How the Green Building Industry is Evolving and What Can Make it More Accessible

Q-and-A with Phil Kean

Sustainability and Green Building
Phil Kean

Phil Kean, principal of Phil Kean Design Group (PKDP) in Winter Park, Florida

Given your experience in the industry, how has green architecture changed over time?

Green architecture wasn’t even a term many years ago, and if it was, people weren’t using it. I think it might have all started when younger people in my world started to think about the sustainability of materials.

Back in the early 1990s, one of my employees decided to get Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified when the program was just beginning. Programs such as LEED and the National Green Building Standard (NGBS) made the design experience that much more exciting and gave space for conversations to happen around sustainably built homes.

Having a dialogue about what sustainability meant really changed the conversation about the types of materials used and best practices for high-performance homes. At first, it was just a concept, but with more third-party verified programs, the idea of sustainability really took root. I’m a bit partial to the NGBS because it really caters to home builders, but each certification has something to offer.

In addition to these types of programs educating the industry, I would also say that the concept of healthy homes has really changed over time in terms of how we design and specify what we put into buildings.

Since the pandemic, what changes have you seen in demand for third-party verified high-performance home certifications? Have you seen increased interest in indoor air quality (IAQ) from customers?

We’re in a bit of a unique world in that we get every one of our homes certified to an independently verified green building program. We’ve made it a mission to educate our clients about green building, and we’ve never experienced any pushback.

Once you explain why IAQ is important, there’s very few people who wouldn’t want features incorporated to improve the air quality of their indoor living environments. If you’re spending money to build a home for yourself, why wouldn’t you want a healthier home?

In addition to talking about what materials we use to build our homes, we also educate our clients about what they put in their house so that they can be aware of harmful pollutants and off-gassing that occurs in typical household products (e.g., couches, cushions, rugs, etc.).

In my little bubble, I don’t know how much the IAQ conversation has changed, but maybe the conversation has come more into the forefront during the pandemic as people spend more time in their home. For instance, a colleague who owns a pest control company said it was his best year yet because people were spending so much time at home. When you’re forced to be there, you notice things that you actually want to work.

What are some of the biggest barriers for completing deep energy retrofits cost-effectively for your location in Florida?

For clients, I would say both budget and time are the biggest barriers. Do they have the ability to move out for six to eight months to get all this stuff done? You really have to do a cost-benefit analysis. It also depends on payback for a lot of people; I think most people would get solar photovoltaics (PV), no problem, if the payback was three years. But over 10 years, on the other hand, people tend to reconsider.

Another barrier in Florida is that a lot of these old buildings have really low ceilings, and a lot of designs can’t accommodate raising the roof. Once you pop a roof off, it’s very difficult to keep a lot of the existing elements.

And because of the way Florida building codes are set up, it can be hard, particularly with moisture, to open up a roof and put in everything you need, wait for an inspection, and run the risk of having it rain on all the open materials. A lot of houses in Florida are mid-century cottages that are around 1,200 square feet with a 2-12 pitch, so it’s tricky to get insulation in there without removing a lot of the existing materials.

If you could wave a magic wand, what support or programs would you want available to help green remodelers tackle greenhouse gas reduction for existing homes more efficiently?

We get so much sun in Florida, and we used to have a state tax incentive for solar PV that always would get used up really quickly. That incentive is gone now, so it would be helpful to have something similar put in place again.

If there was something to encourage people to save water, that would be helpful, too. Florida probably has more turf grass than any other state, so if there was an incentive to boost the number of native plants, that could be a good place to start to help save water.

I think there should also always be a program for people on limited incomes to make their homes more efficient. Many of these old homes have underperforming windows and super inefficient HVAC systems, so improving the basics of habitation to be less wasteful could go a long way, reducing the cost of home ownership for those that need it most. Some sort of loan program or government incentive to encourage efficiency improvements for all housing could really help move the industry along.

Can you share some of your biggest lessons learned after tackling a few The New American Remodel projects for the International Builders’ Show? What advice would you give to existing high-performance home builders or design professionals who want to break into the remodeling world?

If you’re going to get into the remodeling business, always analyze the clients’ goals, go through a list at the beginning, and then again sometime toward the end of the design process to make sure it’s still accurate.

It’s also really important to make sure that you haven’t added more to the design than what your client wanted. Ask yourself: Have you used hallways efficiently, or have you been lazy with the design? Go in with an open eye, without an agenda.

One of our biggest lessons learned in Las Vegas for the 2020 The New American Remodel was that you really need to have a pest professional look at the home ahead of time; the 2020 home had termites. It’s really difficult to salvage structural members when they are so damaged from termites.

Also, I would recommend being respectful of the neighborhood. For instance, what does the architecture of the surrounding houses look like? There are ways to do a major edition and be next to a ranch-style home without it feeling like a McMansion. Keeping the scale of the surrounding buildings in mind is important.

One final suggestion: When you’re opening up a house, take advantage of additional small affordable practices that you can easily implement, like adding hurricane straps. That investment at the right time could save your client’s home from being destroyed in the future. If something can be improved affordably, you should do that. If the house is in a hurricane-prone area and isn’t hurricane-strapped, you should take steps to do that with the remodel so that it won’t be in a trash pile one day.