Since joining Pulte, Walter Cuculic has helped shape their sustainability strategy both locally and nationally, a huge benefit to anyone from those who run eco-friendly poker nights outdoors to those who simply want a lower energy bill. Mr. Cuculic has been a driving force in the development of Pulte’s green building and energy efficient strategies, including the building of Pulte’s first LEED for Homes project in southern Nevada, Villa Trieste, which is the largest LEED for Homes Platinum project in the US. He sits on the National Board of the US Green Building Council (USGBC), where he represents the residential construction industry. He has also previously served on the State Board for the Nevada Chapter of the USGBC for two years. In partnership with UNLV and NV Energy, Mr. Cuculic co-authored a $7M Department of Energy grant to built one of the most energy efficient communities in the nation in Nevada. Additionally, Mr. Cuculic has conducted numerous focus groups, surveys and research studies into residential green building and has worked with UCLA in studying consumer’s willingness to pay for green building products in their homes. Mr. Cuculic is a former general contractor and has more than 14 years experience in commercial and residential construction. Additionally, he has an MBA from UCLA’s Anderson School of Business in addition to a Bachelor of Science in Engineering and a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish from Northern Arizona University.
Walter Cuculic: My name is Walter Cuculic. I’m Director of Sustainability for the Pulte Group. Pulte Group is the nation’s largest homebuilder. We build under three separate brands: Centex brand, for our first-time homebuyer; Pulte brand is for a move-up or second-time homebuyer; and then we also build under Del Webb branch which is for our active adult market as well.
Ben Lack: Well, Walter, thanks so much for your time. If you can start talking to us a little bit about your green taskforce, why that was developed and what you guys use the taskforce for.
Walter Cuculic: About two years ago, the Pulte Group established a national green taskforce made up of different personnel from each of our six different areas. We have people on there from construction, purchasing, marketing, PR, product design, research and development. The main mission and goal, I’d say, of the National Green Team to drive recommendations and decisions and implementations as well of our kind of green and energy efficiency strategies by brand.
Ben Lack: So what types of assessments do these groups makes?
Walter Cuculic: A good example was, last year, give you a quick background, Pulte builds to Energy Star standards in many markets, but a few of our divisions hadn’t yet adopted Energy Star in a community or two in some of the divisions. So one of the recommendations we had was that every division would build at a minimum five Energy Star homes. To learn what the differences were between an Energy Star home and a standard home. Other divisions were already building a hundred percent Energy Star levels. So that was an issue with those divisions. But the few divisions that weren’t, we wanted them to at least kind of see what the differences were in construction practices.
Ben Lack: And what kind of impacts as far as costs are concerned or utility bill pricing’s concerned do you see from a greener home, whether it’s an Energy Star or a LEED’s home compared to just a home that isn’t?
Walter Cuculic: Well, it’s going to depend by market. In the Southwest, for example, to get to an Energy Star home is going to actually be less expensive than maybe in the Northeast or the Southeast. The reason for that is the Southwest is typically a dryer, less humid climate. So it’s considered a hot-dry climate. And it’s easier to cool in a hot-dry climate than maybe in a hot-humid climate that you might have in the Southeast. So the solution to implement in the Southwest are going to be different than the solutions that you implement in the Southeast. So the current Energy Star code requires a home to be fifteen percent better than code. So what that means is that your heating and cooling systems, your lighting systems all combined are going to be fifteen percent better or at a minimum fifteen percent better. And so therefore, if you have a utility bill of, just say, an average of two hundred dollars a month for gas and electric, you’d save fifteen percent. So thirty dollars a month would be your savings.
Ben Lack: So what types of work does Pulte do to actually look at the systems within the home to make sure that the energy used in that home is as low as possible?
Walter Cuculic: The first thing that we’ll do is, the first step is to look at the building envelope and that’s the windows and walls and ceiling or the roof. And we look at how you insulate that, how do you seal air gaps, how do you make that a good saying that is out there in the market is, “You want to build a tight envelope.” The reason is you want to control the air exchanges into and out of your home. Most new homes today that are built are very leaky. So when you build to a higher construction standard and a tighter building envelope, you control when air flow in and out of your home. So that’s the first thing.
After you look at the building envelope, then you want to look at the HVAC systems, the mechanical systems that you use basically to circulate and heat and cool your homes. SEER is a term that’s out there in the market today. That stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating. The higher SEER an air conditioner is, for example, the more energy efficient it is. So today code is 13-SEER. I many markets we use, 15-SEER as either an option or standard to allow homebuyers to kind of choose more energy efficient products. Same thing with the furnaces. You want to look at the efficiency of the furnace. A ninety-five percent efficient furnace is going to be better than an eighty percent efficient furnace. The reason is when it uses a fuel, more of the fuel is being used to actually heat a house instead of escaping up the floo or not being used to generate heating for the house.
Ben Lack: So what types of technologies do you guys look at when you’re thinking about building LEED homes?
Walter Cuculic: Many of the same things that go in standard with an Energy Star home. Energy Star is a baseline for the LEED program from an energy standpoint, but then on top of that you look at water conservation, indoor air quality, materials from both the recycled content as well as the durability of the materials. LEED also look at the location of linkages, meaning where the house is set, how close is it to schools, commercial retail, post office, whatever. Ideally, the LEED for Homes Program is what they consider a green program. So you want to look at not just energy efficiency but you look at what type of materials, where it’s located, indoor air quality, water conservation. And the last part is homeowner education. Just like anything else, whether it’s a camera, a car, or a blender, knowing how to use it properly is going to allow you to use it better. And that’s kind of the viewpoint from a house. A house is a tool or mechanical operation that homeowners need to know how to maintain and use.
Ben Lack: Do you see LEED homes becoming more of a presence in the marketplace or is there still some time before that starts to penetrate?
Walter Cuculic: I think the last count that I heard was close to five thousand homes have been certified since the LEED’s for Homes Program started which was, I think, about two years ago with a pilot program. So when you think about that in today’s market where in two years, you’ve had five thousand homes certified to LEED standard. That’s a pretty, I think, great accomplishment for the U.S. Green Building Council who owns the LEED’s for Homes Program or mans the LEED’s for Homes Program. And looking as the percentage of the overall homes that are built, you can definitely see that, LEED as far as other green programs are starting to take a larger percent of the market share. And so I continue to see as consumers become more and more aware of the benefits of green certifications and energy efficient homes will continue to become a larger part of the market share for the new home segment. The challenge is, I think, the homeowners need to continually to educate themselves. That’s the biggest thing. Your home is the most important decision that you’ll ever buy. And I don’t think, in general, the industry, we don’t do a good job of educating people about one of the differences between old homes and new homes or Energy Star homes and non-Energy Star homes.
Ben Lack: So final question: what does Pulte do to make sure that their customers’ educated?
Walter Cuculic: We take time. One of the first things we do is we do a seven-step process when you buy a home. We actually walk you through framing construction, pre-drywall, post-drywall. So it’s a seven-step process. So we meet with the homeowners seven times before they finally sign the contract on that house. So they can see what’s behind the walls. That’s something that I always say. It’s not what you don’t see. It’s what behind the walls that you’d see. And so going through that seven-step process and watching your home get built and seeing a level of detail of our construction standards is a big education opportunity for our homeowners.