This Issue
 
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Frankel Building Group has cultivated a top-notch reputation for its dedication to designing and building LEED homes.
WRITTEN BY Judith Nemes | Photographed By Michael Stavato

A pocket of affluent suburban neighborhoods in oil-rich Houston wouldn’t likely pop up on most people’s radar as a hotbed of construction for LEED-certified homes. Seattle or Portland, Oregon, might come to mind first.

 

But Frankel Building Group—a family-owned design/build company—has quietly cultivated a top-notch reputation for its steadfast dedication to designing and building homes in the Houston area that achieve LEED just about every time they finish a project. Since shifting their focus to only building Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) homes in 2010, Frankel Building has constructed an impressive 100 homes pursuing LEED, with about 90 of them already certified, according to Scott Frankel, 34, the younger of two sons who joined their father Jim in the family business in 2006.

 

What most people don’t know is that the founder, Jim Frankel, and his sons Scott and Kevin, veered onto the path of building only green homes by accident. No one would call them tree-huggers or diehard environmentalists. Sure, they care about the environment, but that was not the driver behind a dramatic shift in the business that Jim Frankel started back in 1967. The impetus to pivot stemmed from a deep concern about designing and building the best high-quality homes that would be both beautiful and sustainable for their clients for decades to come.

 

Long-term sustainability—or a lack of it—was how Scott Frankel described one of the principal motivators that led to a shift in building practices soon after he and his brother showed up on the scene around 2006. Before joining the family enterprise, Scott spent a few years working for another local builder with no ties to his dad’s business. There, he saw less expensive materials used in home construction, but some of them proved more durable than some of the higher-end components his dad was using in his designs back then, recalls Frankel.

 

”At the time, builders like my dad were using custom products that were expensive and beautiful, but they weren’t sensitive to the micro-climate we’re in, which is hot and humid,” he describes rather bluntly. It was the same story with high-end doors, floors, and other features that just didn’t hold up to the Texas heat and humidity over the long haul, says Frankel.

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Scott Frankel of the Frankel Building Group.

These were among the first motivators for building a more sustainable home that was more durable for the local environment, says Frankel. “It was our ‘Eureka!’ moment,” he says enthusiastically. “My brother and I were in our mid-20s at the time. We said we didn’t want to go into homes when we’re in our 40s that we built in our 20s and see them falling apart.”

 

When Scott and Kevin joined their dad’s firm, they brought a holistic approach to reassessing the company’s building and design techniques. They pulled apart every system and product used in their home constructions and looked intensely at how materials or the way systems were deployed (like HVAC, water heaters, faucets, and shower heads) could be improved so they could outlast the younger Frankel brothers, as Scott puts it.

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The Frankels began using fiberglass and wood doors in their newer home designs. They turned out to be a good choice for local weather conditions because the hybrid construction mitigates warping and rot. Another gamechanger for the Frankels was the use of clad windows made of aluminum or extruded metal on the outside, while maintaining good-quality wood on the inside. “The goal was to eliminate the need for a builder’s warranty because the windows would last so long there wasn’t a need for one,” Frankel says.

 

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Using products such as aluminum-clad windows as well as LED lighting are just two ways Frankel Building creates more sustainable homes.

When they looked at their previous homes’ standard HVAC systems (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning), they found great potential to reduce energy consumption and lower monthly bills for buyers in the process. The air conditioning systems on the market before that time typically were single-speed—either on or off—and it would cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars a month to keep a 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot home nice and cool as a shelter from the oppressive Texas heat, says Frankel.

 

Around 2007, Frankel began adopting newer dual-speed AC products that were hitting the market. The goal was to promote energy efficiency and lower the operating cost for homebuyers. Being able to tell potential homebuyers in Texas that their cooling system doesn’t have to blast at full force all the time was a great selling point for that market. Still, the Frankels didn’t see themselves as particularly green at the time. They really just wanted to get out of the warranty business, Scott emphasizes.

 

“Right around the time we were going through the process (of evaluating all design features and materials), the green movement started to gain some real steam,” says Frankel. “Our competitors started saying they were green because that’s what people began to get interested in. But we saw some greenwashing going on, where they [competitors] made certain claims about being green—and then we realized what we were doing was more green than the others even though we weren’t initially calling it that.”

 

Looking at their business from a competitive standpoint, the Frankels decided to seek out certification from a third-party organization that could independently verify how green and sustainable their new homes are. They quickly learned the best seal of approval for the greenest homes was LEED, established by the U.S. Green Building Council.

 

The Frankel brothers decided to make green building a new branding strategy that would set their company apart from other designers and builders in the Houston market.

 

When the Frankel brothers shared the news of their plans to rebrand themselves as a firm in Houston that would focus exclusively on designing and building LEED-certified homes, they were met with a chorus of experts in their local industry who told them it was a bad idea, recalls Scott Frankel.

 

“Realtors told us not to do it; architects, engineers, and even some of our (friendly) competitors said ’don’t do it’,” he says, because that kind of single-minded focus might fall out of favor over time or be unappealing to buyers who didn’t care about green home construction.

 

He continued: “But no one else was doing LEED exclusively in the Houston area. There were one-off projects. Maybe there was a pioneer family that had the means to do it and didn’t care if it took lots of time or didn’t look like any of the homes around them. We chose to build LEED homes as a way to continue our quest to build a better home and to continue to measure ourselves against something that was hard to do.”

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The Frankel Building Group has built more than 100 LEED-certified houses.

Indeed, building a LEED home is difficult, admits Scott, adding that he and his brother are spending money and time researching and learning how to construct the best possible product for their clients that will stand the test of time.

 

“Kevin and I are more motivated by the sustainable impact of building a home than by using recycled bamboo, for example,” he says. “We use all non-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, but countertops don’t have to be made of recycled materials.” Their clients can use all sorts of sexy, chic natural stones and deep natural woods that are considered eco-friendly, but their primary emphasis is on resiliency and sustainability, Frankel asserts.

 

“We just don’t want to build it twice. Part of our Eureka LEED moment occurred when we needed to tear down a 5,000-square-foot home that was built only 20 years ago because it just wasn’t built well,” he recalls. “I thought about how many trees were cut down to build that home and how much waste that represented.

 

“My brother and I are still young and idealistic. We see LEED as the best way to run a for-profit business [in the design/build sector] because it pushes us to put out a better product and have less impact on the planet and on our city. What we want is to build homes that will last longer than any others out there. My brother’s in-laws are living in a 100-year-old house in Wisconsin. That’s what I want for the houses we build.”

 

The standards for LEED are constantly improving and to participate and maintain LEED ratings, Frankel Building Group has to keep evolving to retain its status as a trendsetter in its region. So far, that hasn’t been a problem. “We’re constantly at the forefront and always trying new things based on what we hear and based on the prescriptive advice of independent green raters,” Scott explains.

 

For example, green raters suggested the Frankels begin incorporating tankless water heaters, or at least a hybrid tankless water heater into their building design. They also upgraded their insulation and began using foam insulation throughout the house because they learned that was a guaranteed way to keep a home well sealed so it can produce lower energy bills in the process.

 

Another difficult element to committing to green building practices and products is the upfront cash commitment. After opening their first model LEED home in July 2010, the Frankels realized they could only pursue that high standard at an affordable price if they got every production company they work with to buy all the same high-quality windows.

 

“We got every production company to say ‘yes,’” says Scott gleefully. ”I don’t shrink from people who tell me ‘no.’ I also know that I rode in on the coattails of my dad and he didn’t need to work hard any more. He built wonderful houses all those previous years.”

 

Even though Scott and Kevin weren’t partners yet in the business (in 2008), their dad agreed to finance the production of spec homes that met LEED certification standards at that time. The first ones were completed in 2010.

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A Frankel-built home currently is selling in the $1 million range, but Scott assures buyers they’re getting a product with parts that won’t need to be replaced—except for upgrades—any time soon. The company is building homes in affluent suburban areas around Houston, including Tanglewood, Memorial, Bellaire, Briargrove, West University, and The Woodlands.

 

Back in 2010 after the Frankels built their first spec home according to LEED specifications, there wasn’t much of a market for those types of homes in the Houston area. Now on MLS websites in Houston, sellers check a box on the listing that informs potential buyers if the home has a LEED certification. ”All these hotels and other big commercial builders wouldn’t be building LEED if they didn’t see a higher return on their investment,” says Frankel. ”We believe that will eventually translate to the residential market, too.”

 

Frankel is convinced that builders who commit to following LEED design and building standards will make more money because more and more clients are seeking that out.

 

”Not enough builders are doing this yet, so get in early in your market and you’ll be one of the few who will become known for this kind of design,” Frankel advises. ”Get your processes down to a science and get buy-in from your entire staff—from your administrative personnel to the guys in the punch-out process at the end. It takes a holistic approach to building green and it takes the knowledge of everyone involved to make sure you meet the qualifications. That will make everyone proud of what they do.”

Educating the Homeowner

 

Jenny and Brian Usner weren’t specifically shopping for an eco-friendly house when they decided to purchase a custom-built home from Frankel Building Group. The sustainable features were extra sweeteners that helped seal the deal because they demonstrated the builder’s commitment to important high-quality facets of the home that wouldn’t need replacing any time soon, recalls Jenny, who moved into a 4,500-square-foot home with her husband and two kids in September 2013. The family settled in The Woodlands, a Houston suburb about 35 miles north of the city, which was only about six miles from their last home.

 

“We weren’t well versed in all that eco stuff, but we had some quality issues with our previous production-built home,” says Jenny, 36. “We saw that the Frankels pay a lot of attention to the homes they build. They’re specific and custom, but it also made us feel these products are good for our kids and will last a long time.”


While there aren’t any wind turbines or solar panels installed on the roof of their new place, the more sustainable features focus on energy efficiency and materials that won’t have to be replaced—and sent to a landfill—any time soon.


When friends come to visit, the major attraction of the Usners’ home tour is a trip to their walk-in attic next to the game room where they like to show off the spray foam insulation that keeps them super comfortable in the punishing Texas summer heat. They boast that the insulation is the reason behind their dramatically lower energy bills.


“Our AC bill in August runs about $150, compared to our old home that was smaller and used to cost us about $400 a month in the hottest summer months,” explains Jennifer. The couple estimates they’re saving about $3,600 a year on air conditioning and heating bills and there’s less energy that has to be generated for their home—a plus for the planet. That energy conservation and many features that won’t have to be swapped out for years to come—such as windows, doors, and floors made of wood and sustainable synthetic materials—are among the factors that contributed to the USGBC’s certification of LEED to the Usners’ home.


“We’ve got a really great house,” says Jenny enthusiastically. “Custom homes are usually more expensive, but we know we’ll get a payback just by living in a home where everything will last a long, long time.”