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Feb 2, 2024

Inside a Platinum-Certified Home: Brett Little’s Homeowner Journey

This Grand Rapids, Michigan homeowner knows firsthand what it takes — in terms of time, planning, expertise, and investment — to achieve the highest-level ranking for home energy performance.

Brett Little's Home

A Passion for Sustainability

Growing up on the shore of Lake Michigan, Brett says the concept of “sustainability” itself wasn’t widely discussed at the time. “It wasn’t something that we talked about, at least not among my family and friends,” he notes.

And so it was only later, in the course of Brett’s early work experience at Starbucks, that he had his aha! moment. Once he was exposed to the coffee brand’s sustainability efforts, he began digging into the topic. “Once I started doing the research,” he says, “I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is a major problem! My God! This is the planet we’re talking about! Why hasn’t anyone told me about this?’”

Those feelings propelled Brett to join GreenHome Institute (GHI), a nonprofit that supports more sustainable choices in renovation and construction projects. Today, in his role as Education Manager, he’s not only sparking important conversations around topics like net-zero construction and embodied carbon, but also ensuring those conversations are broadly inclusive.

“We have to make sure that people who were left out of the conversation in the past are at the table — and they need to be invited because inclusion doesn’t just happen on its own,” he says.

Of course, Brett also recognizes that here, as elsewhere, much work remains to be done. “We know we’ve got to get to net-zero construction,” he observes, “but how are we going to get there with gas furnaces and water heaters? It doesn’t work. Those things are not compatible.”

As for Brett’s own home, he knew it could be a different story — a model of sustainability. So he set about applying his unique passion and expertise to the home performance improvements that follow.

Getting Started: A Phased Approach

Brett and his wife, Laura, purchased their home on the outskirts of the city of Grand Rapids in 2016. Constructed in 2003, the house wasn’t a brand-new build, but from an energy-efficiency standpoint, it was well ahead of its time.

Brett recounted, “We had a formal green home inspection done, which included a Home Energy Score, a DOE energy score, an evaluation of ventilation air quality, water quality, durability, and a blower-door test” — a full-blown audit, in other words, in addition to a traditional home inspection.

The key findings? “We really lucked out because even though the house was built in 2003, it was built to many of today’s standards — the wall envelope, for example, was in really good shape.”

Armed with this knowledge, Brett planned to prioritize relatively easy-to-fix, low-cost performance improvements, like swapping out his home’s traditional incandescent and compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs for LED lights, which are 75% more efficient. Of course, things don’t always go the way you plan, as Brett, like most homeowners, quickly learned (“Everything was sort of breaking all at once” is how he remembers it).

Revising and fast-tracking his timeline out of necessity, Brett ultimately arrived at a phased approach to the following:

Heat Pump Water Heater
  • Replacing his home’s old-fashioned water heater, which was suddenly on the fritz, with a Rheem Prestige Heat Pump Water (model 3) — a far more energy-efficient heat pump water heater (HPWH)
  • Swapping out the existing clothing dryer for a condensing, all-electric alternative with no penetrations in the wall, which reduces air leakage and pest entry and cuts down on the risk of dryer fires
  • Installing a Mitsubishi Hyper Heat cold-climate air source heat pump, which Brett reports has been up to the challenge of a Michigan winter
  • Undertaking solar and battery system upgrades — equity-building assets that also improved his home’s energy resilience
Tech panels on house

An impressive range of projects to execute in a relatively short period of time, to be sure, but the benefits were even more so. “We went from a Home Energy Score of seven to 10 and saved $10 a month in pre-inflation energy costs — probably more now, but it’s hard to tell — because going all electric did come with some increased costs,” Brett says. “But our home is definitely way more comfortable now!”

He adds, “The primary reason I was able to focus on these fun and exciting projects — adding solar and battery storage, replacing our water heater with a more efficient and sustainable alternative, and so on — is that our home’s envelope was so well done to begin with.”

Cool Calc dashboard

As a finishing touch, Brett augmented these core upgrades with some of today’s latest and greatest smart home tech, including devices that proactively monitor his home’s indoor air quality (IAQ) in order to safeguard his family’s health.

Needless to say, before Brett could do any of this, he had to work out the financing first. And in so doing, he learned some valuable lessons about Pearl Certification, too. 

Financing and Certification: Options, Options, Options

Financing home performance improvements is a common sticking point for many homeowners, as it was for Brett. “We ran into some issues,” he admits. “When we approached our local green bank, Michigan Saves, about converting to solar, our thinking was, ‘Ideally, we can have the cost of the loan equal our savings from the gains in energy efficiency, and it’ll be a wash at the end of the day.’”

Not so, as it turned out.

Solar panels on garage

Brett explains, “I remember telling the bank, ‘Look, you really need to figure out a way to make this happen because most people in this situation won’t have an extra dime to spare.’” (And since then, he’s happy to report that things have changed. “I know that these banks have put in a lot of effort to make the process simpler and easier for people,” he says. So if you’re exploring different financing options, don’t overlook your local green bank.)

Ultimately, Brett went with a more conventional route: refinancing his home. But he did so with favorable terms, thanks to an entirely unexpected event. “After COVID-19 hit and interest rates bottomed out, I just thought to myself, ‘Okay, it’s now or never,’” he explains. “So we took out a traditional home renovation loan, which is something that literally any homeowner can take out right now.”

Finally, Brett had the funds he needed to get his home performance improvement projects done.

Pearl High-Performing Home Platinum Certificate

Much to his surprise, though, the move also brought attention to something he’d pursued earlier and nearly forgotten about: taking initial steps toward Pearl Certification for his home. “I remember reading about the value piece” — the fact that Pearl Certified homes earn a five-percent premium on their resale values on average, for example — “and it just clicked, it made sense,” he says. So Brett went for it. And it’s a good thing he did.

“Later, when it was time for refinancing, the appraiser told us, ‘Honestly, I wouldn’t have even looked at this property if you didn’t have that certification from Pearl in place,’” says Brett.

Looking ahead, he has a few additional home improvement projects in mind, too. “I’d like to do a basement rim/band air seal and re-insulate project. I’m also interested in a sealed basement sump pit, new ENERGY STAR®-sealed doors, adding insulation when re-siding (AIRS), a new energy reflect roof, maybe adding more solar and another car charge — the list goes on,” Brett says.

A homeowner’s work may never be done, but now Brett can be more sure that what he is doing will pay dividends later.

This article was originally published in the Pearl Certification Blog and is republished with permission.

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