Would You Invest 40 Percent More Money For Sustainable Real Estate?

For Tiffany Ivins, everything changed while walking along the deck of a boat cruising the Mekong River—a vital waterway for some 400 million people in six southeast Asian nations. After dropping something into the water, she was preparing to dive into the water to retrieve it when a group of her shipmates stopped her. They were there, coincidentally, to measure the river’s out of control pollution levels, and explained to her that the river was full of unsafe levels of carcinogens.

“These hydrologists told us that the reason the Mekong is so dangerous is that Chinese industries dump into it far upstream,” Ms. Ivins says. “We’re homebuilders and know that a lot of building products used in the US come from that part of China. That was our defining moment. We didn’t want to be part of the problem anymore. That’s when we committed that we would only build net zero.” Ms. Ivins and her husband Mitchell Spence own Redfish Builders, a Utah-based homebuilder now known for creating radically energy efficient net zero homes. That means their homes generate all their own energy and emit zero pollutants.

For Redfish, the first challenge was not just to determine whether homebuyers would pay the 30 percent to 40 percent premium for an extremely well-built, energy efficient home, but also whether lenders would risk capital on one. “Everybody was saying, ‘You can’t build a green home and make money on it. There’s nothing for the banks to compare them to’,” says Mr. Spence. “But we knew if we could crack that nut, there was a sustainable business model in there, and we decided to find it.” The first step was attracting investment capital itself.

“Capital is a scared animal. It does not like uncertainty,” says Dr. Laura Nelson, executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development (OED). “And so when it comes to Utah’s policy and regulatory landscape we try to message the importance of certainty and clarity. We believe that markets work and that [consumer] preference is revealed in markets, and increasingly consumers want energy to be not only affordable and reliable but also clean.”

The OED was created in 2011 with a mandate to—among other things—propose policies supporting cost-effective and renewable energy resources. In the OED, Shawna Cuan advises on efficient and renewable energy policy. It was Ms. Cuan who helped Redfish sidestep a major hurdle: how to make it easier for green homebuyers to get mortgages on homes costing more than those of comparable size in the vicinity. “Shawna met with us and said ‘How can the governor’s office help open up pathways for you to accomplish this kind of work?’” Ms. Ivins recalls. “We’d just hit the roadblocks of the appraisers, who didn’t have any kind of complementary training to help them accurately assess the value of a home that generates all the energy it utilizes. She said, ‘We can reach out to the appraisers and offer a training program to build their capacity to assess value around energy efficiency.’”

Next to sustainability, the word that comes up most often when talking with Ivins and Spence about their work is resilience, usually in reference to energy resilience—meaning the ability to operate independently of the energy grid and the inevitable disruptions…