Besides selling the houses they build, the producers of new dwellings have also become accustomed to selling financing to their buyers. In addition, they have long been selling neighborhood schools, location convenience, appliances, varied amenities, landscaping and somewhat nebulous forms of status.
Now the landmark winter of 1977 and the increasing costs of energy used to heat and cool dwellings have added another element to the sales and marketing approach. Builders or their representatives must be able to provide answers to questions that relate to energy conservation. Buyers wants to know more about the insulation characteristics of the house and the projected costs of heating and cooling: They are afraid of getting hit with a $200 bill for electricity next January or February.
Although solar heating applications are increasing, particularly in regard to installations that provide solar heat for domestic hot water, widespread home heating use is still a few years down the pike.
More current and more fundamental to heating homes in this era when many new homes in the area are heated by electrical energy is the widespread adoption of the heat pump, which uses electricity to move any existing heat from the outdoors to the indoors. It is now generally conceded that a properly designed heat pump system as an adjunct to backup electrical resistance heat provides a saving of about 35 per cent, and sometimes more, on the heating bill. This efficiency is reduced during extremely cold weather, when there is less heat in the air outside the house.
Two examples of what large and small volume builders are doing in the field of energy conservation were noted in recent conversations and tours. One visit covered some houses built by the Ryland Group, which is marking the 10th anniversary of its founding in the new town of Columbia (where Ryland has been the dominant builder of single houses since June, 1967). Another visit was with the small, family-operated Blue Ridge Homes, a subsidiary William D. Bowers Lumber Co., which has been operating more than 100 years, in Frederick, Md.
From his comfortable, unostentatious office in a Columbia office building, James P. Ryan, 44 and head of a publicly owned firm that has built 10,000 houses in nearly a decade of production, was ready to talk. His firm's business is producing dwellings priced between $40,000 to $80,000 - generally a low range for this area - and doing it with a minimum of overhead.
"Consequently, we get a greater profit percentage while maintaining competitive pricing due to pay-as-you-go business practices," Ryan said.
"Energy conservation is a prime aspect of our construction and selling, as it is with most builders today," Ryan added. "But we like to feel that we have been and continue to be leaders in the field. Since we do not speculate in land but concentrate primarily on building and selling houses, we consider the energy package a key part of each house we build. In this area, our houses are heated electrically. That's why we went with the heat pump several years ago. We also adopted a steelclad door with a solid urethane core and sealed magnetic stripping."
Those doors are built much like those on a refrigerator. As a result, they are fairly warm on the inside even when the weather is cold outside. However, the doors lack some aesthetic appeal. But today home buyers are more interested in saving heat than in being able to bring light (and often accompanying cold air) through glass panels Ryan said.
The Ryland energy conservation program, as spelled out in literature given to prospective buyers, includes caulking of joints at corners, sill sealers between masonry and wood connections around windows, blanket and blown insulation in attics, perimeter insulation, weatherstripping and double-glazed windows and walls secured to floors with continuous beads of construction adhesive.
Ryan leafed through some papers and came up with a report that showed 98 per cent approval (on the basis of wheter they would recommend a Ryland house to their friends) from buyers who had seltled on their houses late in 1976. For customer relations and monitoring satisfaction, Ryan credits employee Eleanor Schoder.
Not unlike other area builders, large and small, Ryan recognizes that houses tend to have some shortcomings and imperfections. "But we try to service them quickly to the best of our ability," he added.
A native of Pittsburgh, James Ryan, is a brother of Edward Ryan, founder of Ryan Homes, Inc., a volume builder in this area.
Up in Frederick County, Md., where G. Hunter (Pete) Bowers and his son, Charles, are small-volume builders in Blue Ridge Homes, recent emphasis has also been on energy conservation. When a customer wants skylights and sliding glass doors, they are provided. But the Bowers team has been concentrating on energy conservation as part of a program promoted by organized lumber interests and others.
"One of our houses - most of them are now in the $50,000 range - is now in its third year," said Pete Bowers. "We have evidence that this house has used only 52 per cent of the electrical energy that Potomac Edison estimated would be needed to heat it comfortably. The effective result can be attributed to the cocoon itself (meaning the insulation, caulking and lack of heat losses through construction) and the mechanical services with efficient systems and distribution.
"The basic idea is to capitalize costs in the house itself by the use of systems and materials to save energy, rather than to have the owner spend his money year after year on higher operation costs," said Bowers, who became interested several years ago when lumber industry sources made him aware of the "Arkansas story."
Experiments were made in the Little Rock, Ark., area through the Arkansas Power and Light Co., which faced the problem of mounting electrical energy costs and trying to provide opportunity for more homes to be built and served with less energy per house. Lumber interests and Owens-Corning Fiberglass Corp. supported the plan for somewhat similar reasons. Generally, results showed some dramatic savings in energy as completed houses were monitored.
On the construction side of energy conservation, the Blue Ridge Homes people now use 6-inch studs placed 24 inches on center, thus providing more space for deeper insulation. Then a sealing sheath is placed over the batts of fiberglass between studs. Obviously, a 6-inch studs provide space for 2 more inches of insualation than do 4-inch studs. Also corners are fully insulated and there is more and thicker attic insulation because the roof trusses of their rambler houses are placed higher over the top edge of the upper wall framing.
Pete Bowers also pointed out that he believes mechanical heating equipment should be slightly undersized to produce greater efficiency of operation and that the humidification is also important to comfort at lower temperatures. "Even the duct sizes and placement are important to efficiency of operation, he added.