The first time I remember hearing about green building was in the early-'70s, when a perfect blend of hippie culture and rising oil costs resulted in, among other things, houses called "earth ships" that incorporated wall systems made from old tires filled with dirt. But also, through some hits and mostly misses, that period also led to a greater understanding of energy efficiency, moisture control, and comfort, and many of today's lasting improvements can be directly tied to those early "experiments."

But due to some really bad "solar" homes, lots of failures, and dropping oil prices, the era passed–leaving behind the basis for what today we call green building that, until recently, existed only as a small niche for progressive builders.

Builders who remember the early years and who had to deal with those failures can be hard to convince of the value of green building. "Builders are a conservative bunch," says Santa Fe, N.M., builder Dave Crosby. "We can't afford failure. If something works, we use it over and over. If it fails, we never try it again."

The world has changed in 30 years, however. We understand so much more about how building systems work and are getting building science dialed-in. And that knowledge, coupled with proven new products, good design, and simple attention to detail, allows us now to build better homes that use fewer resources, are more comfortable, last longer, make our customers happy, and make us more money.

If you're just getting into sustainable building, whether by choice or by necessity, here's a look at green building basics and the latest thinking about this important trend to help you better understand how to improve the performance of your homes and systems and get yourself moving into a continually greening construction market.

Education

Elk's Cool Color asphalt shingles have highly reflective granules to reduce heat buildup.

Elk's Cool Color asphalt shingles have highly reflective granules to reduce heat buildup.

"A reasonable understanding of building science is the most important attribute of a green builder," says Alex Wilson, editor of Environmental Building News.

Indeed, education is a point raised by several experts. "Educating your clients about green building and why, for example, the house you build will be more comfortable and cost less to heat and cool, shows that you care about building," says HUD engineer Dana Bres, who works within the agency's Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH). "They're going to wonder what else you're doing right." Bres points out that taking the time to learn about green building and sustainable design can pay subtle but real dividends.

"A builder must educate himself about appropriate technology," says Tucson, Ariz., green builder John Wesley Miller, who helps sell his homes by guaranteeing that energy costs won't exceed a set amount. He also cautions builders about focusing on just one aspect of green building, saying, "... a builder needs to get his arms around the big picture. Energy efficiency is important, but so is recycling and minimizing waste."

To start the learning process, here, in rough order of importance, are seven key green building points as suggested by experts interviewed for this story.