It’s easy to talk the sustainable talk in real estate, but how many homes will actually save you money every month, or deliver on the promise of cleaner inside air?
The answer is not many, and especially not here in Houston, where homes are built to a standard that does not reflect the fluctuating demands of our subtropical climate and the occasional arctic blast.
But a property just hit the market in Braeswood that finally meets the sustainable brief, from energy efficiency and living quality to functionality and luxurious design.
The 1 percent club
4023 Lanark Lane is one of just a handful of homes in Houston to achieve a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) score of 1, meaning it uses just 1 percent of the energy consumed by the exact same home built to code. Other certifications will include Department of Energy Zero Energy Ready Home status and the Institute for Business & Home Safety Fortified standard of severe weather protection.
It’s easy to gloss over all these hard-won certifications that guarantee this home’s various efficiencies, but in real terms, this means real savings.
The electricity bills are projected to be just $12 a month before taxes and fees for this three-story, 3750-square-foot luxury townhome. The regional average for the same square footage is around $300 a month per ERCOT.
“Over the years we have won many awards for our work in this sector,” explains Dr. Hugh Ker Thomson, M.D., the founder and president of Nautilus Custom Homes. “Back in 2010, we built what we believe was the nation’s first ‘triple-certified’ home (LEED Platinum, FORTIFIED, Zero Energy Ready). But with Lanark, we wanted to make a statement.”
The concept was simple: How much better can you build it by investing just a little more? The practice, of course, was a lot more complex, and it all began with Thomson’s mission to build a “truly green” home for himself and his family.
A self-professed “form follows function” guy, Thomson set about this task with forensic attention to detail. Together with Texas A&M University’s Energy Systems Lab, he devised a sustainable “building system” tailored to the Texas Gulf Coast environment: our climate, our pollutants, and our local expertise in structural engineering and architecture.
All the aspects of a home that most buyers don’t normally consider — from foundations to roofs, subfloors to ceilings — were evaluated against the 300-plus available products and technologies purporting to deliver on “sustainable” specifications. He made his selections but drew a blank when it came to finding a Texas-based builder with the existing knowledge or the willingness to learn how to implement his system.
And so he formed his first construction company, Durable Residential Builders, partnering with the creative and immensely well-connected veteran builder Jim Kuchenbrod to bring his “home of the future” to life.
The result was the outwardly unassuming and yet totally revolutionary Drummond House, the first sustainably built, energy-efficient residence of its kind in Houston which became the subject of a front-page story in the Houston Chronicle, an article in the Journal of Green Building, and a Department of Energy case study.
But why all the buzz? Because what Thomson set out to accomplish was not easy.
Houston is a harsh climate for homes and humanity alike. As we all discovered during the winter storm last year, this is neither the time nor the place for “bricks, sticks, and fiberglass,” as Thomson so candidly puts it.
Prolonged power outages and freezing conditions are one thing, but we also have dramatic, sometimes daily, swings in temperature and humidity, high winds and the occasional hurricane, invasive insects and varmints, record-high molds and pollens, petrochemical pollutants, and 500-year rain events far more frequently than every half-millennium.
And yet, building regulations require little more than a nod to insulation against these various assaults on our homes, which means that even high-end luxury housing is built to code-minimum standards from broadly inadequate materials.
By designing from the outside-in, the Nautilus Building System mounts a compelling defense against these various assailants. The tech specs are as technical as you would imagine, but the gist is this: Energy is both conserved and created within the home, resulting in some of the greatest efficiencies ever seen in a Houston residential property.
Furthermore, the air quality — with all penetrable surfaces so comprehensively sealed off from the outside, including the attic — is second to none. A home that offers respite from the intensity of an oak pollen season like the one we just experienced is salvation for the growing number of Houstonians receiving allergy diagnoses each year.
Sustainability within reach
It is one thing to deliver on all this impressive functionality. But what about the finances?
True, there are extra costs associated with building an energy-efficient home. But the medic at the helm of the Nautilus ship is motivated by his Hippocratic Oath to take care of humans, as well as the planet they inhabit. The green (money) and the green (environment) should work together to produce the best possible home for the price.
“Profits are important,” says Thomson, “but when they aren’t your driving factor you do more and you don’t cut corners. Our homes cost around 20 percent more to build than a traditional stick-built house, but for that you get a massive upgrade on the wall system, better-than-builder HVAC, an impressive solar panel array, and so much more.”
And these are the very technical elements that work together to make good on that larger initial investment over time, but also from day one. A Nautilus home will save money across the entire spectrum of home ownership: mortgage, bills, insurance, and maintenance. It will last longer and outpace the appreciation of its conventionally built neighbors. And, in the meantime, it is healthier for those who live in it.
The precarious nature of energy prices in particular — predicted to rise to unprecedented highs before the year is out — lends further credence to investing upfront in the building costs and mortgage (which are fixed and tax-deductible) versus spending it later on utilities and climate-related repairs (which are variable and vulnerable to geopolitical turmoil, as we have seen in recent weeks).
“Most agents and buyers focus on the moldings and finishes and ‘flow’ of a home,” Thomson continues. “The purchase cost of the house is considered, but not the living cost of the house. It’s only later, when they get the utility bills or have to repair damages from hurricanes or burst pipes or a termite infestation, that they feel the sting of the lacking efficiency behind the sheetrock.”
The next generation of builders
Wang’s technology focused brokerage recently launched NextGen Luxe: a division that is dedicated to buying and selling homes in the $1 million-and-up price bracket, so she is intimately familiar with the best that money can buy. But what she did not expect was a builder with one eye on the planet her children will inherit, and the other on the beautiful living spaces she brings to market.
And for those who believe in a third eye, this would be Thomson’s business acumen: the compelling fiscal case he makes for sustainable living.
“We specialize in true sustainability,” Thomson reminds us. “How do you build an energy-efficient home in Houston, and how do you make it work as an investment? In other words, what makes the home of the future?”
Wang couldn’t agree more.
“Honestly, it is refreshing to work with a construction professional who is concerned with building to the highest specifications possible at a price point that makes sense,” she says. “The notion of building it once and building it right is the future. Frankly, it should be the present, because it is never going to be cost-effective for a homeowner to retrofit energy efficiencies. But only Nautilus is building this way.”
A thriving partnership between NextGen Real Estate and Nautilus Custom Homes will come as no surprise to anyone following their respective trail-blazing business trajectories.
Whereas Nautilus is challenging the status quo of construction standards, NextGen is breathing new life into the staid practices of an old-school industry. Neither is interested in squeezing every last drop out of the profit margins; rather, they are committed to doing things differently. And by different they mean better.
Substance and style
So the substance is there in spades. But what about the style? This is, after all, the part that most buyers — rightly or wrongly — pay attention to. But the good news is that the style-seekers will not be disappointed with 4023 Lanark.
In fact, what began as built-in efficiencies became some of the most pleasing aesthetic features of the property. For example, the all-LED lighting is supplemented by more natural light than you would believe possible — a savings on electricity, for sure, but who doesn’t love bright and airy rooms with 12-foot ceilings?
Likewise, the high-efficiency appliances — from the elevator and the pin-drop quiet, 2-stage HVAC to the suite of Thermador whitegoods — are perfect for the sleek and modern design of the open-plan kitchen and living areas, complete with Avanti cabinetry and quartz countertops.
And the roof — pitched to capture maximum irradiance across the generous array of solar panels that power the home — becomes a feature in its own right by virtue of its striking geometry.
The vaulted ceiling and enormous picture windows lend an ultra-luxe feel to the primary bedroom without clocking up those kilowatt-hours. But sustainable living is about living your best life in the truest sense, and so these design elements go beyond mere energy efficiencies.
Walk into the oversized primary closet and you will find a custom storage system. Retreat to any of the secondary en suites and you will discover exquisite, spa-like finishes. The hardwood floors throughout, the custom double entry doors, the thoughtful little extras like the mudroom and the kitchen-adjacent back deck plumbed and ready for outdoor cooking — every possible fitting and fixture has been elevated to match the upgraded specifications beneath the surface.
It’s all there at 4023 Lanark, from the sun-drenched treetop terrace, complete with water/gas/electric hook-up and 270-degree views, to the fully insulated six-car garage preconfigured for a state-of-the-art wine room.
Like all the best design, Nautilus has found the most elegant solutions to the specific challenges presented by modern life. The result is an architectural coup of the kind you don’t come across too often. And that is what Thomson, together with Wang, would like to change.
Step inside the home of the future
“Traditional builders will tell you that they are building what the buying public demands,” says Thomson. “And, to a point, this is correct. But you could argue that the buying public doesn’t demand better because they don’t know better exists.”
Wang concurs: “What is exciting for me is how beautiful energy efficiency can look and feel. I’m now at the point of asking: Is it even luxe if it isn’t green?”
Food for thought from these powerhouses of real estate, who would be delighted to show you around 4023 Lanark Lane should you wish to make this home of the future your future home.
To find out more about how to build (or buy) a truly green luxury home, reach out to the Julia Wang Team at NextGen Real Estate (832) 736-1673.