YARMOUTH — The marketing material for a new “smart-growth” subdivision on the edge of the village business district here depicts neighbors walking and biking on sidewalks flanked by New England-style homes with welcoming porches. Rooftop solar-electric panels hint at another feature: These homes are very energy efficient, potentially generating all the electricity they use on an annual basis, a concept called net-zero.

Living in a tight-knit, sustainable neighborhood appeals to Abbi Baldwin. She grew up in Yarmouth, where “walking distance to the village and award-winning schools” is a real estate mantra. She wanted to raise her young son in a “mini-green” community of like-minded homeowners.

But when Baldwin and her husband saw the price tag for their dream house – called a BrightBuilt home – they balked. It was 20 to 30 percent higher than what they’d expected, a deal breaker in a project where prices run between $500,000 and $800,000.

Now they’re building a custom home that incorporates energy-saving features, but costs less.

“We love BrightBuilt,” Baldwin said. “But when the pricing came back, it just wasn’t feasible for us.”

Mainers constantly complain about high energy costs. They debate solar policy and how much to invest in energy efficiency. So to the developer of Village Run and the architects behind BrightBuilt, Yarmouth – a well-off Portland suburb with a base of environmentally aware residents – seemed like a natural fit for Maine’s first subdivision of modular, high-performance homes.

A spec home built by builder Matt Brewer in Village Run, a new subdivision in Yarmouth. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

But the majority of buyers in the 26-lot subdivision aren’t embracing that vision. They’re making other choices. Most are building traditional homes that meet the state’s uniform energy code, but don’t exceed it.

In California, by contrast, new homes are required to be net-zero by 2020. That’s fueling a market for solar subdivisions. But the experience at Village Run is causing building professionals to reflect on how much extra Mainers are willing to pay for a high-performance, net-zero home. They’re pondering whether recent improvements in basic new construction may be good enough for most, especially in a period of low oil and natural gas prices.

Maybe most Mainers channel their region’s frugal heritage and settle for what Matt Teare calls “Yankee green” – do the energy add-ons that give the biggest bang for the buck, but no more.

A SPECIAL PIECE OF PROPERTY

Teare is Village Run’s lead developer. He knew he had a special piece of property when he bought 36 acres of woods near Main Street and Sligo Road in 2015. The land included an old sand pit and pond, where local kids sled in winter and play in summer. He envisioned a project that preserved the cherished open space, connected to adjacent neighborhoods and was sprinkled with high-quality homes that used little energy. And when he thought about what homes might work, his mind went to BrightBuilt.

Model home in Village Run, a new subdivision in Yarmouth. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

BrightBuilt is a line of modular homes developed by Kaplan Thompson Architects in Portland. The goal of BrightBuilt is to make architect-designed homes that are easy to heat, light and cool, healthy to live in, but also affordable, by prefabricating most of the pieces in a factory. To test the subdivision concept, Teare and Kaplan Thompson held a meeting at a local restaurant with prospective Village Run buyers. Sixty people showed up, many of them interested in a BrightBuilt home.

But today, when Teare counts the lots sold and the homes being planned, he figures no more than six of 26 will be BrightBuilt.

“That’s fewer than I hoped for,” he said. “I hoped there would be a little more movement in that direction.”

The disconnect became apparent early on to Melodie Brown, an associate broker at The David Banks Team, which is marketing Village Run.

“There was a lot of interest in the beginning in BrightBuilt homes,” she said. “It’s a great feature to offer, and we introduce both (home options) to the consumer. But there’s a good chance most of them will go traditional.”

Brown said the young families looking at Village Run have a hard time justifying an extra $50,000 to $100,000. They may ask about energy costs, but it’s not a dominant issue.

“They are more concerned about the layout of the kitchen,” she said.

For those who want a more efficient home, Brown suggested, builders can upgrade traditional, on-site construction.

MIDDLE GROUND

That’s where Abbi Baldwin and her husband landed. A custom builder is putting up a 2,000- square-foot home with extra insulation and features that fall between BrightBuilt specs and standard construction.

Wall insulation is a good example of the cost-benefit thinking.

A rendering of Village Run as envisioned, with solar panels covering roofs and potentially generating all the electricity the homes will use. Courtesy of BrightBuilt Home

A BrightBuilt home has a double-studded wall crammed with dense-packed cellulose insulation. It boasts an extreme R-40 insulation value. That’s twice the state’s energy code, but it’s more expensive to build. By contrast, the Baldwin house has standard 2-by-6 walls with dense-packed cellulose. Foam-backed sheathing limits heat loss from the studs, creating an R-27 wall. Cheaper to build, and better than code.

Two banks of south-facing windows will help warm the home, along with high-efficiency electric heat pumps. The house will be wired to accommodate solar-electric panels – a possible future investment. It overlooks the former sand pit, which was set aside for a town park.

The Baldwin home is being built by M.R. Brewer of Portland. The company is finishing a second home in Village Run, put up on speculation. It’s under contract for $749,000, to a buyer who initially had expressed interest in BrightBuilt. This home, however, simply meets the state energy code.

That’s not a bad thing, according to Matt Brewer, the builder. In this price range, getting the kitchen, flooring and the amenities that buyers want overshadows extreme energy add-ons.

“The houses we’re building nowadays are more efficient than what we were building even two years ago,” he said. “That’s just based on industry standards. The market is kind of forcing you in that direction.”

Here’s one way to think about the progress.

The amount of heat needed can be calculated based on how many times each hour inside air escapes a building and is replaced by outside air. Older, poorly insulated homes may register seven or more air changes per hour. The state’s energy code for new construction cuts the exchange to three. A BrightBuilt home achieves 1.5 or less, tight enough to warrant a special ventilation system.

ENERGY ASPIRATIONS

But for most buyers, three air changes an hour apparently is good enough. Buyers just assume a new house today is pretty tight, according to Mark Patterson, co-owner of Patco Construction in Sanford. Questions about extreme energy packages rarely come up for homes below $600,000, he said, unless they’re on windy ridges or waterfronts. Patterson said most buyers think about return on investment, noting 10 years is the average time a Mainer owns the same home.

“People do call us about net zero,” said Patterson, treasurer of the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Maine. “We say, ‘This is what we’re talking about for a price point.’ They say, ‘Gosh, I can’t afford that.’ ”

But for those who can afford it, a net zero home may be an aspiration, and not just a financial calculation.

Joel Antolini lives in an older, historic home in the village, but always wanted to own a modern, high-efficiency home. He bought a lot in Village Run and is leaning toward BrightBuilt. He hasn’t pulled the trigger yet. He’s still exploring options, says he’s likely to build a high-performance house, and trying to weigh the benefits of building to different energy standards.

Antolini said he knows he’ll pay more for BrightBuilt. But he expects to get a superior home from a company with an excellent reputation.

While BrightBuilt may not be for the masses, it represents an effort to use modular building techniques to make housing super efficient, healthy and durable. Kaplan Thompson sold 16 last year around New England is expects to increase sales by one-third this year, according to Phil Kaplan, the firm’s co-founder. But the concept that buyers will recoup some of their extra upfront cost with lower energy bills is a hard sell. The experience at Village Run has led Kaplan to question whether there’s a market in Maine today for the sort of solar subdivisions sprouting in the West.

“I can’t imagine it’s not going to happen here,” he said. “I think there’s still a lag in education. And it’s hard to spend more money.”

Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or:

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