Square Root Architecture goes green, prefab for housing

By Gabe House

Jeff Sommers, the president and principal architect of Square Root Architecture, specializes in energy-efficient residential structures built in a prefabricated fashion.

He is also a realist.

“If anyone tells you it doesn’t cost more to build green, then punch them in the face and walk away,” Sommers said. “It doesn’t have to be 50 percent more, but it costs more. Better quality always does, and that’s why we try to control that cost by building offsite with modular. We can reinvest those savings in better insulation, windows and doors. Or better mechanicals.”

The ultimate goal, Sommers explained, is not necessarily to save a great deal of money in the construction budget, but rather to build a better product with better materials that will perform better in the long run.

“The construction industry in the United States is at least 30 to 40 years behind where a lot of other nations in the world are, so we’ve got a lot of catching up to do,” Sommers said. “All these homes I’m building are basically case studies and arguments for building a better way.”

Sommers and his wife, Michele, who is also the operations director for Square Root Architecture, moved from Chicago to Springfield last July in order to raise their children near family. Since Sommers had worked nearly 20 years in Chicago, the majority of his work still resides there as well, necessitating commutes by train.

“We are trying to go after a few projects down here (in Springfield),” Sommers said. “I’m hoping in 2015 to have some projects being built here. I think there’s actually a huge opportunity down here.”

Sommers just has to change some perspectives to get that done. People are often skeptical of prefabricated housing, Sommers said, as it can have a negative connotation. The notion of essentially building a home in a factory on an assembly line can seem a bit odd at first thought, but it’s not a new idea. In fact, Sommers said, it’s practically the norm in some foreign countries and has been for decades.

“In places like Sweden, I think they build between 90 and 95 percent of their homes as prefab,” Sommers said. “Ironically, if you get something built onsite there, they look at you funny.

“It’s mind-boggling to me that most manufacturing of anything out there, whether it’s an iPhone or a car, is done in a quality-controlled, systematic process … but we continue to build homes in this archaic way. We go to Home Depot and throw all these disparate pieces together.”

Prefabricated housing has a number of benefits. The timeline can be drastically decreased due to the highly structured process. While the onsite contractors are busy excavating, doing concrete work and preparing the foundation, the home’s pieces – Sommers compares them to Tetris pieces – are being built in a quality-controlled factory setting to exact specifications.

Those specifications are often predicated on energy-usage estimates compiled by third-party energy modelers Sommers hires for several reasons. These models allow for proper mechanical systems to be put in place. An overly large furnace is just as inefficient as an undersized one. The usage estimates are also compared with real-world utility company rates, and once the home is complete those estimates are tested. This is perhaps the most important aspect as this data is what Sommers uses to apply for numerous certifications, from Energy Star for energy savings to the American Lung Association for indoor air quality.

“When you do an energy model you get a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score on a level that’s about 50 percent better than what the energy code requires,” Sommers said. “The basic home scores at a HERS rating of 100, and energy star qualifications start at 70-75. Ours usually score between 30 and 50 on the scale.”

In addition to a positive impact on the environment through more efficient utility and resource usage, Sommers’ homes are often rife with opportunities for grants and tax breaks at both the state and federal levels.

“A typical solar system for us is a two-panel solar thermal system for producing hot water and, surprisingly, hot water is a big culprit of energy usage in a home, so if you can offset that, you’re doing good,” Sommers said. “That system costs about $12,000 but if you apply a 30 percent grant to it along with a 30 percent tax credit, the return on investment is pretty palatable for most people.”

Dollars saved, Sommers said, is often a much greater incentive to clients than an altruistic, eco-friendly approach. That they almost always go hand-in-hand is a bonus.
A large hurdle, though, is financing. Reconciling client wish lists with the pragmatic business of dollars and cents – often controlled by financial institutions that are reticent to look at grants and tax breaks as part of the bottom line of a loan – is a tricky affair. And it’s primarily what is holding Sommers back at the moment, at least in the Springfield area.

But he has a good idea of where to start.

“What’s interesting is the need downtown for residential housing. It’s been proven by a number of studies that we need upwards of 500 to 1,000 residential units downtown. We are trying to take advantage of that. Why not build to a higher standard? So that’s what we’re working toward.”

Gabe House works in the lending department at United Community Bank. He can be reached at 217-787-3000 or ghouse@ucbbank.com.