How a developer hopes to prove sustainable building can be affordable

GRANITE FALLS, N.C. — For anyone looking to buy a home, the sticker price itself can be a big shock, then add in current interest rates and insurance.

Rob Howard hopes buyers and developers remember that those aren’t the only factors when it comes to the cost of living there.

“We know utility costs are just going to continue to rise so having a home that uses energy efficiently just makes sense,” he said. “It literally pays for itself over time.”

It’s part of the mission behind his development company, Howard Building Science, building sustainable homes that are affordable for the people who live in his community.

“Where are the starter homes for people who are trying to buy their first home?” he said. “And what are the options for people who don’t have a lot of money saved up for retirement?”

The Duke Street Cottages in Granite Falls are Howard’s answer: 11 new-build homes, built to the Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home standards, all priced below $270,000.

“We’re trying to prove that attainable is sustainable,” he said.

It’s a step above what you might find in an Energy Star-certified home. The DOE standard requires the strictest efficiency, insulation, and air quality standards while also equipping homes with the infrastructure to add a solar panel system or EV charging station without electrical upgrades in the future.

“They have more insulation, they’re more airtight, better windows, better doors, high performance mechanical system,” Howard listed.

His homes also come with the most efficient appliances he could find, a ductless heat pump system an induction stove, and a heat pump water heater.

DOE zero energy-ready homes are meant to be at least 20 percent more efficient than the typical new home built to code. Energy Star Homes are at least 10 percent more efficient. Howard expects his homes will rarely if ever see a monthly energy bill over $100.

The other side of the coin is cost. In North Carolina, the median price of a home is $363,000, while the median household income is about $67,000.

To ensure he could build these energy-efficient homes and sell them for less than $300,000, Howard said he built them smaller than the typical new build entering the market.

“Most of these are two-bedroom, one-bath around 800 square feet,” he said.

To compensate, he built the cottages as a pocket neighborhood. All the homes face each other with a large green courtyard. The parking and driveways are behind the house.

“Your front porch serves as like an outdoor living room, and, you know, you can easily interact with your neighbors and you can have that sense of support that we’ve really lost in a sense in some suburban neighborhoods,” he said.

Yet costs were the primary driver behind North Carolina’s decision not to tighten its building codes to more energy-efficient standards. House Bill 488 froze the state’s building codes until 2031 after the North Carolina Home Builder’s Association argued stricter codes would increase by about $20,000. It passed in 2023 over a veto from Governor Roy Cooper.

Howard, who serves on the NC Building Code Council and advocated for stricter residential standards disagrees. He said getting his homes up to the ZERH standard costs about $7,000 per building, which is mostly offset by the $5,000 tax credit available for meeting those standards.

“That’s just a scare tactic,” he said.

Howard said he’s even more disappointed in the measure to freeze the state’s code standards for the next seven years.

“We are falling behind, and the reality is if you just kick that can down the road, 5,6,7 years, it looks like an even bigger jump to try to update your code,” he said.

Builders can choose to take on these energy efficient standards on their own as a selling point, but Howard worries that will cut out the affordable options. While the ZERH standards are too new for much construction data, 190,000 Energy Star Homes were built last year. They now make up 12 percent of all U.S. homes.

As for his homes, he said the demand speaks for itself.

“Right now I’ve got eight of these homes sold. Seven of them are already occupied,” he said. “Most of these homes sell way before they’re completed.”

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Michelle Alfini

Michelle Alfini, wsoctv.com

Michelle is a climate reporter for Channel 9.

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