Enthusiasm for Energy-Saving Components Dwindles as Price Tags Rise

By Katherine Salant
Saturday, March 21, 2009

I recently asked several architects whether they encourage their clients to retain at least one luxury, even when a budget is very tight.

I expected them to say they suggest an indulgence or two that would make the homeowners feel good every day -- perhaps beautiful handmade Italian floor tile for the master bathroom or a solid mahogany front door.

Instead, the architects said that what they considered essential -- quality building materials for the basic structure -- their clients regarded as expendable luxuries.

Initially, most clients are very excited about green building and eager to use materials with recycled content, such as roof shingles made with recycled rubber tires that can look like a cedar shake or slate, geothermal heat pumps that use the heat of the Earth to provide household heating and cooling, and solar panels or wind turbines on the roof to generate electricity.

That changes when the clients learn how much these items cost. Most are jettisoned in short order. The cuts don't stop there, however. The clients also want to reduce the cost for essentials such as windows and insulation because they don't want to give up space.

Perhaps no one wants a 5,000-square-foot behemoth anymore, but it seems no one wants a house half that big, either. The sweet spot seems to be 3,000 to 3,500 square feet, large enough for three or four bedrooms, a separate living room, dining room and family room, and a multipurpose room on the first floor that could be a home office or an in-law suite.

A smaller, 2,500-square-foot house would free up some money for the basics. But this would require the clients to accept multipurpose rooms such as an eat-in kitchen and family room and lop off the formal living and dining rooms. Few are willing to accept such a compromise.

With evident frustration, the architects said that green-building concepts are not well understood among the public, especially the basic premise of sound construction and energy efficiency, which Boston architect Jeremiah Eck characterized as "good common sense."

Cambridge, Mass., architect Arch Horst has found that owners are more receptive to using better and greener construction materials when this is couched in terms of longevity: "With this level of quality, you will never have to go back and replace them as long as you live in the house."

While owners are prepared to replace a roof down the line, few realize the consequences of a cheap window -- problems from the day you move in and costly replacements within about 10 years. A cheap window with poor mechanisms doesn't open easily or close tightly, so you get drafts that are uncomfortable in the winter, Horst said. Even worse, moisture can seep into the walls and go undetected, and the seals between the panes of glass can break. That means the windows fog up in cold weather and lose much of their energy-saving benefits.

Nonetheless windows remain a target of cost-cutting clients because these are a big item in every budget, Bethesda architect Tom Manion said. That's particularly true in his projects because he uses a lot of glass. When clients see that the 35 "good mid-grade" windows in their 3,000-square-foot house will cost about $50,000 and cheaper ones will save $10,000 to $15,000, they want cheaper because the rest of the design can remain the same. Owners can save even more money if they switch to even lower-cost and lower-quality windows, but Manion advises against that.

Insulation has much less effect on a construction budget, but it's another area where the cheaper option will leave the design intact, Manion said.

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