Local builders learn Earth-friendly technique

Kevin and Stacy Finch Drake took training in environmentally friendly building methods.

When Scrabble residents Kevin and Stacy Finch Drake learned of EarthCraft Virginia, a new certification program for sustainable building, they took the training to become “approved” builders. The owners of Drake Custom Builders wanted to stay ahead of the curve and add to their own knowledge.

“We’re all about living naturally, and EarthCraft is a very natural approach — very holistic,” Stacy Drake said.

According to the program’s Web site, the certification “serves as a blueprint for healthy, comfortable homes that reduces utility bills and protects the environment.” The EarthCraft House Technical Guidelines state that the criteria “often exceed the minimum requirements of a product manufacturer, installer, or building code.”

The nonprofit EarthCraft program was developed by the Southface Energy Institute in Atlanta and spread throughout the nation’s Southeast. It’s similar to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System, but the criteria are less stringent and less costly to meet, according to the Drakes. EarthCraft is also tailored more to the Southeast’s climate. It has support from the National Home Builders Association, local building associations, and other nonprofits and businesses.

According to Andrew Grigsby, a local green-building expert who contracts as a regional technical adviser to EarthCraft Virginia, builders in the commonwealth were slow to incorporate sustainable practices. The Virginia Sustainable Building Network thought EarthCraft would “jump start” green building here and worked with the Home Builders Association of Virginia, the Virginia Community Development Corporation, and Southface to get the program up and running here in 2005.

ndrew Grigsby, left, works with Kevin Drake on EarthCraft techniques.

By March of this year, EarthCraft Virginia had certified 500 homes and earned the Department of Energy’s national ENERGY STAR® Award for Excellence in Affordable Housing. Its Web site lists 185 approved building firms; Drake Custom Building is the only one in Rappahannock so far.

The EarthCraft guidelines cover all aspects of building — from energy efficiency, to health aspects of materials used, to where the house is sited. Every criterion that is met scores points, with three tiers of certification. The program also offers “Innovative Points” to builders who submit sustainable building measures that are not included in the guidelines.

The recent wave of building certification programs is a sign that the interest in sustainable building has gone beyond where it started in the 1960s, on the fringe, says Grigsby: “It’s green building going mainstream.” He adds that now it’s the builders who want to demonstrate that their work is certified as sustainable by a third party.

Buyers, too, benefit by being assured of exactly what’s been done to the house that makes it green and that a third party has tested to make sure the sustainability criteria have been met. As the EarthCraft Virginia Web site puts it, “EarthCraft House is your best assurance for a quality home.”

A lot of what Kevin Drake was doing before the EarthCraft training, such as using recycled blue-jean material for insulation, already fit into the program.

“Most decent builders incorporate 90 percent of the practices,” Drake says. He points out that, while building materials that meet EarthCraft standards are not necessarily 100 percent free from having environmental and health impacts, they generally are greener than other materials used in the building trade.

Stacy Drake says that, while most of their clients don’t specifically ask for a sustainable approach to remodeling, they are interested in saving money through lowering energy costs and using less water, and in avoiding allergens. Since these objectives coincide with EarthCraft guidelines, the Drakes try to apply them where they can.

Why don’t all their clients want to go green? “They think green means twice the price,” says Kevin Drake. He says it doesn’t have to be that way and he points to the fact that most Habitat for Humanity organizations in Virginia are EarthCraft approved. A nonprofit, Habitat builds small, efficient housing for low-income people.

“If Habitat can do EarthCraft, anybody can,” Stacy Drake says. She adds that owners will save money down the road through energy efficiency, which, along with the use of nonallergenic building components, should also lead to a higher resale value.

Kevin Drake got involved in the building trade early in his life by doing home improvements. Now he’s eager to take on building a house from scratch and is talking with a prospective client in Oakton about doing just that. She has expressed interest in using sustainable practices, so he’s hoping to apply EarthCraft criteria.

Green building is not the only sustainable aspect of the Drakes’ lives. Both Kevin and Stacy grew up in Northern Virginia suburbs but prefer country living. They moved from a Winchester subdivision to a 1920s farmhouse in Scrabble two years ago after learning about Hearthstone School from a friend. They thought the school’s approach to education would be good for their children — Josh, John, and Kylee– and found that, not only was Hearthstone a good fit for the kids, Rappahannock was a good fit for the whole family.

“In Winchester, we were the weird ones,” says Stacy. They drank raw milk; sought out local, sustainable sources for their food; used a “natural, holistic” approach to educating their children; and otherwise differed from most of their neighbors. She now finds that “here in Rappahannock, we’re more the norm.”

Like the proverbial shoemaker whose children are often barefoot, the Drakes are not sure when they’re going to get around to building the addition they’re planning for their own house, since Kevin’s too busy working on other people’s houses. The addition, which will follow EarthCraft guidelines, is in the design phase.

EarthCraft uses a computerized simulation model to determine the energy efficiency of houses and has recently started a pilot program for certifying remodeling projects. If the energy ratings for an entire house are improved by at least 30 percent through the remodeling effort, the house can be certified, Grigsby says. The Drakes are working with him on the design for their addition to ensure it meets that requirement.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 280 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”