Brian Bishop says things changed after the recession. The economic downturn shifted people's thinking and started a conversation about living more simply, saving energy, driving a Prius. And it wasn't just talk.
Bishop, 59, is the founder and president of New Panel Homes, an Englewood-based company that manufactures sturdy, energy-efficient structural insulated panel building kits. His approach to house construction is gaining traction in the marketplace.
He got national attention after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when he was involved in efforts to develop an alternative to Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers for survivors of natural disasters. Bishop kept one of those products, a Katrina Cottage, at his Englewood headquarters. People would drop by his factory to see the innovative structure.
“Before the recession, people toured the Katrina Cottage and said, 'That's a nice house, but I wouldn't live in it,'” Bishop says. “After the recession, people said, 'That's a nice house, and I would live in it.' What came out of the recession was renewed interest in smaller homes.”
One of the most appealing aspects of a smaller home built with insulated panels like Bishop's are the energy savings. Homeowners who have faced hundreds of dollars in electric bills every month see lower bills.
“We're pivoting out of a time of consumption and into a time of cost saving,” Bishop says. “Homes are people's biggest expense and their biggest carbon footprint, but there isn't a big market of resource-responsible homes.”
New Panel Homes is working to fill that gap in the market. The company provides panels for homeowners, small developments with a handful of homes and larger developments like Babcock Ranch.
The nearly 18,000-acre planned community about 20 minutes east of downtown Fort Myers aims to be the first solar-powered community in the country. New Panel Homes' insulated panels are being used at Babcock Ranch by one of the community's approved builders, Fox Premier Builders. Ken Fox, founder and principal at Fox Premier Builders, visited Bishop's factory and was impressed.
“Ken thought it would translate well to the Babcock lifestyle,” says Fox Premier Builders Vice President of Marketing and Sales Meryl Rojas. “Ken and Brian are breaking the mold here in so many ways with their total approach.”
A recent open house and event at Babcock Ranch drew 20,000 people, with hundreds visiting the models being built with New Panel Homes' panels, where Rojas and other team members explain the benefits of Bishop's panels.
Every house at Babcock Ranch will be certified under Florida Green Building Coalition standards, Bishop says. For all New Panel Homes houses, the company produces a report with a room-by-room summary of energy usage. There's also the house's Home Energy Rating System score, known as HERS, that calculates a house's energy performance. And Bishop says his houses achieve a much better HERS score than the average new house in the U.S.
“It's not an opinion,” Bishop says. “These are scientific metrics and one building is measurably better.”
With Babcock Ranch underway and contracts for homes in other Florida communities coming in, Bishop says a new era is underway for New Panel Homes.
“Right now, we're coming into our own,” Bishop says. “People want green buildings, energy efficiency, small homes. It's been the perfect storm.”
In addition to furnishing paneling for houses in developments, New Panel Homes also works with relief organizations and nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity.
“When we started, our main goal was to develop a home that a Habitat mother could move into that would have efficiency and durability,” Bishop says. “We wanted a safe, affordable housing option.”
Since then, Bishop estimates New Panel Homes has worked on about 60 houses for Habitat for Humanity of Highlands County, Habitat for Humanity Sarasota and Habitat for Humanity of Lee and Hendry Counties.
“Even the simplest Habitat house should be beautiful,” Bishop says. “It's almost always the case that the simplest houses are better.”
But regardless of the size or cost of a house, Bishop says the increased interest in the kind of work his company does might boil down to something pretty straightforward.
“People are pining for a simpler lifestyle,” he says. “Maybe that's what's driving this.”