Keeping it Eco Evolving technology, economies of scale lift energy-efficient-home market in Charleston area

Hunter Quinn Homes set aside a corner of a room in its Fairmont South model home to showcase its environmentally high-end features.

House shoppers can tour model homes in Lowcountry neighborhoods that set aside whole rooms to explain and showcase tankless water heaters, extra-protective insulation and windows that keep out harmful rays.

They can call on custom builders to design encapsulated houses that also breath, lowering electricity bills by half while costing no more than 5-10 percent higher than a comparable, traditionally designed home.

And, property hunters can scout out local residences with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and Energy Star certifications, Home Energy Rating System top scores and Department of Energy “zero net” power tags.

You can even visit houses in metro Charleston shaped like half a golf ball, designed as geodesic domes, octagonally configured, boasting rooftop solar panels or sporting geothermal water-heating and -cooling through underground pipes. As it turns out, many energy-efficiency measures date back years or decades but weren’t considered cost-effective for most home buyers or otherwise didn’t catch on in a big way.

That’s changing. “Green living” has grown mainstream, and yesterday’s space age perks are turning commonplace. Charleston area builders attract eco-friendly home buyers and in some cases look to manufacture energy-efficient products.

Richard Nalbantian, founder and builder of Mount Pleasant-based Nest Homes, says he combines standard building practices with ultra-efficient energy-saving methods, such as employing “ZIP System” oriented strand board panels to limit the impact of air penetration and water including humidity; and “liquid tape” on tiny construction-related holes to prevent air and water leakage. This way, he can create “a super insulated house envelope.” He controls lighting costs with low-voltage DC versus the standard AC powered electrical grid, hooks up energy recovery ventilation systems to Heating Ventilation and Air Conditioning units to provide cleaner air and forms a radiant shield in the attic using fully sealed spray foam insulation.

“I’m ground-breaking it, very hands on,” Nalbantian says. The builder, who perfected his design in greater New York before moving to the Charleston area a few years ago, says his “engineered green” construction doesn’t require special training for construction crews.

“I do it for basically stick built houses, I have 14 (homes) under contract,” he says. The builder says he can frame houses at a cost that’s no more than 6 or 7 percent higher than a traditional home’s price and can even match the $225 a square foot figure on many upscale Mount Pleasant houses.

Nest Homes, which Nalbantian says also installs wiring for smart home technology such as locking and unlocking doors remotely, hasn’t completed a house in the Charleston area yet, although his first two energy-saving homes “are in the permitting stages now” and are expected to rise in Mount Pleasant and on Johns Island this year.

“My basis isn’t money; it’s doing things right,” he says.

While Nest Homes is new, Amerisips stands as one of metro Charleston’s established “green” home builders, planting its headquarters in Berkeley County and raising its first energy-efficient house a half-dozen years ago.

The company in the past year shifted direction subtly by teaming up with Insulsteel Building Enclosures to design super-strong, insulated steel panels fitted to the builder’s multifaceted construction skeleton and foundation known as an EcoShell.

“We are expanding single-family,” says Steve Bostic, who founded Amerisips. The company is interviewing firms and craftsmen to be part of its Insulsteel Preferred Builders package, to include high-efficiency windows, doors and HVAC systems. Amerisips Homes builds 2,000-3,000 square foot homes with electric bills as little as $150 to $300 annually, the company says on its website.

“Right now, we are just going to focus on home builders and customers,” Bostic says.

The eventual plan, he says, calls for Amerisips to open a 60,000 square foot factory in the Summerville area to fit low gage steel within the EcoShell and to use cold form steel to roll out trusses, floors and interior walls.

Amerisips — via Insulsteel — eventually could sell the engineered products to builders for constructing high-efficiency homes as well as multifamily residences, hotels and health care centers, he says.

Home construction remains the core business, serving a range of customers. “Our most expensive house is $2 million, our least expensive is $400,000,” he says.

Traditional home builders, too, have stepped up promotions of eco-friendly products in recent years such as displaying energy-efficient items to its customers. Regional builder Hunter Quinn Homes showcases environmental goodies in a sales model in The Villages at Fairmont South between Goose Creek and Moncks Corner, says Will Herring, president.

On its website, the builder cites a half dozen ways it controls energy costs and improves air quality: “carefully” sealed duct work; barriers to keep the attic — and air conditioning system — cooler in summer heat; energy-saving tankless water heaters; ultraviolet-blocking windows; reduced levels of Volatile Organic Compounds to improve indoor air quality; and limiting outside air seepage to prevent pollen from entering residences.

“Hunter Quinn Homes is committed to building energy efficient homes that help conserve resources and also save money on utility bills,” the company says.

Reach Jim Parker at 843-937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.