Seeing Green

Builders are need to help consumers weed through the information about green building.

By John Crowley | December 30, 2000
John Crowley has more than 20 years of management and development experience in home building and building products. As former director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Innovative Housing Technology Program, Crowley was involved in the development of new building materials and systems.


Why build green? The answer is clear: it’s good business. In David Johnston’s book, Building Green in a Black and White World, builder Ron Jones comments "Green building is no longer the providence of starry-eyed visionaries in Birkenstocks who dream of a day when financing will exist to allow them to build their own straw-bale castles."

With new green building incentives, including tax credits and mortgages, coupled with rising fuel costs, the new "green" consumer has arrived and there is nothing starry-eyed about them. Perhaps previously apathetic to green concerns, today’s consumer is primarily looking to increase the value of their home investment -- quickly viewing green building as not only environmentally responsible, but a sound investment.

Building professionals have an enviable and unique opportunity to lead this new green consumer by offering them the education and expertise needed to traverse the still murky waters of green building. The American consumer has not yet assimilated the vast amount of information and benefit necessary to make smart buying decisions, and they rely on industry expertise. Where green building education is concerned, the private residential building sector must answer the call.

What’s Green Anyway?
For commercial, institutional and high-rise residential buildings, the US Green Building Council’s LEEDTM (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system is a complete and mature product, according to program manager Steve Keppler. LEED is a voluntary building rating system based on existing proven technology. It evaluates environmental performance from a whole building perspective over a structure’s life cycle.

The US Green Building Council’s efforts to create a similar rating product for residences are underway with an expected completion date of early next year. Keppler comments, "Our committee includes all building professionals -- architects, builders, designers and building product manufacturers. The goal is to create a rating system that is workable and objective.

"We also want to fight against ‘green washing’"the appearance of green practices that don’t go far enough. We are trying to create a new industry benchmark for green residential building, but one that recognizes the cost challenges builders face."

As for market demand? Keppler speculates there is a challenge to understanding real demand. "For new homes, the voices are definitely there, but they are diluted. The reality is that the new home buyer is younger and we know that younger people are sensitive to environmental concerns. The role of educating the consumer to the fiscal benefit is extremely important."

Taxes are a good argument. Green tax credit legislation passed in New York and pending in California are good examples of efforts being made by the public sector to encourage green building. Also, there is a de facto tax benefit to green, sustainable communities based on their lessened impact on municipal infrastructure.

What about first-time cost, the concern of every home buyer? Keppler argues that if the owner wants it and the design and construction team have intermediate skill, up-front costs can be equal to traditional building practices. And, in the long run, the properties are far more valuable.

Still, why is establishing a firm measurement of greenness so important? Energy efficient mortgage programs operated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac base their specifications on the EPA’s Energy Star home that uses 30 percent less energy for heating, cooling and water heating than a home based on the Model Energy Code. Newer and more aggressive programs like Fannie Mae’s Green Mortgage Partnership program require hard data and definitions to select participants and to measure success. Fannie Mae, the nation’s largest source of financing for home mortgages, and the National Association of Home Builders are currently creating mortgage financing products based on "green building" criteria. The six cities included in an initial test phase include Atlanta; Columbus, Ohio; Albuquerque, NM; Denver; Los Angeles and Seattle. With this queen of mainstream financing holding court, you can bet your bottom dollar the evolution of green building will be the bottom line.

"Sustainability for the twenty-first century requires a total cost analysis," according to "Environmental and Economic Balance: The 21st Century Outlook CD-ROM" produced by The American Institute of Architects, U.S. Green Building Council and the U.S. Department of Energy. "Standardization of green guidelines will enable a cost definition of the whole picture that includes affordability and efficiency."

Selling Green Strategies Selling green is another matter entirely. Kristin Shewfelt, Director of Environmental Programs for Denver green home builder McStain Enterprises states, "The benefits have to be stated up front. We have found that if we ask people if the environment is important to them they say yes. What that means for their lifestyle, however, they generally don’t know. Education as part of the sales process is key, and the sales process must match their thought processes, because even in environmentally sophisticated locales, behavior takes a long time to change."

Shewfelt finds consumers have a higher degree of buy-in when the benefit is clearly stated, i.e., "green-built homes maintain their value over time because the craftsmanship and thoughtful design inherent to a green home is superior. The landscape itself is more aesthetically pleasing. We can say to our customers without hesitation that these homes consistently resell at a higher price than the average house."

Denver is ahead of the curve in terms of metropolitan communities that have embraced green building. Although McStain Enterprises (in business since 1966) has from its inception been dedicated to green building, in 1995 McStain joined others in the Colorado community and participated in the Built Green program. While McStain Enterprises can be lauded as one of the industry’s finest examples of integrated green building, don’t be fooled. It is profit margin that keeps McStain Enterprises moving forward. "Our goal is to be 90/10--90% customer satisfaction and 10% bottom line. We see green building as a sound business decision. In my opinion, builders who aren’t doing this will be out of step in 10 years at the most."

For builders just getting into the green building industry, Shewfelt recommends immersing yourself and your crew in industry knowledge so that you feel comfortable discussing various issues with your customers in a meaningful, personal way. She also highly recommends teaming up with a local HBA with a green building program in place. "Build Green programs are great to get you going until your company defines its own building checklist. They provide great educational and sales pieces that explain the benefit of green building in a very clear way."

Nadav Malin, editor of the newsletter Environmental Building News, suggests creating whole green packages as well as greener solutions. "Homeowners are overwhelmed when building a new house," says Malin. "If a builder doesn’t suggest it, it probably won’t be an issue of importance for anyone."

With green building becoming mainstreamed, our industry struggles to find a unified mission statement. Perhaps Environmental and Economic Balance sums it up best:

"In the 21st Century there is to be ‘zero waste tolerance.’ Simply put, we must set in motion systems that ensure the amount of waste that presently accompanies both new and renovated construction is reduced to zero. Everything must be reusable or recyclable.

"The ‘driver’ for this goal is developing the financial incentives necessary to make it real. First, it can be done. Second, it takes a convincing economic motivation to do it, and third, it requires an intentional commitment to find economic incentives that include the manufacturer, supplier, architect, builder and customer.

"Only when all partners in construction come together as a team, working toward the same goal, can we realize ‘zero waste tolerance’ in creating long-lasting and reusable materials."

Author John Crowley is president of New England Classic. Its Raised Panel System maintains the look and feel of solid hardwood by using a composite of furniture-grade hardwood veneers (cut from a real oak, maple or cherry log) and an engineered wood core -- the key to the system’s environmental friendliness. The core, wheatboard, is made from the wheat straw discarded by farmers in the Midwest, with the rails, stiles, cap and shoe manufactured from medium density fiberboard, often made from waste wood such as sawdust and discarded wood pallets.

Also See:
Selling Green: The Proof Is in the Building

Read More About It