A thinking man’s approach to green building: Robin Woodward

A few months ago, a conversation with longtime downtown Asheville advocate Karen Tessier led to talk about one of her marketing client — Robin Woodward of Blue Ridge Energy Systems. A profile on Woodward languished in the Xpress inbox, until we stirred the pot for ideas about sustainability — what it means and where we’re going. Asheville has been at the heart of green-building initiatives in the past few decades. Here’s a close look at one of its self-starters. — Margaret Wililams, News Editor, Mountain Xpress

On a warm summer afternoon, Blue Ridge Energy Systems’ founder Robin Woodward meets potential buyers at his house in Fletcher, N.C. He’s between tasks, doing site-prep for a new home nearby and overseeing the finishing touches on a new design with his second-in-command, Jamie Shelton.

Woodward’s home is lovely and full of light, the craftsmanship self-evident. What makes his pitch undeniably powerful is his assurance that BRES can design and build a house, for roughly the same price as a conventional builder, that will cost less than $200 per year to heat and cool. His buyers goggle at a figure seemingly too good to be true.

In 1980, when fuel costs were lower, Woodward guaranteed buyers that they could heat and cool one of his homes for less than $100 dollars a year. He volunteered to pay any overage on their heating bill for the first five years.

He never wrote one check.

What may sound impossible is the result of Woodward’s commitment to conservation, energy efficiency and the study of building science. His dedicated team assures a superior level of professionalism throughout the process that buyers are hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

Says former client Carolyn McGregor, “They enjoy what they do and making it perfect. They are true craftsmen and it shows in every detail of their work. When they tell you they are not happy until you are, they really mean it.”

Ask anyone who knows Blue Ridge Energy Systems and they’ll tell you that a big part of what makes them such a remarkable team is Robin Woodward himself.

A native of Belmont, Mass., Woodward was the child of two academics. His father, a Harvard PhD physicist developed LORAN, a navigational tool used in the Battle of Britain. His mother was Dean of Women at Middlebury College. Scientific curiosity followed Woodward throughout his youth and led him to pursue his own degree in physics. He was forward thinking. “Robin was green when green was just a color,” says longtime friend, client and Progress Energy engineer John Mullis.

By 1970, Woodward was concerned about the nation’s dwindling energy resources and the country’s increased reliance on international petroleum providers. “At the time, we were unaware of global warming, but it was clear that fossil fuels had serious limitations.”

It was in 1977, while installing solar-thermal water heaters at Shoney’s restaurants, that Woodward turned his attention to building energy-efficient homes. He had built his own residence two years before. Constructed around solar-thermal principles, his home was an expensive, time-consuming process that resulted in what Shelton describes as looking “a little like a spaceship.” It was clear to Woodward that if green homes were ever to become mainstream, the process would have to be simplified, the costs decreased and the features adapted to more traditional home design.

Citing physics as a helpful tool, Woodward undertook a careful analysis of various building techniques and philosophies. He uncovered research from University of Saskatchewan extolling the efficiency of “super insulation.” Adapting this vapor shield technology to a milder, southern climate, Woodward found that he could achieve the same results as solar-thermal design but at a fraction of the cost. “This is the key to our system to this day,” says Shelton.

Along with vapor shield, Woodward added both old (southern-facing windows) and new (energy-efficient heating and cooling devices) methods. He arrived at an eight-point, integrative approach that provided maximum efficiency with greater flexibility with regards to style and cost of the house.

Carrying on the tradition

In 2005,  Shelton was facing graduation from Davidson College. He contemplated studying architecture in grad school, but gave himself a few years off to live in mountains. He wanted to gain insight into the building process. He focused on Asheville and drove up to meet Woodward.

“We talked building science and connected almost immediately on methods,” says Shelton. “He gave me a trial run on a back hoe, made me a smoothie, and offered me a job.”

A year later, Shelton asked if he could stay on indefinitely. Since then he’s designed and managed the construction of his own home with BRES, as well as overseen several projects including the Jim Samsel-designed Ray House in Mars Hill.  Shelton, like the rest of the BRES crew, finds his job extremely rewarding. “It’s easy to get excited about doing this level of quality work,” he says.

Blue Ridge Energy Systems’ Vice President Andy Presley joined the company in 2009. A Fairview native, Andy has worked by Woodward’s side for 25 years, first as a friend and later as BRES’s expert on tools, equipment and challenging projects.
“After working for a large corporation for 20 years, it’s refreshing to have more control over quality now,” says Andy. “It’s also great to work for a company that values their employees, and where the employees value what they do.’

Their clients are similarly enthusiastic about their work. Blue Ridge Energy Systems has built more than 150 homes in the Asheville area since 1977. Among those buyers, one hears nothing but praise.

“Once our house was completed, Woodward asked us to make a punch list,” explains John Mullis. “I’m an engineer and look at everything with a critical eye. When I handed Woodward the punch list, he look puzzled. ‘There’s nothing on it,’ he said. And I said, ‘That’s right. We could not find one single thing that you didn’t do or that needed attention.’”

“Other people talk about their builders,” says Mullis. “I talk about my builder and my friend.”

Woodward,  Shelton and the crew put a lot of effort into getting to know their buyers. “They come to us because they can’t find what they want in the conventional market,” says Shelton. “We walk them through the whole process and explore the idea of living in a tight house with a lot of natural light.”

There’s also some myth busting involved in those early meetings. “A green package is not always the first thing a buyer thinks about,” says Shelton. “And what people think of as being green may not bear out in reality.”

Still guided by common sense

These days Blue Ridge Energy Systems homes are more likely to look like storybook cottages than something out of science fiction. Finding the best materials and solutions is guided by practical concerns instead of rigid philosophy. “We look for the most efficient, most cost-effective ways to solve problems. We take every detail seriously, but we also look at the big, long-term picture. There are some things more worth spending money on than others.”

This holistic approach separates Blue Ridge Energy Systems from its competitors. Woodward believes that building science suffers due to a misunderstanding of the basics perpetuated by a lack of communication between architects, contractors and building inspectors. “They’re not sharing their knowledge and they’re not always working toward the same goals.” He cites the utility of having a dedicated crew throughout the whole process.

“Sometimes the newest solutions aren’t the best,” says Shelton. “In some ways we’re on the conservative end of green building. We believe conservation is the first and easiest thing you can do to protect the environment and preserve our natural resources.”

Blue Ridge Energy Systems believes homes should be comfortable as well as functional. By applying this user-friendly, practical approach, Blue Ridge Energy Systems uses uncommon consideration to make energy-efficient homes the common sense choice over conventional construction.

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