Analysis of results from Professional Builder's 2008 Green Building Survey

We take a look at the results of this year’s survey and examine trends and changes from last year’s survey.
By Felicia Oliver, Senior Editor | August 31, 2008
The Green Scheme of Things

It's been a year since Professional Builder's inaugural green building survey. We've spent another year inundated with green guidelines for practically every industry, every corner of interest, every facet of society: green food, green clothing, green weddings, green vacations — and of course, more green building. If green building is a fad — as 33 percent of our respondents said last year — it seems its staying power will soon surpass that of the hula hoop and platform shoes.

This year's International Builders' Show devoted an entire day, Valentine's Day (Heart the Earth!), to green building and the anticipated rollout of NAHB's Green Building Standard. The association is pushing its national standard in hope of competing head-to-head with the USGBC's LEED for Homes program in terms of national recognition and use. This year regional conferences such as PCBC had a significant number of green classes, and green specialty conferences are popping up all around the country.

This year's survey goes beyond defining green. We'll analyze trends and changes from last year and focus on how builders get educated and train their staffs about green. We take a look at the challenges in building green and the kind of green features builders are most likely to incorporate into their homes. Though defining and refining green is a process that will go on for a while, builders are moving forward in finding out how they can provide the green construction their clients want and the market demands.

A green mountain out of a mole hill

There are some builders out there who haven't gone green because of the perceived difficulty of doing so. This year we asked builders if it is harder to build green. Overall 55 percent of our respondents said yes; 45 percent said no. When asked in what way typical building processes are disrupted when implementing green building techniques, cost increases were at the top of the list, specified by 68 percent of respondents, with 59 percent citing confusion with the different green building standards such as LEED for Homes; NAHB's guidelines; and those from manufacturers, utility companies and regional and local governments. It takes longer to source products, according to 47 percent of respondents, while 44 percent said there is a need to educate municipalities about energy-efficient products or construction techniques. And 40 percent said it takes longer to spec products. A nominal 13 percent said typical builder processes are not interrupted when implementing green building techniques.

There's no doubt that some adjustments must be made to build green, though how disruptive is a matter of discussion. But it hasn't prevented many builders from jumping on the bandwagon due to conviction or competition. The number of respondents who said they market some or all of their homes as green is 57 percent, compared with 43 percent who said they do not market their homes as green at all.

Going back to the question, “Is it harder to build green?” those who said they market all of their homes as green are less likely to think green building is harder, but surprisingly not by a huge number; 47 percent said it's harder and 53 percent said it's not. So the perceived challenge of building green has not discouraged that 47 percent from forging ahead and marketing all homes they build that way. There is a 10 percent difference in the number

who said it is harder when you compare respondents who only build 1-10 homes a year (51 percent) and those who build more than 10 homes (61 percent). This is in spite of the notion that in regard to cost, the more homes you build — green or not — the more likely you are to achieve economies of scale. The more green homes you build on a production scale, the less each home should cost to build.

Just how prevalent is green building among our respondents? On a scale where one means “have used no green materials/practices” and 10 means “have maximized use of green materials/practices,” we asked, “How would you rate the majority of the houses built, designed or engineered by your firm?” More than half of respondents — 58 percent — rated themselves fair to midland, at 4, 5, 6 or 7. Eleven percent of all respondents said they have maximized use, giving themselves a 9 or 10. For those building 1-10 homes a year and custom-only builders, 13 percent rated themselves at 9 or 10. Those who build more than 10 homes came in at 10 percent; only 8 percent of production-only builders rated themselves at that maximum level.

Trend watch

As mentioned earlier, a key question from last year's survey was, “Is green building a fad?” Last year 67 percent of respondents somewhat or strongly disagreed with that statement, saying it was not a fad; this year it was up to 70 percent. Those who build 1-10 homes a year (at 72 percent), and custom-only builders (at 70 percent) seem to disagree with this statement more than those who build more than 10 homes a year (66 percent) and production only builders (58 percent). The difference is six and 12 percent respectively.

This differs from last year's results, which had those building more than 10 homes a year and production-only builders disagreeing at a higher percentage — 71 percent and 74 percent respectively — that green is a fad versus those building 1-10 homes a year and custom-only builders at 64 percent and 65 percent respectively.

Why were larger volume and production builders less likely than smaller and custom builders to think green is fad last year? One conjecture is that production builders had less luck selling green homes this past year, and

therefore believe that the fad is waning. But the slow sales growth in green homes could be due to the reluctance to pay more for green when home prices are going down.

Should there be a minimum standard of performance and sustainability before a builder can market a home as green? Both this year and last, 87 percent of those surveyed said yes. A big surprise last year was that 38 percent of those who said yes felt there should be a minimum standard set by federal, state or local government. Perhaps after giving this some consideration, this year only 29 percent said so. But those suggesting the federal government only slipped 2 percent, from 15 to 13 percent. Among those who said they market all their homes as green, only 20 percent are looking to government to set those standards. This makes sense because they are actively building green homes, and the standards that the government sets will directly affect them; it's not theoretical. Those who said the standard should be set by an independent third-party program rose to 44 percent from only 32 percent last year.

Many manufacturers are eager to label themselves or their product as green, and for good reason. On the question, “How important are green features to you when selecting building products?” 86 percent of respondents said it's extremely (35 percent) or somewhat (51 percent) important, a 5 percent increase from last year. Numbers are fairly similar across the board for builders of 1-10 homes, builders of more than 10 homes and custom-only builders. However, the percentage for production-only builders for whom it is extremely or somewhat important is 73 percent, down from 87 percent last year. A good guess as to why would be that large volume builders are more concerned right now with the cost of a product. Quality is important, but quality of greenness may not be of first consideration.

We went into great detail in last year's survey comparing the ease of use, flexibility and stringency of several green certification programs. We simplified it a bit this year, comparing only easiness and reliability of some of the better known programs. The Energy Star program ranked very or somewhat easy to use by 70 percent of respondents, way ahead of the 46 percent who said utility company programs are somewhat or very easy to use. NAHB and manufacturer programs fall in the middle range, with 44 and 42 percent respectively favoring their ease of use. At the bottom of the choices given were the LEED for Homes program at 23 percent and local or state building programs such as EarthCraft and Austin Energy Green Building at 24 percent.

On the issue of reliability, the results were a bit different. Energy Star remained at the top with 73 percent saying it was somewhat or very reliable. But NAHB, utility companies and LEED for Homes came in close at 50, 49 and 48 percent respectively. So LEED's program is perceived as significantly less easy to use compared with NAHB's — by a difference of 21 percent — but nearly equal to each other with regard to reliability. Manufacturer programs and local and state programs rounded out the bottom at 38 and 34 percent respectively.

Green ed

How do builders get educated about green building? We asked respondents about sources from which they receive green building information. A full 83 percent said from trade magazines and/or the media; 64 percent

mention suppliers; green building associations were named by 54 percent; 46 percent said general home building associations; and 43 percent rely on trade partners.

“How receptive or resistant to training in green building techniques is your staff?” Overall, 52 percent of respondents said their staff is very receptive, and 41 percent said they are somewhat so. Only 7 percent said their staffs are somewhat or very resistant. Custom-only builders seem more receptive than production-only builders, with 56 percent of the former saying their staffs are very receptive versus 44 percent of the latter. Custom builder staffs are probably more comfortable learning new building techniques; they are more likely to consider themselves craftsmen and eager to add to their repertoire or specialization.

Most respondents — 59 percent — said in-house training is the preferred means for training staff on green building techniques. Forty three percent prefer seminars and conferences, and Webinars are the choice for 17 percent. But 23 percent said they do not train their staff on green building techniques at all.

There's a significant difference in preference for seminar and conference training between those who build 1-10 homes a year (35 percent) and those who build more than 10 homes a year (51 percent). The truth is that the cost for seminars and conferences could be a factor for those building 10 or less homes a year. There is a difference, though not as significant, in custom-only builders who send their staff to seminars and conferences (38 percent) compared to production only builders (45 percent), possibly for the same reason.

Green home features

We gave survey respondents a list of 21 possible green features they could incorporate into a home and asked

how many had included at least one of them. A full 99 percent of respondents said they have incorporated at least one of the green features into all of the homes they built in the last 12 months. The average number of features incorporated by those who said that had incorporated at least one feature was 15.

For each of the 21 features respondents chose from, we asked approximately how many of the houses built, designed or engineered by their company in the last 12 months included that feature. Energy-efficient windows came out way ahead of the pack, with 76 percent saying they were incorporated into all the homes they built. Somewhat behind but in second place was a high-efficiency HVAC system, included in all homes built by 57 percent of respondents. Energy-efficient appliances, at 47 percent, came in third; enhanced insulation came in at 49 percent; and air-sealing packages to reduce infiltration rounded out the top five features at 49 percent.

Why were these features preferred by respondents? We can't know for sure, but what is telling is that use of some of these green features ranked fairly high among respondents who either don't market any of their homes as green or who are neutral or somewhat/strongly agree that green building is a fad. Although 76 percent of all respondents said they have used energy-efficient windows in all the homes they built, it only drops to 70 percent for respondents who don't market any of their homes as green, and to 72 percent for respondents who are neutral or somewhat/strongly agree that green is a fad. Even for those who are specifically targeting green features, energy-efficient windows and some of the other top five items are probably among the features that are most available, least expensive and easiest to install.

We see similar results for high-efficiency HVAC systems, with 57 percent of respondents saying that approximately all homes they built, designed or engineered in the last 12 months have this feature. But it only

dips to 55 percent for respondents who tend to think green is a fad (are neutral or somewhat/strongly agree), and only goes to 49 percent for those who do not market any of their homes as green.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are some green features that have not been so widely adopted. Looking at the bottom five responses to the question, “Approximately how many of the houses built, designed or engineered by your company during the past 12 months include the following features?” 12 percent named tankless water heaters; 3 percent picked rainwater harvesting; and geothermal heating/cooling systems, photovoltaics/solar panels and gray water reuse were tied at the bottom at 2 percent each. Given the relative high cost, special installation knowledge required and availability/viability in certain geographic locations, some of these features just aren't frequently adapted into the homes of even the greenest builders.

Regional distinctions

Space does not permit in-depth analysis of responses by region, but it's notable, if not explainable, that despite being the region of the country where the fewest number of our respondents build, the Northeast comes out on

top on several questions that might categorize them as a bit greener than usual. There are more than twice as many respondents who build in the South, but the region rarely came out on top in the “greener” category of responses.

For example, 91 percent of Northeast respondents said green building features are important when selecting building products, 6 percent more than any other region we surveyed, and 6 percent more than the overall response of 85 percent. The Midwest and South came in 84 and 85 respectively. And 79 percent of Northeast builders disagree that green building is a fad, compared with 70 percent of respondents overall, highest among the Midwest and South (tied at 68 percent) and the West at 64 percent.

The Northeast had 65 percent who said some or all of their homes are marketed as green, tied with the West, 10 percent ahead of the South and 15 percent ahead of the Midwest. The overall average as we saw above was 67 percent. And the Northeast scored 91 percent on the question, “Should there be minimum standards of performance and sustainability before a builder can market a home as green.” The average overall score was 87 percent. The South scored 89 percent, the West 85 percent and the Midwest 82 percent. And it eked out slightly ahead of the West on the question of whether all homes built are marketed as green, 27 to 26 percent respectively. The South was at 24 percent, and the Midwest at 18.

Also notable: 57 percent of Northeast respondents said NAHB is an easy program to use. The Midwest is in second place 40 percent. The overall average is 44 percent.


The Green Scheme of Things

Key takeaways from this year's Green Building Survey:

  1. You can overcome the obstacles to building green. They're there, but a majority of builders are marketing themselves to fight the challenges.
  2. Green isn't going away. Though in the future, what we call it may change.
  3. The green label has cache. But don't get greenwashed; find out whether a product is green beyond the label.
  4. Energy Star is a good place to start. But watch to see how the NAHB versus LEED fray falls out.
  5. Win your staff over to green building. You won't get very far if your people — trade partners in particular — aren't on board.
  6. Get your staff trained. The green transition won't work if you do things the same old way.
  7. Experiment with green features. See how buyers in your market respond and how it affects your costs.
  8. Look at features you include now. You may be greener than you think!
  9. Start slow. See what green features would be most effective and efficient for your market and begin adding them.
  10. Stay tuned. The housing market will continue to affect the movement. Who knows what next year's Green Building Survey will bring?

Compare this year's survey to our last. Go to and search for “green building survey.”