Jason La Fleur, Regional Director at the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability, explains how remodeling his 1912 Oak Park Arts and Crafts home led to his new career in green building
In 2004, Jason La Fleur and his wife Jennifer bought a classic Arts and Crafts home in Oak Park, Illinois, home to the largest single collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was quite a find: a single family home, modestly priced, in an outstanding neighborhood — and not too much of a “fixer-upper.” While they had a couple of discrete renovation projects they knew they wanted to do shortly after moving in, they had no idea how their work on their “Humphrey House” would transform much more than just their home.
A teacher goes on a learning tear
Jason knows a lot about learning; he has a Masters in Education and worked for several years developing curriculum for the real estate appraisal industry.
“I knew a bit about buildings,” says Jason, “and knew I would need to learn a lot more when we started to work on our house. But the Humphrey House literally threw me into green building right off the bat. Our walls had no insulation, construction dumpsters seemed full of recyclable materials, and there were dozens of methods and materials for us to consider to reduce our water and energy bills.”
So Jason not only spent seven years going room by room to make their home a greener one, he managed to also become a USGBC LEED-accredited professional, a Green Rater, and is now a Regional Director for the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability. “I completely hold my house responsible for becoming so involved in green building,” quips Jason.
Green building transforms the Humphrey House renovation plans
Jason and Jennifer had planned to just add a bath and dormer upstairs and accomplish some kitchen upgrades and a facelift. But the green building approach kept pulling their projects deeper and deeper into performance and integration.
“Green building is difficult to dabble in,” Jason shares. “When you become aware of the connections between energy and water efficiency, indoor air quality and material selections, it forces a more comprehensive and frankly smarter approach to remodeling your home. Heck, we ended up mostly living in our basement for more months than we care to admit as we fit the pieces together for green renovation room-by-room.”
All this starts to sound like project creep and a busted budget. But Jason is quick to point out that many green aspects of their project SAVED them money: salvaged flooring, trim, and interior doors; reused framing; reduced tipping fees with lots of recycling and less disposal; and a minimalist approach to landscaping. “Holding our budget for the total project to just $56 per square foot is a lot about doing nearly 70% of the labor ourselves, but going green either saved us money or helped us hold the line there,” Jason states with complete confidence. “Better yet, we’ll have a more comfortable home with lower operating expenses going forward.”
As the couple gained more green building knowledge, performance testing entered the mix. In 2009, they conducted a blower-door test that was invaluable in buttoning up the house. The resulting corrections and air sealing have made the 100-year old home much more comfortable, and after these improvements there was a drop in their utility bills even though the number of people in the household increased (see sidebar Energy Specs).
Moving from cost to value
While Jason and Jennifer stretched themselves quite a bit financially to get the Humphrey House, it was the total value that drove them. Jason explains: “Oak Park is not just a beautiful community. It has three train lines into Chicago, it’s family friendly, and both Jennifer and I can walk to work.”
And Jason knows a bit about home valuation; remember his work with real estate appraisers. “Some of the value that green building adds to residential properties is starting to be reflected in home appraisals with the help of the Chicago region’s Green MLS features,” says Jason. “Creating that database infrastructure is critical for an appraiser to be able to identify what a local market is willing to pay for green improvements. Only then can the appraisal industry fully capture added green value in order for green building to thrive. This is particularly challenging in the existing home market.”
Green appraisals and GAPScore
The appraisal industry is not particularly well known for its rapid movement toward adding green valuation to their methods and materials. But Jason played an early role in the development of a new Appraisal Institute effort: the Valuation of Sustainable Buildings Professional Development Program. The program currently has two courses, Introduction to Green Buildings: Principles and Concepts and Case Studies in Appraising Residential Green Building. There are also some online education offerings such as Valuation of Green Residential Properties. Additionally, a recent The Appraisal Journal article, “Valuing High Performance Houses,” provides very specific methods for appraisers to employ to capture green value. (You can download this article from the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability’s Green Real Estate Toolkit.
Finally, a colleague of Jason’s, Steve Pohlman, has been hard at work developing GAPScore, the first green assessment test for existing single-family dwellings. “When I first got involved in green building, becoming a verifier for the National Green Building Certification program, I asked the question, ‘How green is my home?’” says Steve Pohlman. “And no one could tell me.” Jason La Fleur did a before-and-after GAPScore on Humphrey House, starting with a 29 (out of 100) and landing with a score of 49.2, making Jason’s home in the “light green” category — 46 to 70 — or “above average” (See Certification sidebar). “If GAPScore catches on and we get a critical mass of existing homes scored in different neighborhoods and markets, that can be pretty useful to home buyers AND appraisers, right?” Steve asks.
GAPScore is a novel and innovative approach to the green valuation issue for existing homes, and it will be interesting to see how it relates to rating programs for existing homes, such as LEED for Homes (gut rehabs), NGBS-rated projects, and the new DOE Home Energy Score program.
This is an easy topic for Jason: “We had a ton of them! It’s the classic case of ‘If only I knew then what I know now.’”
Spray foaming the entire converted attic: “We went at this with batts and rigid insulation; spray foam would have given us a much tighter lid on our house.”
Using salvaged vintage doors: “They look great and fit the existing architecture and style of our home, and they cost far less than comparable new interior doors.”
Remodeling room by room, learning green on the go: “We missed quite a few opportunities for integrated design and integration of our construction work overall.”
Jason wraps up the Lessons Learned discussion this way:
“If I had to do it all over again, I probably would look at purchasing a home in much worse condition, such as a foreclosure, which would make it that much easier to take a comprehensive approach to gut rehabbing. Ironically, next time I’d also involve a contractor, rather than doing the work myself piecemeal over time. While there would be a higher upfront cost, a lower acquisition price and the significant savings in my own time and effort, coupled with the opportunity for better results would have made it worthwhile.
“And finally, I would have pursued a performance-based third-party green certification such as LEED, so that at some point in the future when we go to sell this home, the home’s green improvements will be easily recognized by a future buyer, and fully valued by their lender and appraiser.”