Five questions with Sierra Sustainable Builders co-founder Cory Hannaford |

Five questions with Sierra Sustainable Builders co-founder Cory Hannaford

Back in 2002, sustainable building often centered on re-purposing materials and reducing waste, according to Cory Hannaford.

That was the year Hannaford and Danny Webb founded Sierra Sustainable Builders, a general construction company based in South Lake Tahoe. In the nearly 15 years since, a greater emphasis has been placed on energy efficiency.

However, as Sierra Sustainable Builders's website states, "a belief that sustainability, efficiency and performance are not only important factors but necessary in today's building process" is central to the company's approach.

"I think that could be fairly subjective," Webb said regarding what it means to build in a sustainable way. It comes down to the client's desire, and over the years Sierra Sustainable Builders has had a few of them, from private homeowners to commercial businesses.

"We do remodel work, new construction, commercial remodel — all of that," Webb stated.

Lake Tahoe Home caught up with Hannaford, half of the duo behind Sierra Sustainable Builders, to learn more about what it means to build sustainably and how that has changed over the past 15 years.

LTH: So you and Danny started this company in 2002 here in the Tahoe Basin. What led you to that point?

CH: I think it was originally our experience doing construction for other companies and we both grew up in Oregon, which is kind of the heart of the forestry industry, and saw firsthand how the clear-cutting was affecting the landscape in the Northwest. I think we kind of put two and two together when we … matured basically and were doing construction for other outfits and saw just the incredible amount of waste going on and then fortunately had the opportunity to be mentored by some kind of old-school northern California builders that kind of took a different approach and a different view on the efficient and responsible use of resources and materials for construction and re-use — that became kind of the central theme at the beginning of our company. That was a big emphasis.

LTH: What does it mean to be sustainable in the building industry?

CH: That might be more of a client-driven priority, but for us … originally it started as material choices and trying to use materials that have been sourced responsibly.

For instance with wood, trying to select wood that is certified to have been sustainably harvested. There are some very credible agencies out there that do that and certify specific mills for that purpose, and we have purchased a lot of wood in that capacity. We use a lot of recycled materials and reclaimed materials. So there's the whole waste component to it.

And then what we have seen as well is there has been a very strong shift toward energy efficiency with respect to CO2 emissions being kind of a common denominator. And so we have also steeped ourselves deeply in the art of building structures that are incredibly efficient to the point of requiring little to know energy from the energy grid.

The other aspect of sustainability, to us, is also with respect to the health component of the materials that are being used and limiting our employees and our clients' exposure to carcinogens or toxic chemical. So that would apply to the types of glues and paints and laminated products that we use. We have very intentionally, since the beginning of our company, sourced these products with basically zero volatile organic compounds or low-ratings for that. That's kind of a big thing in the green building or sustainable construction, as well.

It's a wide-ranging question but I feel like, to sum it up, it's looking at every choice you make and weighing out the cost benefit analysis — not just in terms of money but in terms of those factors.

LTH: You reference "passive house" on the website. What is passive house?

CH: I would encourage you to look at passive house U.S., but passive house is a term that comes from Europe, essentially out of Germany, but it is a house that is designed to capture all of the passive energy sources available such that it requires as little energy to run as possible.

So in our environment it is essentially a super-insulated home with exceptionally efficient windows, that is designed basically to maximize or minimize input from the sun, from the inhabitants, from the internal appliances, things like that, and it captures that heat and tries to minimize heat loss. It also minimizes heat gain during the times of year that it's warm. And so the model also applies to hot climates.

Basically, passive house is a certification body that is aimed at addressing CO2 emissions and it's aimed at issuing design criteria to build structures that are carbon neutral within a set period of time, and it takes into account not only the emissions that are associated with running the space but also with the materials that go into building it.

LTH: Since starting the company, have you noticed any changes in terms of broader building patterns and more or less emphasis on the sustainable aspect?

CH: Absolutely massive shifts in the direction of sustainability, especially in terms of energy efficiency. California is certainly leading the way with its energy codes that are inspired by passive house and the LEED code — there are several agencies that write code for building around the world and in North America and the leaders of those organizations that decide on building codes have said that passive house level construction will literally be mandatory across the United States and more or less pushing for that world-wide in the next decade. And so we're seeing a massive shift toward energy efficiency.

To kind of sum it up, it is the experience that we've had that sustainability was when we started mostly about the materials and responsible sourcing of materials and has become increasingly focused on energy efficiency.

LTH: Looking at some of the photos of past projects, there are some really sleek looking homes. Does having a sustainable home mean, in any way, that you have to sacrifice style or comfort?

CH: Certainly not. I find that often the two can be married quite nicely. I would say there is literally no style limitations other than there are certain challenges meeting the passive house level of certification. For instance, if you want to have a wood-burning stove in a passive house, that becomes very difficult because one of their requirements is to have a certain level of air tightness to the home, and as soon as you put in a fireplace with a chimney flue that becomes very hard to maintain that airtightness for the home. That's just one example of having to design toward efficiency, rather than a style of choice.

But one of the other things we're seeing more and more is that the return on investment has become more appealing to people who really look toward owning their homes for the long term. I would say 90 plus percent of our clients are building for long-term ownership. And spending money up front on cost savings for the future running of the home has become a much easier calculation to sell to people these days. And it's just getting better in terms of home technologies and the cost of energy.

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