Custom Builder Sees Homes Shrink from All-time Massive 14,000 sf in Suburbs to More Modest-Sized LEED Homes within Cincinnati City Limits
The 2007 economic downturn as well as the growing popularity of urban living with walkable neighborhoods and smaller lawns caused the migration.
Another important catalyst was Cincinnati’s history of tax abatements. Since 2002, the city of Cincinnati has granted 10-year tax abatement on structures. In 2007, the city added an additional five years to the tax abatement for those receiving LEED Certification. In 2011, the tax abatement for LEED became a bit more layered and difficult. Now, owners must achieve LEED Silver to receive a tax break on the first $285,000 of the structure’s value. LEED Gold has a limit of $565,000, and it’s unlimited if the home achieves LEED Platinum. Because of the tax abatement, nearly every new home in Cincinnati is LEED Certified and builders have become quite familiar with how to do it cost effectively. The standard has become even more difficult with the U.S. Green Building Council’s increased requirements for measurable environmental benefits in Version 4 of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) launched in 2015.
In January 2018 I interviewed Jim Carroll, 36-year owner of Carroll Custom Builders, Inc., about the three homes he is building to LEED standards. “We were already building ‘green’ before getting involved with LEED,” Carroll says. He likes the fact that LEED requires contractors to “build to a higher standard.” Initially it was hard to find low VOC paints and caulks, but the manufacturers have caught on quickly, Carroll recalls. He has sold all of his LEED homes in Cincinnati within a few weeks of completion. “The Cincinnati LEED tax abatement has stopped people from moving out of the city and improved the housing stock,” Carroll explains. “You get points for infill lots and being close to shopping. It’s a good thing to build to a higher standard,” he explains, “The owners will save in the long run and Cincinnati will be more viable long term.”
Owners understand higher efficiencies in HVAC and the better health effects of using lower VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paints, carpets and caulks. Carroll Custom Builders included a geothermal heating system in the homes even though the Federal tax abatement was scheduled to end in 2016. Carroll was hopeful it was going to be reinstated, and it was retroactive to January 1, 2017; "Great News!!!" Jim emailed. The super high efficiency of geothermal is one of the primary reasons his homes can achieve LEED Platinum without a rainwater holding tank. There wasn’t enough room on the three-story 3596 and 3598 Handman Avenue infill sites for a storm water holding tank, but there is an elevator going to the top floor master suite. The 5120 Shattuc Avenue site is going for LEED Platinum and does have room for a rainwater tank as well as geothermal HVAC.
Carroll learned energy efficiency back in the 1980s when he quit his desk job and started working for a custom builder in Vail, Colorado, constructing earth berm homes. He got the building bug as a newly minted Notre Dame graduate with a finance degree working for Fahlgren & Ferris, a Cincinnati advertising agency. He was working on a homebuilding supplier’s ad campaign when Carroll had an epiphany, realizing: “I can do this.” And has never looked back.
LEED for Homes Certification level credit decision story
The LEED for Homes Rating System provides a basis for quantifying the benefits of green homes, thereby facilitating the widespread construction of more sustainable homes. One of the first steps in planning a LEED home is to adjust the certification thresholds based on the material and energy impacts. All else being equal, a large home consumes more materials and energy than a small home over its lifecycle. LEED compensates for these impacts by adjusting the thresholds for each award level. Thresholds for smaller-than-average homes are lowered, and thresholds for larger-than-average homes are raised. A home’s threshold for LEED Gold may be 72 points. A 4,500-sq.-ft. home with five bedrooms would be about 85 points.
In the end, the homeowner will have a well built and third-party certified home. Passing the blower door test alone is significant. Blower door tests are used to prove the air sealing quality of the construction. During the test the home is depressurized to -50 Pascal and measurements are recorded throughout the home to verify that outside air isn’t leaking into the home at a rate higher than required. It proves the home won’t be drafty and uncomfortable. Contrary to those builders who tell home owners that homes need to breathe for fresh air, it is much better to control the ventilation rather than allowing shoddy construction of leaky vapor barriers to supply fresh air to the home.
The LEED Certification system is broadly categorized into five equally important parts that demonstrate measurable environmental benefits: Site, Water, Energy, Materials, and Indoor Environment Quality. The following is a review of the features of this home according to the LEED for Homes system.
Prerequisites include building above the 100-year floodplain, not habitat for endangered species, built no closer than 100 feet to water or wetlands, land that wasn’t a public park and land that doesn’t have prime, unique or soils of state significance. Excavated topsoil was reused; runoff was controlled, so it didn’t contaminate storm water sewers or erode hillsides.