Green, Not Extreme

What do you get when you cross a waste management expert whose true interest is in real estate, with a handy former farm-hand and subcontractor worker who formed his own contracting business? You get MyGreenBuildings, a Florida-based custom home design/build firm with only months under its belt and several jobs on the table.

Steve Ellis and Grant Castilow formed MyGreenBuildings in 2006 when Ellis approached Castilow to be a subcontractor on a new residential project. The two clicked so well they joined forces to help the environment while building environmentally friendly homes for enviro-conscious clients. It turns out they work pretty well together; the first home they designed and built is the most energy-efficient house in Florida, as certified by the Florida Green Building Coalition.

The project was completed in less than four months, and played a big part in the landing of a handful of jobs for clients looking for a green design/builder. “We’ve sold five residential projects already from that one spec home, including two $700,000-plus complete guts and retrofits,” Ellis says.

The goal for the 2,100-sq.-ft. addition was to prove MyGreenBuildings could do a highly customized green retrofit to an existing structure. “We’re showing that we can keep the existing structure and rebuild it, and do it in a seamless way with good design and architecture. We can bring it up to current standards with all the bells and whistles and do it totally green,” Ellis adds.

Embedded Energy

MyGreenBuildings will focus on green residential retrofits and new construction, as well as some commercial, interior and retail work. The focus on retrofits is more than part of the business plan; it’s a green building practice many designers and builders don’t think of. Being green isn’t only about energy savings, it’s about energy salvage.

“We’re using the original structure because of the energy savings involved,” Ellis explains. “Think about the wood components of a structure and how much energy it took to log the trees, get them to a mill, work the wood, transport it and install it. There’s a massive amount of energy embedded in that structure that you’re saving by not tearing it down and putting the material in a landfill — not to mention time and labor costs.”

Conserving energy expended at the time of construction is great for green, but it doesn’t address costs of any new labor or material. The cost of being green is one hurdle many design/builders encounter, but not these two because the type of client they’re targeting has crossed the green line on their own.

“If a homeowner was truly a greeniac, budget wouldn’t be an issue. People dedicated to an issue will do what it takes for their cause,” Castilow says. “We’re not shoving green stuff down our clients’ throats. Their light is on because they want to do it this way. And we’re designing their homes to fit their budget; that’s why we’re design/builders. We can make things the way they want it and can afford it.”

Even if a client is dedicated to green, budget can still become an issue, Castilow points out. For example, clients might say they can’t afford a low-flow toilet. Because MyGreenBuildings is a design/build firm, adjustments can be made to other areas of the home’s design to compensate for a higher-priced product. “So you can design a project to fit the budget,” he says.
Sacrifices also can be made on a larger scale to get clients thinking green in the first place. For the cost of high-end appliances in the kitchen, for example, clients can make their house green, Castilow says. The extra $10,000 or $20,000 saved on appliances could be spent on a solar water heater or Low-E glass on windows.

“To me cost doesn’t play into this at all,” Ellis says. “Cost is cost. If you look at the cost of capital vs. the cost of operation, you realize you can do a lot of things green. And many of the green elements don’t cost any more than nongreen products. Yes, a solar water heater costs five thousand bucks, but the incentives bring it down to about $2,800. And then you’re saving 25 to 30 percent off your energy bill, so there’s an instant return on that investment.”

Clearly costs are driven by clients, Ellis continues, but when looking at green material or construction technology, more choices are surfacing. “What’s cool about what we’re doing, what I’ve learned, is that so many new green technologies are being driven by the desire of these manufacturers to offer something to the green industry. And we benefit with so many choices.”

Waste Makes Waste

Energy conservation is only part of being green, so MyGreenBuildings’ owners are choosing subcontractors who agree to run jobs with no waste containers. Waste will be dealt with, but will be segregated on site. Ellis and Castilow also are considering buying their own equipment to haul waste around and donate it where possible. “Because our subs will be responsible for their own waste, that makes them more conscious of conservation,” Ellis says.

Subcontractors Castilow had been using for years were wrestling him initially on the no-waste issue, but when he stated there would be no wiggle room, the subs ultimately stuck with him. “Challenges are opportunities in my book. And at the end of this job they all bought into what we were doing. And in fact, they suggested ways to make things more green. They see the light. We need homeowners to see that same light. Once they do, green is a no-brainer.”

Just as waste plays a role in determining a home’s green status, so does design. At MyGreenBuildings, both owners have a voice in the design process, but they also work with architects as much as possible. “We’re trying to drive business to architects as part of our business model. We’re focused on establishing relationships with architects in town,” Ellis says. “We’re presenting architects with clients they normally wouldn’t see.”

Green home design starts with where a home is built, Castilow says. Therefore, MyGreenBuildings chooses to build on infill sites close to existing amenities and not tax the infrastructure more than necessary. “Once we have a location, we use the existing structure. Then it’s a matter of where the house or addition sits on a site as far as passive design — airflow and daylighting. We factor that into the green equation,” Castilow says.

What happens when clients resist design or product suggestions? Castilow likens the situation to when a waiter forces customers into something they wouldn’t have tried on their own. “The waiter guided you and you enjoyed the suggestion more than what you would have picked. That’s sort of how I come across to my clients. ‘This is what you’re going to do and you’ll love it.’ They appreciate that I’m not really pushy but I get things done they might not have thought of.”

Greenest Home in Florida

The house on Goldenrod Ave. in Sarasota, Fla., is ranked high in terms of green attributes. So high, in fact, the Florida Green Building Coalition certified it as the most energy-efficient house in the state, a title it shares with another home. And the beauty, say Castilow and Ellis, is the home is mainstream, not extreme. “It’s just built smart to perform. The Goldenrod project will save you dollars,” Castilow emphasizes. Ellis adds that the home costs less than $100 a month to operate.

Selected elements contributed to the home’s high green status including reclaimed doors and cabinets made from used pallets. MyGreenBuildings used doors salvaged from other homes that were torn down or deconstructed, and had its cabinetmaker mill used pallets to make the cabinets in the house, providing a unique look, Ellis says. “It’s not necessarily inexpensive, but it shows how many green options there are out there,” he adds.

On the outside of the home, rain water is harvested in barrels in tandem that combine to store more than 100 gal. of rain water. Homeowners can hook up a soaker hose for irrigation of landscaping consisting of local plants, planted in a design set up by a Florida yards group. Ellis says, “There’s always one more way to be green.”