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CLIMATE CHAMPION: Chris Johnson


Chris Johnson founded Johnson Environmental to provide services to build green homes with Energy Star certification ratings. The company specializes in sustainable and affordable construction, consulting, building performance, modeling, testing, and rating.




 

This post is part of SoDak 350's "Climate Champions" blog series, where we chat with leaders in our community who are doing great work to build a sustainable future for eastern South Dakota. This time we speak with Chris Johnson, local businessman and founder of Johnson Environmental. Chris is a leader in green building and energy-efficient housing. This conversation has been edited for clarity. The following views and opinions are Chris's own.

 

What is the focus of your company, Johnson Environmental, and what makes it unique?


We provide homeowners, builders, and design professionals with the expertise and services to build environmentally friendly dwellings that are energy efficient and meet Energy Star certification criteria. Currently, Johnson Environmental is the only company in South Dakota that can provide buildings (commercial or residential) with an Energy Star certification. As Millennials and Generation Z continue to age and evolve, so have their desire to be more environmentally friendly. Today, people are more aware of the impact that their carbon footprint is having on the planet. Johnson Environmental has the experience and technology to help reduce carbon emissions and energy waste. As society’s hunger for energy efficient housing grows, so does Sioux Falls' and the rest of the state of South Dakota.


Are there one or two JE projects that stand out or make you proud and why?


Two specific projects that come to mind are Graystone Apartments and Copper Pass Apartments—both located in Sioux Falls. Graystone is a single-metered, Energy-Star certified building with 320 units and underground parking. Single-metered simply means that tenants pay only one bill for electricity, gas, water, and rent. With a single-metered system tenants save, on average, over 50% in utility costs. Single-metered buildings benefit both the landlord as well as the tenants. Copper Pass Apartments is the first Energy-Star certified and Passive-Certified building in South Dakota.


What is an energy audit and how does it benefit home and building owners?


An energy audit is done on commercial or residential buildings to determine the building’s energy efficiency. This includes electrical consumption, air pressure within the building, energy leakage, and more. Benefits to building owners include potential tax rebates if certain criteria are met. Other benefits could include identifying parts of the building that are wasting valuable energy. Once the reasons for the energy waste are identified, a strategy can be developed to provide a more airtight building, more energy efficient appliances, etc. If strategies are applied to a building to maximize energy efficiency, owners can expect lower utility bills as the building consumes less energy.


Have you seen or do you anticipate impacts to the local construction industry as a result of the funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act or the Inflation Reduction Act?


Since the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) passed in 2022, the construction industry has seen an increase in spending and the creation of additional jobs within the industry. Total construction spending in the United States was just over 2 trillion dollars at the end of 2023, up 10.69% from the end of 2022. Residential construction also saw an increase of nearly 5% in 2023, after dipping about 3% in 2022. Here in South Dakota, we saw a similar increase in construction, both in residential and non-residential building.


Included in the IRA are tax credits for buildings the meet standards for clean energy infrastructure. This includes both renewable energy and electric transmission facilities. Since the IRA was passed, South Dakota has built and activated their first solar utility-scale facility that has an 80 megawatt capacity power rating (MWac). A second solar-energy facility (128 MWac capacity) is expected to open in April of 2024, with hopes of doubling South Dakota’s solar capacity.


The manufacturing section of the construction industry has seen the most direct growth over the last year. This increase in manufacturing construction indicates significant investment in this sector of the industry. Which means that in the future, these manufacturing plants will be making additional goods. Some of these goods will likely be used in future construction projects and other building ventures. The indication is that the need and demand for construction will only continue to increase.


We want to encourage builders and developers to be involved with clean energy projects. If the language in the current IRA deters builders from getting involved with green energy projects, there may be a decline in the number of projects that are being built to green building standards. Some of the benefits of green building standards include: lower maintenance costs, reducing energy and waste, reducing carbon emissions, conserving water, prioritizing safer materials, and lowering exposure to toxins.


How did you come to have a personal philosophy that led you to be an early adopter of environmental construction methods and services?


I believe that ideally, when single-family homes and multi-family units are designed and built, they should be done so with forethought so that they are built to a certain environmental standard. If you know you are going to eventually want a bathroom in Room X, but you don’t want it now, builders can “rough-in” piping and electrical conduits to that room in anticipation of a bathroom being installed there in the future. The same can be said for various environmentally sustainable features. For example, an owner of a single-family home may want to one day install solar panels on the top of the house. Pre-planning for this can include leaving space next to the breaker box for installation of additional equipment and running wire conduit up to the attic in anticipation of accommodating the solar panels. It is cheaper to invest in this type of infrastructure before construction begins, as opposed to when construction is complete and parties have occupied the residence.


Would you encourage others to join your career path? What opportunities do you see?


As Sioux Falls and the rest of South Dakota continue to grow, the need for residential and commercial buildings will continue to rise as well. As the youth get older and more established in professional roles within our society, the demand for energy efficient construction is likely to increase.



Thank you, Chris, for leading our community in sustainable construction practices!





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