Like most builders, Max Wade of Artistic Homes in Albuquerque has a schedule to keep and numbers to meet. But he also guarantees an average monthly energy cost over a year's time for every home he sells by incorporating resource-efficient materials, systems, and design practices into his construction process.

The only way Wade reconciles the dual masters of money and managing the environmental impact of his homes is to buy building products already in the center of the supply channel, not on the fringe. “Everything we build with is available,” says Wade, who sells nearly 800 single-family homes every year to first-time buyers. “There's nothing out of the ordinary or that requires a special order,” that would bog down his schedule or his subs, push his price points past the means of his buyers, or punk his profit margin.

If Max Wade sounds like an opportunity for full-service lumberyards and building materials dealers in search of a sustainable business model, he is—and he's not alone. Across the country, from some of the largest home builders to custom builders, the wave of “green building” is swelling to mainstream proportions. More than 100,000 homes, represented by 2,200-plus builders, have earned the federal Energy Star label for superior energy performance since 1995, while more than 32,000 homes (and an estimated 13,000 alone in 2002) have been certified according to guidelines developed by green building coalitions in nearly 30 metropolitan markets.

Los Angeles–based Pardee Homes mandates that all of the 2,500-plus homes it builds in three metropolitan markets each year qualify under Energy Star criteria, and recently completed a zero-energy home in Las Vegas in which photovoltaic collectors generate enough electricity to make the meter run backward. In Frisco, Texas, the local Green Building Council is the first to certify entire housing developments as a strategy to pull more builders into sustainable construction.

Tucson, Ariz.–based builder John Wesley Miller's current 90-home infill project mandates the use of solar domestic hot water, high-performance windows, and other energy-efficient features in part to prove green building's market viability. “Once you get builders to start building green, it gets competitive,” says Miller. “Then it impacts the whole country.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Green Building Council is considering LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards for housing that would raise the bar beyond Energy Star and certify qualified homes, while the NAHB Research Center is drafting voluntary green building guidelines to educate and assist home builders in markets that don't have local measures yet.

With a growing number of consumers demanding energy-efficient products, more builders specing green materials, and more manufacturers offering products that fulfill those needs, the perceived “risks” for pro dealers who go green have all but faded, and there is no better time for lumberyards to get on board with products, education, and services. Dealers interested in catching and riding the wave need to develop a market-specific definition of “green building,” respect its potential as a marketable and profitable segment of the housing industry, and recognize opportunities to initiate and support efforts by builders to bring green to the masses.

Defining Green

What makes a product “green” and measures it as such against other materials and systems is a process of life-cycle assessment (LCA), a land-use-to-landfill evaluation of its environmental impact included in many local and national green building guidelines or criteria.

Generally, products that conserve resources initially and through durability and low-maintenance characteristics, employ recycled or salvaged material, are made without toxins or reduce emissions or pollution in application, save energy and water, and/or improve indoor air quality (among a host of more detailed criteria) qualify as “green” to varying degrees.

The number and type of products that qualify under such criteria is rapidly expanding due to the obvious environmental and growing economic benefits of green building, as well as mandates and incentives through local codes, tax and utility credits, and/or federal regulations. “The green building market is changing all the time,” says Seattle custom builder Jon Alexander, who employs certified-sustainable lumber and wood finishes, fly-ash concrete, and formaldehyde-free insulation—examples of green alternatives that fit into historically high-impact product categories.