Kevin Holdridge and Michael McMillan have known each other for nearly a decade, but they only started working together recently.
After running into each other repeatedly at green-building seminars and continuing-education presentations, they decided to stop fighting Charlotte’s old guard, which likes to do things the way they’ve always been done, and band together, they said.
In the past, their attempts to work with some established builders in the city left them feeling as if they were constantly hitting the proverbial brick wall. Some builders, they say, can’t see past the way things have always been done and, at times, even talk customers out of green design options.
“There is a huge new learning curve for builders,” said Daniel Kelly, a partner in Kelly McArdle Construction and the chairman of the Charlotte Building Association’s Green Building Council. For the past 30 to 50 years, he said, “not a whole lot has changed.”
While some builders might shy away from innovation and new building techniques, Holdridge and McMillan see opportunity. With “universal design” techniques and green-building practices, they say they have discovered ways to make old houses new again and save customers construction costs on new construction and redesigns, savings they can invest in energy-efficient features.
But not every Charlotte builder is pushing green homes as strongly.
Alan Simonini, who has built more than 1,000 homes in Charotte since he began Alan Simonini Homes in 1976, said his company doesn’t actively pitch universal design or green options to his clients.
“We incorporate them when people ask for it,” he said. “It takes a little more effort, observation and a little more design thought.”
Meanwhile, Dennis Hughes, of Hughes and Associates, worries that such building techniques are too pricey and will scare away customers. He said he usually doesn’t have a chance to pitch every detail to his clients, so all they see is that their house is more expensive because of green features.
Not that they’re calling him asking for them. He said they’re not. He also said he hasn’t done an apples-to-apples comparison with one of his homes and one marketed as a green or universally designed home.
“I’ve always found that when you try to incorporate those types of things into your price, that it was hard to sell,” he said.
‘Similar to the human body’
But Holdridge and McMillan say they’re up for the sales challenge.
“We’re trying to prove to people that ‘green’ doesn’t have to be expensive, as long as you plan for it,” said Holdridge, designer and owner of Charlotte-based KDH Residential Designs.
Holdridge said he has a passion for intelligent designs that produce less construction waste, which is the most abundant type of waste in area landfills. Some of the cost savings in his blueprints come from designing homes with “advanced framing” techniques, which require less lumber and generate less waste.
McMillan, the builder in the partnership, is the owner of Charlotte-based McMillan Construction Management. He’s so passionate about building green, he won’t work with contractors who aren’t. He’s also passionate about building healthy homes.
“Buildings, edifices and land are very similar to the human body,” he said. “All of the parts need to work together as a system.”
But making homes healthier isn’t the only thing on the duo’s mind. They also make use of natural light, so their customers won’t have to flip the light switch so often. Although the footprint of the homes they build is often smaller — 1,500 square feet for a two-bedroom, two-bath home — they say they’re creating spaces that are open and designed for entertaining.
“Universal design allows it to look bigger than the square footage,” McMillan said, adding that it’s difficult to compare costs with their competitors, since their designs range from renovations that cost as little as a couple thousand dollars to multimillion-dollar homes with luxury fits and finishes.
The “universal” part of the partnership’s designs involves building with every age group in mind, so homes won’t have to be reworked later. For instance, they widen doorways so mothers pushing strollers and the elderly or infirm can maneuver walkers or wheelchairs. They also remove the bumps often found in doorways, creating low-profile thresholds, so sprinting toddlers or people with handicaps won’t trip. Plenty of storage space is also included, so closets won’t have to be added later.
They say their designs — whether for new or old homes — are flexible enough that an extra room can easily be turned into a covered porch or vice versa. For a customer in the Chantilly area, they took out a wall that created an unnecessary hallway, turned an unused office into a walk-in closet and extended the master bathroom and widened the entryway to the kitchen, making it more inviting for guests.
According to Kelly, those are the types of designs customers are asking more about these days.
The next owner
But for Simonini, a luxury custom homebuilder, the first things that come to mind when asked about universal design options are elderly people and unattractive, steel pull-up bars in bathrooms. While his company uses water-based paints, recycled materials and Energy Star features, he said it doesn’t actively market those features. He’s not opposed to using universal or green design options, pointing out that being a custom builder means he will include whatever features will best suit his client’s needs. But “you need to make it so the next owner will be happy, too,” he said.
Hughes agreed, saying, “I’m not sure the public is totally sold on it yet.”
Simonini also said some of the builders who have been working in Charlotte for decades were burned by some purportedly “green” products when they first came on the market.
“To put it simply, green building is just building better,” he said. “We consider ourselves green builders. You have to think about things a little bit differently than we’ve been building. There are lots of things you can do that don’t necessarily add cost.”
The bonus is that customers can also expect to save 30 to 50 percent on energy costs when homes are built airtight, smaller and with energy-efficient appliances and good use of natural light, Kelly said. He predicts that younger generations will be more interested in such design techniques.
Desiree Kane agrees. The author of the Generation Y blog “Heroes Rising,” Kane lives in the Wesley Heights area. She particularly likes the idea of updating older homes, in lieu of buying a new one.
“The appeal is that these buildings aren’t just up-to-date and built with our futures in mind, but they’re also taking all of the best elements of old buildings and retaining those features,” she said. “For this generation, historic preservation and renovation is, after all, the ultimate way to recycle without having to sacrifice on modern-day amenities.”