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Houston has 1 top-rated LEED home. This is it.

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 6/3/2019 By Diane Cowen, Staff writerStaff writer

As an energy industry executive, John Ardill knows just how hard it is to turn natural resources into usable energy. But when he started looking for a new home a couple of years ago, energy efficiency was not his top criteria.

He put his home on the market with the goal to find a modern house that was well made, efficient and low maintenance. What he found was Houston’s first LEED Platinum single-family home, with a quartet of WaterFurnace geothermal heat pumps, a 7,000-gallon water cistern/filtration system and 140 solar panels forming brilliant blue rectangles on the roof.

Designed by Adams Architects and built in 2007, the 3,789-square-foot Upper Kirby home has every green product and technique imaginable, from the energy, water and heating/air conditioning systems to its low-maintenance metal exterior, strategically placed windows, and even an electric car charging station in the garage.

Joe and Gail Adams said they talk to every client about solar panels and energy efficiency, but few buy into it as readily and as deeply as this home’s original owners.

The reach of the residential green building movement in Houston has been mixed, with the city’s LEED numbers lagging behind other Texas cities, but faring better in other programs such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program, TopBuild Home Services’ Environments for Living program and the Green Built Gulf Coast program of the Greater Houston Builders Association.

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LEED, a national program administered by the U.S. Green Building Council, stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Homes and commercial buildings are awarded certification for things like renewable energy systems, water conservation and recycled materials.

In the LEED program, Houston has 302 certified homes, a good bit behind other Texas cities such as Dallas (3,405), Austin (2,123) and San Antonio (539).

In the EPA’s Energy Star program though Houston shines, with 225,352 earning that certification since it began in 1997. That compares to the San Antonio-New Braunfels area’s 49,395, Austin’s 37,882 and 181,248 in the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington metropolitan area.

In a local Green Built Gulf Coast program, some 18,000 homes have been built to green standards since it began in 2010. Nicole Keown, that program’s committee chair, said two dozen local builders and remodelers are certified in that program now.

Eric Johnson, executive vice president at TexEnergy Solutions/U.S. Ecologic, firms that consult on green building and conduct LEED inspections, said Texas leads the country overall in green building. One issue in Houston, he said, is that there’s such a huge demand for housing that the extra status of LEED or any other certification isn’t needed to get homes sold.

That there’s a payback for going green, though, has already been established. The University of Texas and the U.S. Green Building Council issued a report last year showing that more energy-efficient homes sell for an average of $25,000 more in Texas. Their survey included 3,800 green-certified homes that had sales prices 6 to 8 percent more than homes that weren’t.

Ardill understands the value.

“We stepped into it a little unknowing and unaware that the house is so special. It’s been a pleasant surprise,” said Ardill, 48, who is the senior vice president for upstream acquisitions and divestments at ExxonMobil. He purchased the home in 2017, and since then, has been amazed at the savings in energy bills. His partner Maria Valdes, 45, is an energy consultant with Optimus LLC.

“Growing up in the U.K., there’s a big focus on energy efficiency and the use of energy. We’re taught from the time we can walk to turn lights off,” Ardill said. “Access to affordable energy directly impacts our quality of life — it’s not something we can take for granted or afford to waste. We put gas in our cars, or for that matter, charge our electric cars, and it’s only when you know how much effort it takes to produce the gasoline or generate the electricty, you start using it a little more efficiently.”

Recently, the couple had the home’s mechanical systems — including the solar panels — cleaned and they’re generating more power than they did before, leaving them with electric bills of about $50 a month. The cistern and water filtration systems provide all the water they need for cooking, cleaning, bathing and drinking.

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So far, the couple hasn’t bought electric cars like the previous owners did, but Ardill, who moved to the U.S. in 1998 and is now a U.S. citizen, said he will when the technology and infrastructure improves. He also works in a LEED Gold building in ExxonMobil’s campus in Spring.

Retired attorney Dan Hedges and his late wife Adele, a former chief justice of the 14th Court of Appeals, were the original owners of Ardill’s house. Hedges said they were simply ready for a more energy-efficient and easier-to-maintain home after living in an older but similar-sized home in River Oaks.

He said they were influenced by other energy-efficient homes they saw elsewhere and built the house to make a statement: that it could be done.

In Memorial, David and Ann Ronn are proud of the home they constructed in 2007 when it was still difficult to find many of the green materials you can build with today. Then, the Ronns’ three daughters were all still home, and they needed more space. They considered buying a new home but ultimately decided to demolish their 1950s ranch and build a two-story home with 4,200 square feet but on the same footprint.

The Ronns worked with architect Kathleen Reardon of RD Architecture to design an energy-efficient home, asking that they look at LEED rules for commercial buildings and see how much of it could apply to a single-family home. Before long they realized that the national green building council wanted to launch a residential component, and the Ronns jumped in and became the first certified single-family home in the city.

“As they came up with the rules we were involved in it — ‘that rule makes sense,’ ‘that rule doesn’t make sense,’ ‘why would you do that?’” said David Ronn, 57 and an attorney.

LEED certification comes on four levels, starting with a basic certification (40-49 points), then advancing to silver (50-59 points), gold (60-79 points) and platinum level (80 or more points) as points are accrued for a variety of things, from the type of wood on your exterior to energy-saving appliances, sourcing of materials and bigger mechanical items such as solar panels and geothermal heat pumps.

The Ronns’ home was built with insulated concrete forms — two panels of 2-inch polystyrene foam with 6 inches of concrete and rebar in the middle — earning them many points toward their certification. Icynene spray foam insulation has made their attic no more than five degrees warmer than their home at any time of the year. Opting for lower ceilings — no wasted dead space that has to be warmed or cooled — mattered too.

“Part of green building is using your home most efficiently and using every inch of your house,” David said. “But it wasn’t nearly as much about lowering the cost (of electricity) as it was about building something that would be sustainable. It’s caring for the world, right? How do you build something that not only is going to be energy efficient, but is also going to be built in a way that deals with our environment the best way that we can?”

The Ronns, Reardon and their builder were figuring everything out the hard way, since most green construction materials then were aimed at commercial applications.

David said his home probably cost 15 percent to 20 percent more, partly due to inaccessibility of materials. With recently replaced solar panels, he said his electric bill has been as low as $5 in the winter but more like $150 in warmer months.

Reardon has designed other LEED certified homes since the Ronns’ residence was completed. One more recent project was the Spring Branch home of Charles and Susan Elder, influenced by Charles’ career at Hines, a developer that’s long been devoted to healthier commercial buildings, including declaring 15 years ago that every building it creates would be LEED certified. Charles retired in 2016 as senior managing director for development in Hines southwest region.

When the Elders launched a big home remodeling project, they quickly realized — like the Ronns — that what they really needed was a new home. They started from scratch, and the couple always knew they wanted LEED certification.

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“We wanted LEED certified for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t want to bump into Gerry Hines and have him say ‘I hear you have a new home, is it LEED certified?’ I wanted the answer to be yes,” Elder said, only half joking. “Gerry used to say if we don’t do this who will? Susan and I felt that responsibility.”

He said that their home scored 34 points alone for energy efficiency and air quality. There also were points for rebuilding on the same site, for protecting the site from erosion or contamination during construction and for using drought-tolerant turf and plants.

“Our strategy was to underpromise and overachieve. We aimed for basic certification and our team was innovative to just get us into the LEED Silver category,” Charles said. “We proselytize all of the time. Welcome to our home, it’s LEED certified.”

Between the homes owned by the Ronns and Elders, Reardon learned a considerable amount about designing a home for LEED certification, and she acknowledges the learning curve is steep.

Prompted by more green building they were seeing in the commercial market, Scott Frankel, co-president of the Frankel Building Group, said he and his staff spent more than two years figuring out how to build more environmentally friendly homes, developing their own list of suppliers and best practices as they shifted to building homes that would qualify for LEED certification starting in 2010.

Frankel Building Group and McVaugh Custom Homes are the city’s two LEED Power Builders, meaning that most of the homes they build are LEED certified. Frankel has registered 180 homes with the green building council and since 2015 has been a LEED Power Builder.

Jim McVaugh, his firm’s CEO, created the Royal Oaks Courtyard Villas neighborhood as an 80-home community of all LEED-certified homes. So far, 52 homes have been built, and McVaugh said the energy savings are what sells the concept to buyers.

In addition to using energy-efficient Lennox heating and cooling systems, he uses spray foam insulation. He said in a 3,000-square-foot home, traditional insulation might cost $3,000 compared to $9,000 for spray foam. The payback is quick, though, as homeowners often earn back the money through dramatically lower energy bills in one and a half to three years.

Frankel knows that not many other builders are as committed to the LEED program as he is, but he believes being an early adapter will encourage others to look into green building.

“The challenge of being a builder who builds LEED is that the market isn’t demanding it yet. You’re acting as a martyr, and it’s not appreciated yet, but I truly believe it will be,” he said.

diane.cowen@chron.com

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