Green builder Marc Rutenberg has a reputation for homes that are both classic and innovative, combining sustainable technology, energy efficiency and exciting designs that appeal to a variety of home owners.
His vision for “net-zero America” is currently featured in a PBS series on the design and build of high-performance, energy efficient homes and the future of America’s fuel source. Rutenberg and his construction teams are leading the way right now, with zero-energy homes and villages for environmentally conscious buyers at every price-point.
As a custom “on-your-lot” builder, Rutenberg’s construction teams are working in just about every neighborhood in the Greater Tampa Bay area. They are bringing zero-energy, green and high-performance homes to all categories of development—from waterfront lots on the bays, lakes, and beaches of greater Tampa to city lots, gated communities, non-deed restricted neighborhoods and golf course communities. Rutenberg is also a “hands-on” CEO, taking care in the selection, training, and retention of every team member--from entry-level crew member to CMs.
We spoke with Rutenberg and Sales Director Ron Schulte to learn more about the firm's vision, projects, how they are making energy efficient, high-performance, low-maintenance custom homes a reality for the majority of home buyers.
TPB: You've won numerous awards. Tell us about the evolution of your most successful design series.
Rutenberg: Not that many years ago we opened the Castaway Grand model, held the Grand Opening party, poured plenty of wine, ate well, and left with an commitment that this would be the last fuddy-duddy home we would ever build. The home was beautiful, everyone was happy, the company was making money, but I was empty. Probably bored, and certainly walking away from the party deciding what would come next.
The next day we started a design meeting for a new home and I announced, “once more, with feeling,” as we embarked to create a Marc Rutenberg home that would satisfy our client and continue to build our reputation. The only problem, the feeling was ‘here we go, another beautiful architectural dinosaur.’ That day began the two year commitment to build the first zero-energy model home open to the public–the LEED Platinum Castaway III. Yes, another party for the Grand Opening, but this time, my party, and celebrating the best home we have ever built.
TPB: How do you strike a balance between creating an energy efficient home that also matches the lifestyle of the family that will live there?
Rutenberg: The design project is the foundation that we build upon. The intent for how a home functions and, ultimately the operational goals that are achieved, are largely determined at the beginning of the design concept. Good design is bringing together form and function, and not often seen in residential architecture. In the concept development of a zero energy home, and extending this performance standard into LEED project objectives, we meet the connection between design and performance from the first lines drawn for every home we create.
TPB: How do you explain Net-Zero to a customer?
Rutenberg: We have come to find that our home owners best understand net-zero, or zero-energy as a home without an electric bill. We then take this concept another step, and rely on electrical energy generated from the home's photovoltaic system to provide energy for all of our homes' requirements excepting the few natural gas sources preserved for our outdoor grill and outdoor spa.
In the Castaway III for example, our home generates more energy from the PV system than it uses. The Castaway III has a HERS score of negative 15, derived from a constant improvement in performance over and above the initial design specification.
Schulte: “Beautiful. Imaginative. Green.” Net-zero is integral in saving planet Earth and is integral to each home owner’s legacy to future generations. Sustainability is the payoff for investing 10% to 12% of additional cost of building your home for zero-energy features. Also, consider the 30% tax credit for zero-energy features and no electric bill. There is a huge appreciation in the value of the home due to the technology. Additionally, there is the value of enhancing your family’s personal health, which is a direct result of energy efficient technology delivering indoor air quality expected from high performance design.
TPB: What are some of the key features of a green Rutenberg custom built home?
Schulte: Features vary by model but you will find features such as Energy Star windows, bamboo flooring, Aurora LED lighting, which lasts about 15 years and burns cooler. The HVAC system has one compressor and five indoor zones. We also install a AET solar thermal water heater with an electric backup for overcast days. Blue World Crete cement is used in the foundation; it has a low-carbon footprint. We also use synthetic gypsum drywall, which is recycled and not mined. Tiling is made from recycled glass. There are mildew-free showers and high-efficiency faucets and toilets. Numerous other eco-conscious features are available for the home as well as the garage.
Rutenberg: What we are experiencing, in this market, is parallel with certain luxury products that were first introduced as high-performance costly alternatives that have moved closer to the mainstream market. A good example is the introduction by Tesla of the new Tesla 3, which more than doubled the Tesla reservation numbers the first day of its offering. We have been working on a completely new platform to introduce zero energy homes to a mainstream market for several years. The project will be the first zero energy neighborhood completely committed to a sustainable home, with every home built to net zero standards.
TPB: What is the build status of the zero-energy neighborhood and villages?
Rutenberg: The zero-energy village will deliver affordable homes that do not have an electric bill. The Sanctuary at Grey Oaks in Tarpon Springs Florida will be one of the first affordable 100% inclusive zero-energy villages to be built in the U.S. Our launch will be 2017, or maybe even late 2016. Floor plans and elevation concepts are already completed. Over the next decade, this will be the most important area of product and neighborhood planning for not only Marc Rutenberg Homes, but for many in the housing industry who recognize the measure of our next generation will be for more than curb appeal and a monthly payment.
TPB: What is one of your toughest challenges in the process of getting these homes to mainstream accessibility?
Rutenberg: For the net-zero home to truly move to the market mainstream we must reconstruct the current financing qualification calculations. For example, if you increase the initial cost of your home for the purpose of meaningfully reducing its operating cost, you would be inclined to balance the added cost of the investment and compare this to the expected savings from your homes operation.
This pragmatic approach is not supported by the current “normal” in the banking industry. Few, if any, of the secondary market programs are designed to recognize this very obvious sensibility. A number of approaches are being discussed. These range from increasing the qualifying ratios of the mortgage applicant to actual offsets to calculate the adjusted gross income, providing the applicant a greater adjusted gross income that results from the decreased operational costs of the home. These qualifying measures will be as important to the success of the mainstream zero-energy project as the home itself.
TPB: What are the key skills, competencies and experience you expect when hiring crews?
Schulte: When hiring construction managers each and every candidate is tested extensively. I remember many times Marc telling us that if a candidate does not show promise to become a “Building Company President” then he will not hire them. Marc makes a long-term commitment to his employees and expects the same from the employee. Our lead construction manager has been with us for 23 years, which is unheard of in the new homebuilding industry. Likewise, our entry-level personnel also are tested extensively. Concerning subcontractors and vendors providing the material and labor—most of these key producers have been servicing Marc Rutenberg Homes for 10-25 years. The new technology that is a part of every Marc Rutenberg Home requires substantial training and in many instances certification. Can you imagine sending your plumber, electrician, mason, etc., back to school? Marc Rutenberg does. As for myself—let’s just say I’m a wild card with 48 years of development, construction, design, finance, sales and marketing experience from Nebraska to Texas to Florida to Bahamas.
TPB: What’s on your blueprint for the second half of 2016?
Rutenberg: This year we will first introduce the Turtle Beach neighborhood located in Crystal Beach, Florida. Turtle Beach is old Florida; a waterfront neighborhood in Pinellas County that sits on land that you might find once in a lifetime. The land is surrounded by Sutherland Bayou and extends into the Intracoastal Waterway as it blends into the Gulf of Mexico.
And since you asked, Turtle Beach is the first neighborhood in Florida to voluntarily be designed for the important Water Star certification, a further commitment to environmental stewardship and water conservation. At the same time we are working on the Wilds at Hawks Landing, a small upscale neighborhood nestled into the Brooker Creek Preserve in north Pinellas County.
Here we are introducing the next generation of the Zero Energy Initiative. The new generation concept will explore both the technical and performance requirements of the zero-energy home, but will bring to market a changing point of view in both lifestyle and home sensibilities. The highlight of the year will be the Grand Opening the Zero Energy Breakwater model home.
This home departs from the long held expectation that a singular architectural theme limits the range of design and interest of the Florida home builder. The Breakwater, a planned LEED Platinum project is a step into prairie style design, contemporary in character, organic in its materials, and stunningly beautiful. Our grand opening is coming late this summer.