficient, you’ve already missed the boat,” she says.
Karan has noticed an increase in the knowledge clients have concerning green homes when they come to her.
“Some still come to me with very little definition of what they thought a green home was, buy many have strong opinions of what they want in a green home and what green means … Sometimes I have to do some buyer education with regard to certification systems. There’s a lot more information out there, but also a lot of misinformation.”
Karan adds that, while some efforts are underway, progress to encourage green building in Chicagoland is slow. Keeping up with trends on the West Coast, where codes for green construction are much more stringent, has been a losing battle thus far.
“It’s being talked about [in local government], but I don’t know that the right team is in place just yet as far as moving forward quickly,” she says. “With large government groups, it’s hard to move forward quickly, especially when you’re changing codes.”
To its credit, Chicago does have a Green Permit process in place, which was designed to allow builders to obtain their permits faster and have some of the fees waived if the building meets certain criteria.
“The Green Permit has been in place for a couple of years, but they put it out there and now they’re trying to fix it on the fly,” says Karan, noting that personnel changes have hindered progress.
Vice President of U.S. sales for the Chieftain Group Britta Rivera is singing the green praises of Lexington Park, a two-tower loft/condo project and the first green building in the South Loop. Chieftain is seeking silver LEED certification for green construction for Lexington Park, which will house 297 condos and 36 lofts with towers connected by a 15,000-square-foot green roof terrace.
“It’s not an easy task; it takes a lot of time and effort,” says Rivera regarding certification, for which the company enlisted the expertise of a consulting group to help the building achieve. “All of our buildings moving forward will be green buildings. I figure it’ll get easier as we go along because now we know what they’re looking for and where the points are valued.”
With nearly 50 percent of Lexington Park’s units sold prior to completion, interest in a green product is evident. Rivera attributes this phenomenon to the attention going green receives on cable television shows and national news programs.
“It’s still expensive to build a green building, but in the long run the cost savings will outweigh the cost, especially for the buyer because it’s so much more efficient,” says Rivera, adding that the lofts run $240,000 to $360,000, while the condos start at $230,000 and go up to the low $700,000s.
Among the green features at Lexington Park are the use of fluorescent lighting in common areas, 20 percent of the building materials were manufactured regionally to reduce the carbon footprint of transporting materials, the HVAC system does not use refrigerant, cabinets are crafted of eco-friendly materials and an outdoor green space makes use of native adaptive plants which require minimal irrigation and fertilization.
As to who is buying these green units, Rivera says a profile is hard to nail down. “Buyers are all over the place. It depends on the mentality of how they want to live day to day.”
All in all, says Rose, buyers looking to go green better bring their own green, because it’s going to cost them. In order to get those green sales made, Realtors must remind buyers that in the long run, added expense at time of purchase will be justified down the road by savings on utilities. Most importantly, buyers need to remember that these green homes will lessen the impact on the environment, which will make a difference for generations to come. C.A.
Robert Lord Builders Inc.
Baird & Warner