The USGBC’s Texas Gulf Coast Chapter is making inroads into middle-class green living.
By Kiley Jacques
Since 2008, U. S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Texas Gulf Coast Chapter board chair, Sergio Grado, has been promoting Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes in Houston. Grado, owner of GradCo Structures and Homes—a construction company specializing in green building—has made it his mission to push LEED certification toward the mainstream. He feels most green efforts are made in either low-income sectors or among affluent homeowners. According to Grado, multifamily, section eight, or million-plus-dollar homes are more likely to be LEED certified than are those belonging to the middle class. “That’s where the bulk of the activity is being seen right now,” notes Grado. The other arm of the effort is in the military, which is building LEED-certified army barracks and homes.
But he and board members Paul Vanderwal and Michael Martin, among others, are working to change that. “Here in Houston, we are trying to spotlight those builders who have taken it upon themselves to [construct] super energy-efficient homes,” he explains. In 2010, Grado joined forces with Vanderwal, a local architect focused on sustainability, and Martin, partner of law firm Martin & Stillwell, LLP, to organize the Piney Woods branch of the chapter. “We really need to get more of the mainstream builders involved in LEED for Homes, and get them to start including it in their marketing efforts,” says Grado.
Toward that end, the branch aims to build a home that will inspire contractors and homeowners to go green. The goal is to have people understand that LEED for Homes is highly beneficial and affordable. When Roger Platt, president of USGBC, came on board in October 2014, Grado spoke with him about his mission in Houston. “There are inroads we are trying to make,” he says. “Our chapter’s Piney Woods branch is doing a project in partnership with New Caney High School.” Modeled after a shipping container home designed by Costa Rican architect Benjamin Garcia Saxe, they plan to build a LEED-certified demonstration home. Grado purchased the rights to the design, but finding a place to locate it proved challenging. They wanted an easily accessible, highly visible locale that residents would readily visit. They looked high and low, to no avail. “We even tried putting it in a park so people would come out and see it,” notes Grado.
Ultimately, the vocational high school in New Caney agreed to host it on their property. Students from the welding and carpentry training programs will work alongside volunteer architects and contractors focused on sustainability. The project will be a real grassroots undertaking—one with regional reach. “The school will give us a lot of exposure—between students, parents, and media,” says Grado, who really values the public venue.
When completed, the home will feature energy efficiency, recycling, water management, and green products. Constructed from two 40-foot cube shipping containers, it will function “completely off the grid,” with solar panels, a composting toilet, a rainwater capture system, and a thermal dynamic water heater; the Piney Woods branch will seek LEED certification for the project. “Whether it will be Gold or Platinum is still unknown because it is a work in progress right now,” notes Grado.
His hope is that the model will influence Montgomery County community members to make their own homes green. He also hopes nonprofit organizations addressing the demand for affordable housing will look to it as an example of what can be built. “I know that if we get this [demonstration home] built, it would really send a message that LEED for Homes can be affordable,” says Grado. The home will be worth $50,000, at base price.
The city of Houston and the Houston independent school district have shown a lot of interest in the project. Other schools have even approached Grado to ask if similar efforts could be made on their properties. “The great thing about that is they actually have the money to pay for it,” says Grado. That, in part, is what the city likes about the proposal. In fact, officials have given thought to the idea of LEED homes being developed in areas where homes under $80,000 are desperately needed. The board even spoke at length with a resident who owned a condemned property; they suggested the house be demolished and replaced with a shipping container home. He entertained the idea. “There’s a lot of interest there, we just don’t have the showcase model yet,” says Grado. “If we can [build it] and attach LEED for Homes to it, then we can make some progress.”
That’s why the New Caney project is so important—when people come through the house with questions, they will have answers. They will be in a position to refer builders, break down costs, discuss requirements, and explain codes. For Grado, that’s the real value of the home—it will be a platform for promoting green building principles among the mainstream populace.
The LEED for Homes mission truly takes root in places where people constantly champion the effort. Grado is one of Houston’s greatest champions. At this point, he’d like to know who else is ready to take up the bullhorn. “We’re committed, but in order to really get the message out there, it’s got to get into the mainstream.”