When the housing market slowed a couple years ago, Mark Wickman, owner of Vision Homes, started building energy-efficient homes as a way to set himself apart from other builders.
What started as a marketing decision has turned into a full-blown passion, and for Wickman, there is no going back.
“Two years ago, when I saw the market slowing down, I started thinking of how I could make my company different from everybody else’s. I initially thought of it in terms of a marketing advantage. I’ve since come to realize it’s a better way to build homes.”
Green, energy-efficient houses are beginning to sprout throughout Southern Oregon, with several builders announcing green projects in recent weeks. Wickman was ahead of the curve, having so far built eight homes certified by either Energy Star or Earth Advantage.
His homes are not visibly different from standard code-built houses. He builds in subdivisions, aiming for the mainstream market, rather than for a green niche.
The differences, he says, are in the details, but the results are dramatic.
“Not only are Energy Star and Earth Advantage homes more energy-efficient, they’re healthier to live in. The indoor air quality is measurably better. I can’t just say that they’re better. Energy Star and Earth Advantage rely on independent, third-party testing to certify they are better.”
To meet Energy Star requirements, a house must be well insulated, the shell must be tight, the heating and cooling systems must be highly efficient, with sealed ductwork and ventilation systems to cleanse the air, lights must be energy-saving fluorescents, and the appliances, including the water heater, must be Energy Star certified.
Earth Advantage certification goes even further, requiring the use of non-toxic, earth friendly materials and resource-efficient building practices.
Wickman says he was surprised at many of the things he has learned since making the switch to green building practices.
“As a builder, I took it for granted that the ductwork in a new house was always sealed. A brand new, code-built house will leak 25 to 30 percent of its energy,” says Wickman. “We just finished a house that only lost three percent. That’s a huge difference. If your car leaked 30 cents of gas for every dollar you put in it, you’d do something about it.”
Because of the leakage allowed under standard building codes, builders commonly install furnaces and cooling systems that are larger than they need to be, which further wastes energy.
“That’s silly,” says Wickman, who has immersed himself in building science and now speaks to groups about energy-efficient homebuilding. A casual listener can quickly get lost in Wickman’s explanation of moisture barriers, heat recovery ventilators, computer modeling to determine how air fills a room, and the steps taken to balance air pressure and reduce temperature fluctuations.
“We think of the house as a system, and we think about how everything we do affects everything else. We are mindful of a lot of things we didn’t used to think about.”
Some builders think the extra steps he takes are unnecessary, he says, but he believes the day is coming soon when all builders will be following in his footsteps.
“In five years’ time, this is all going to be a part of the code,” he predicts. “To have duct systems that leak 25 percent of their energy is silly. If cars did that, the EPA would be all over that.”