Looking at the BIG Picture

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Thomas Arledge Photography

As new generations begin to buy homes and as older generations begin to think about the future, what is on the horizon for housing? Efficiency is now a quality that many potential home buyers look for, whether it is energy efficiency, material durability and efficiency, space efficiency, or cost. Many designers, builders, and developers are challenged to creatively give buyers the efficiency they desire without compromising the comforts of a traditional home or significantly increasing costs.

Karen Benner, of EYA in Bethesda, Maryland, is this year’s Best in Green Young Professional of the Year Award winner—just the second winner of this new award given out by NAHB for the first time in 2015. She was nominated by her local HBA, the Maryland Building Industry Association. Here, the creative and inspiring young builder and designer provides insight into her inspiration for sustainable design and high performance building, including her company’s vision and her thoughts on the future of housing.

NAHB: Tell me a little bit about your position and what you do at EYA?

Karen Benner (KB): I perform a wide variety of functions for EYA, but primarily I am responsible for managing our outside design consultants (like architects, structural engineers and mechanical, electrical and plumbing engineers) from the beginning of the design development phase throughout construction administration. In addition, I oversee the decision making and documentation of our interior unit finishes and options program, which is the fun, touchy-feely stuff. Home owners get to customize their home within the boundaries of what we can manage as a production builder. Some options are structural, such as a bay window or alternate bath plan, and can even add a whole story to the home. Option packages vary in size based on the price point and market. I also oversee the green building program and its goals for each community.

NAHB: How has your role adapted to the changes in construction and the housing market over the almost 12 years you have been with EYA?

KB: There is a lot more emphasis on risk mitigation. Now more than ever, we focus on decisions that could backfire, particularly related to building science. For instance, with all of the emphasis on building tight envelopes, we try to find a balance between allowing the home to breathe and keeping moisture from building up. In some instances, there are risks associated with our options program. We try to find a balance in offering homebuyers the extras they want versus offering something just because it looks cool or is trendy, but may carry unnecessary risk.

NAHB: What is your company’s vision in terms of green building construction?

KB: We were heavily focused on having third-party green building certification on all of our homes a few years ago because it gave us a competitive advantage. However, since the last code cycle, most of the techniques and practices that made us unique are now required. We are still committed to verifying to third-party testing, but mitigating risk is now our primary focus. Later this year, our company plans to evaluate its current business model and determine what needs to change based on the green home marketplace.

NAHB: How are your projects unique, and how are they true to this vision?

KB: The reason EYA considered third-party green certification in 2006 was because as an urban infill, high-density homebuilder we were already “green.” Our company profile gave us great momentum in achieving points towards several green certification programs, because our townhomes already were often located near existing infrastructure, transportation and other amenities, and they had high density. From a design perspective, just having a garage attached to your townhome was not expected 20 years ago. We started incorporating rear-loaded garages, which helps to maintain streetscape, which I also think set our projects apart for a long time.

Finally, we focus on the entire homebuyer experience, from the original visit to our sales office, through the warranty period, and beyond. There are very few folks that an EYA homeowner will interact with throughout their experience who is not an EYA employee. We are a very dedicated and passionate team of folks who want to deliver a high-quality home, neighborhood, community, and lifestyle.

NAHB: Are you seeing a trend toward “healthy homes?”

KB: Although not unheard of, we haven’t come across these requests too frequently.

NAHB: What sustainable practice or feature do your clients most commonly choose to incorporate in their homes?

KB: Since a lot of the homes that we build include flat roofs, we are seeing the addition of solar photovoltaic arrays after settlement.

NAHB: What do you find to be the biggest obstacle for the creation of sustainable projects? Is it in the construction itself, the design, the marketing, or what exactly?

KB: The design and construction of a “green” home is not our biggest hurdle. EYA, just like most developers, can design and build anything as long as a home owner is willing to pay for it. Our biggest obstacle has been the marketing, because our purchasers tend to make a buying decision based on location and our reputation. Designing and building green is not free, and with the recent code changes, costs have already increased when it comes to energy efficiency and high performance homes. Educating the homeowner on the value-added by designing and building green is the key, and this can be difficult in the midst of their already overwhelming home buying experience.

NAHB: Tell me about an upcoming project that is a trendsetter and pushing the envelope when it comes to green building, or technology, or the like.

KB: The Brownstones at Chevy Chase Lake is located in Chevy Chase, Maryland. It is a redevelopment of an affordable housing project that will include 62 townhomes and a 200-unit multifamily building. Ten of the townhomes will be affordable, and 52 will be market rate. Within the multifamily building, 120 units will be market rate, 40 will be workforce housing, and 40 will be affordable. The redevelopment replaces existing public housing, increases overall density, replaces old materials, and is now energy efficient.

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We encountered several challenges with this project. The property is directly adjacent to one of the proposed purple line stops for the Washington DC Metro subway system, which is both an opportunity and a challenge. Adding transit where it didn’t originally exist can be difficult, particularly when the community is not a fan of the new transit stop. In addition, the community was against the new, higher density of this redevelopment. And there were other challenges that we turned into opportunities: First, we increased the number of affordable units from 21 to 90. Second, stormwater that had previously been managed 100 percent offsite will now be managed 100 percent onsite. And third, improvements of the nearby Coqueline Run Stream will both decrease the quantity and increase the quality of water going into it.

NAHB: What makes this project special?

KB: Hands down, it is the location, providing both accessibility and walkability: It has access to primary driving corridors such as Connecticut Avenue and the Beltway, as well as future public transportation via the purple line, in addition to both existing and future retail and other amenities. These are all tremendous qualities for a project like this. It is also directly adjacent to the Capitol Crescent Bike trail.

NAHB: What are the top cutting-edge features of the project?

KB: The multifamily building includes a green roof, a 100-bike capacity storage facility, an onsite bike maintenance and repair station, and an electric car charging station. The community includes a half-acre public park on top of the multifamily building’s parking garage, which helped achieve our stormwater management goals. The market-rate townhomes will include private elevators, showcasing the current aging-in-place trend, as well as low-maintenance exterior materials. In addition, they will include three-stories, with a fully accessible private roof terrace over 2,000 square feet on top. Homebuyers will have the option to purchase a loft level that finishes about two-thirds of the fourth floor footprint, still providing a private roof terrace over 600 square feet.

NAHB: What feature of this project are you most proud of?

KB: We are most proud of the opportunity to increase the quantity of affordable housing units within the project as well as improve the quality of those units from their current conditions.

NAHB: What has been the best piece of advice you have received during your career in the building industry?

KB: “Get into the field.” Whether you want to be in this career as a designer, a project manager, an owner, or a contracts specialist, go be a superintendent first. Being a superintendent allows you to see and experience things firsthand. You will understand more clearly what challenges workers in the field face on a daily basis. And, you will learn what’s really important– do you really need intricate details, or can you cover a feature with a construction note? You will also learn how to communicate effectively so both your construction team and sales team understand what you want.

NAHB: Where do you see the future of housing headed?

KB: I really think we are going to see a larger shift towards urban infill. This used to be a niche market up until about five years ago, but now there is a lot more competition. In EYA’s experience, both millennials and boomers are looking for more of an urban living environment with access to public amenities. I think building is headed back into the city and in the development of new “city centers” in the suburbs. We are also going to see even more of a push to build up instead of out as lots become scarce.

NAHB: What do you think will come after the green movement?

KB: I believe urban living and a shared economy mindset will become more mainstream. People will want less house and less yard and will be willing to share resources and spaces with neighbors and the surrounding community. We’ve already seen the beginning of this movement through car and bike-share programs. Just think about all of the things you own and only use a few times a year–how much they cost, how much space they take up, etc. Imagine what you could do with the extra money and space. The possibilities are endless!

NAHB: Congratulations to you, Karen! We salute you as this year’s BIG Young Professional of the Year as well as the finalists, Luis Imery, Andy Michels, Nathan Verning, and Andy Ellis.

The original article, by Jaclyn S. Toole, was published in the Summer 2016 issue of Best in American Living.

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