When it comes to building green, Charles Thomas Homes proves it has high standards.
WHILE MOST HOMEBUILDERS cut corners on quality to save money and stay afloat during the economic downturn, Charles Thomas Homes went the opposite direction and became the leading builder of high-performance homes in Omaha, Nebraska. The company has built more Energy Star, EPA’s Indoor airPLUS and National Green Building Standard homes than any other builder in its area and managed to do so when the market was in dire straits.
Building high-performance homes has become something of an obsession for Charles Thomas Homes founder and President Tim Lowndes.
“I started off just trying to be more energy efficient, so I became an Energy Star builder,” he says. “But I got addicted to improving my houses as much as I possibly could, so I went beyond ENERGY STAR and kept adding more standard features until I got to the point where I was building to EPA’s Indoor airPLUS and the National Green Building Standard as well.”
Constructing homes in various climate regions has its own set of unique challenges, particularly in Nebraska, which falls within the Region 5 Climate Zone, known for its extreme levels of heat, cold and precipitation.
“You end up with comfort issues, such as a room upstairs being 10 degrees warmer than a room downstairs, or having to deal with frozen pipes in the wintertime, and that’s a big reason why I wanted to figure out a better way to build homes,” Lowndes says.
‘Sold on Building Science’
There’s a science to building custom homes to the highest performance standards in the most cost-efficient way possible, and Lowndes wrote the book on it – literally. In 2012, he published “Sold on Building Science: How the High-Performance New Home Will Make All Other Homes Obsolete,” which describes in detail how Charles Thomas Homes are built and why the company will have the competitive advantage in the future.
“My book is a blueprint for doing what I do, so any builder can read it and copy off of me,” Lowndes admits. “But most builders aren’t going to switch and build this kind of home if the market doesn’t completely demand it yet. Buyers still make emotional decisions; therefore, if a builder is busy building code-built homes, they won’t make a complete transition like we did. We just happened to do it during a market downturn when we were building fewer homes a year.”
Making Smart Decisions
Knowing how to build high-performance homes and still keep them affordable stems from Lowndes background as a certified public accountant. He entered the construction industry as a CFO for a different homebuilder, but when the owner of that company decided to “try something else,” Lowndes took over the company and continued to build code-built homes until 2008.
After the market downturn, he established Charles Thomas Homes, named after the younger of his two sons. That’s when he made the transition to building high-performance homes.
“From 2001 to 2008, we built homes to code like everyone else, and there wasn’t anything that separated us in the marketplace,” Lowndes says. “When the market was down and I needed to recreate myself, I realized I didn’t want to just compete on price.”
Charles Thomas Homes identified more cost-effective ways to add some of the amenities that are normally cost prohibitive, such as the way it air-seals and insulates its homes, and thus turned it into a high-performance home for a price the market can afford.
“That’s when my accounting and finance background has come in handy – being able to do cost comparisons and meet those higher standards while still keeping homes affordable and making a profit,” Lowndes says. “Our business model is different than other builders in that we don’t make nearly the gross profit other builders make on a home, but in our opinion, they have a lot bigger warranty risk.”
Just as his book “Sold on Building Science” is a tool for educating other homebuilders on the Charles Thomas Homes approach, Lowndes takes a similar approach to teaching potential customers the value of high-performance homes. Homeowners are encouraged to visit the company’s website (www.charlesthomashomes.com) to watch YouTube videos on how the homes are built before coming in to view the model home and see firsthand what makes them unique. For instance, signs posted on the walls explain what’s behind them and how they’ve been engineered to perform to a higher standard.
“We believe it’s what’s behind the walls that matters; what you can’t see is what really makes a difference,” Lowndes points out. “You can find a cheaper builder than us, but if you’re going to save $100 on utility costs you can afford to spend an extra $20,000 on our home. If you’ve done that, now you haven’t built an obsolete home.
“As building codes get more stringent with time, there’s going to be more high-performance homes on the resale market in the future,” Lowndes adds. “If you buy a home built to regular code and have to sell it in the future, you’ll have to compete against high-performance homes like mine.”
In order to satisfy Lowndes’ addiction to continuous improvement, Charles Thomas Homes has added a fourth certification: DOE Zero Energy Ready. “We have recently begun certifying our homes to the highest energy-efficient program out there,” Lowndes says.