About a year ago, we published an article about an exceptional Title 24 project – an astonishing 50% over compliance – and now we present an interview with the homeowner who commissioned the design. The single-family home, designed by Klopf Architecture, is currently under construction by Matarozzi Pelsinger Builders (As an aside, we’ve done design interviews with both Klopf and Mat-Pel on our sister blog, The Architect’s Take.)
Many residential architects would like to design homes as energy-efficient as this one, but without client buy-in, it’s usually not possible to go beyond a certain point. Over and over, we have heard that client commitment to sustainable principles is THE key to building green! So, here we have a green homeowner and design client who’s willing to discuss – anonymously – why he’s doing as much as he is, and why it’s worth doing.
What is your background, education, current profession?
My educational background is in human and computer languages, among other things, plus an MBA in global business practices. I have run companies in two countries, and am currently advising startups on product and marketing strategy. I also do volunteer work for environmental nonprofits.
My wife’s educational background is in art plus an MBA. Her artwork has been exhibited in galleries and museums, and she is currently an art educator. She also does volunteer work for local schools and community events.
How did you become interested in sustainable design?
I have had a lifelong interest in cleaning up the environment and reducing dependence on foreign oil, and was first moved to take action on both at a very young age: in 1973! My wife also has a strong interest in doing the right thing in these areas, and we were both deeply impressed by just how bad an environmental situation can get based on what we saw while working in China.
What did you do in 1973? I remember at that time we turned our heat way down.
In 1973 I found out that a proposed nuclear power plant was going to endanger the fish in our main river with its cooling exhaust. I joined my middle school “Ecology Club” where I learned even more about nukes, and volunteered to set up petition tables to gather signatures outside of supermarkets. Also that was the year of the first OPEC oil embargo. With another group I walked the long gas lines handing out pamphlets promoting alternative energy independence. Learned about all of this stuff by myself; my parents didn’t quite know what was going on. Of course, those were the days when parents just turned kids loose on the streets while they did their own thing.
Have you experimented with any sustainable projects or home improvements in the past? How did those turn out?
We previously renovated an Eichler home, raising the energy efficiency and overall comfort of the house as best we could, but there is a limit to what you can do without a complete tear-down. In the process we also developed a deep appreciation for mid-century modern design and 21st century home building techniques.
Have you compared notes with friends or others with similar interests? I think having a knowledge sharing group is important to keeping the flame alive, and if you’re a real hard-core do-it-yourselfer then technical notes might be essential to completing a new project. Of course a lot of that is online now.
Lots of information sharing going on. A couple friends are renovating on tight budgets and acting as their own general contractors, but are very interested in as much energy savings and solar tech as they can pack in there. Another guy we know is actually a professional in a technical area of green building, and for their new home he has an architect and contractor putting up a shining example of what’s possible in both architectural and energy design. Also many neighbors are following our project with great interest, including an electric power researcher who lives right across the street, and our example may influence plans for at least small aspects of many future projects.
I have participated in our local city’s green building ordinance focus group, I’ve had good discussions with green building advocates on the city planning commission and staff, and I’ve even tried to help educate one or two commissioners and other local leaders who don’t seem to have all the facts. City staff have followed our progress with great interest, and even PG&E has been very supportive.
Apparently, after quite a bit of internal discussion about our project, PG&E decided to get out ahead of the looming challenge of upgrading the grid for electric vehicles (EVs). Instead of waiting until we purchased EVs and chargers that don’t even exist yet – which would have required all sorts of rewiring and reengineering inside and outside our house – they gathered all the information we and the EV companies could provide, and decided to future-proof our entire block by upgrading the transformer, wiring and power poles. They used our project as a benchmark for internal research and planning, and I believe our project may have contributed to PG&E’s most recent guidelines on electric vehicle interconnections for your home.
What made you decide to hire an architect and go for a custom designed home instead of just buying something already built?
We will get more value out of our custom designed home than most people. The house will seldom be empty, so the return on investment for every energy saving measure is very clear, and the beautiful design will make it a pleasure to live there too! We will both live and work in the house, we have young children and frequent guests, and we don’t plan to move again. Our architects have helped us design a home that fits our lifestyle and our long-term plans, and having control of all materials in a complete new custom project allows for better health and energy results.
The whole ROI discussion is a big deal, especially how it’s calculated. The bottom-liners might say that adding green features doesn’t necessarily add to the resale value of the home (as if that’s the only reason to do anything), and they don’t seem to consider long-term savings in energy bills. Without making this discussion too dry to read, I wonder if you could expand a bit more on how you figured your financial return, over what length of time, in a way that makes it seem comparable to other investments people might make over their lives.
It’s an accepted rule of thumb that a new solar PV system adds roughly $20 in value to your home for every $1 saved off your utility bill. In our case that pencils out to about 20% more than the full cost of the system, *before* rebates and tax credits. After those are subtracted it’s over 50%! I know rebates and credits plug some people in, so to speak, but you can’t have it both ways: either kill all the many tax breaks, subsidies and other support for the oil and gas industry too, in which case the price of gasoline would average $10 a gallon, or give the alternative energy and electric vehicle industries a little support so we can transition the economy more gently while pursuing long-term national interests. In fact, government support for these new industries is dwarfed by what the multinational fossil fuel corporations have negotiated for themselves, it’s absolutely obscene.
As for energy savings from other aspects of the house, since we exceed Title 24 by 50% to 60% the return is very clear and faster than you may expect. The new house is three times the size of the old one but requires almost the same amount electricity, and will use no natural gas unless I connect it to an outdoor bar-b-que. Yes, all this efficiency costs more, and I’ve had several people I don’t know walk up to me in front of the half-finished house and just out-and-out ask “how much per square foot?” They don’t get the answer they expect. I point over to a new stucco show-off McMansion around the corner and say “I guarantee you I’m spending more per square foot than that one. But I’ll be earning it all back on my utility bill, and then some.” And if another Enron-type power crisis or OPEC embargo comes around again, the ROI will arrive even faster. They all seemed to go away thinking hard about their priorities after that.
Many people don’t seem to value the energy upgrades that actually give them the best bang for the buck, with or without the public statement of a PV system. (Speaking of which, we tried to hide our panels as much as possible.) Our system would not be paying for itself in about eight years if it weren’t for our commitment from the beginning of the project to a high GreenPoint rating, but in the end that makes our system a better value.
There are slew of sustainability approaches, yardsticks, and standards: GreenPoints, LEED, zero carbon, embedded energy, biodynamic agriculture, slow food, etc. More coming out all the time. What’s your personal philosophy on sustainability? What do you feel is most important and why?
GreenPoints, LEED, Title 24 etc. are important as objective third-party “yardsticks” because all of this is new and changing almost daily. Everyone in the business is still learning, and hiring a “Certified Green Builder” is just the beginning. There are good business reasons for these standards.
My personal philosophy on all this is based on a businesslike approach too, beginning with the realization that using language like “sustainability” simply puts many people off. To really serve as an example and make a difference in this world, a successful approach to green building must appeal to more people at all level of needs and aspirations, starting with the most fundamental personal and economic issues. Otherwise it’s just a few of us making these changes, and overall the world is still going down the tubes.
The fact that we’re getting a good financial return on investment in this project is the best way to start neighborhood and national conversations on long-term energy, environmental, economic, security and foreign policy goals.
What is most satisfying about your new home (still under construction)? Not just green, but the “home” part of it too. How’s this home helping you realize your personal dreams?
Well, at the most basic level, it will be a drastic and satisfying change to live in a home that stays warm when you heat it, stays cool when you cool it, and saves money doing both. But intellectually the most satisfying thing for me is the idea that this house, totally independent from fossil fuels and prewired for electric vehicles, will contribute to national security, peace in the Middle East, and a cleaner healthier world for our children. Emotionally, there will be great satisfaction in a custom home designed to support deep integration of work and family life, exactly the way we live it. And, it will just be a darn nice place to live.
About the author
Rebecca Firestone has been working in the Bay Area since 1998 as a technical writer, business content developer, architectural filing lady, marketing director, and sorcerer’s apprentice.