But more so than individual products is the process of putting them together to truly reduce a building's environmental impact. “We look at the house as a system,” says Vernon McKown, president of sales at Ideal Homes in Norman, Okla., which also guarantees the average energy bill of its 400-plus new homes each year, saving buyers hundreds of dollars annually compared to conventionally built homes. “The key is knowing how to integrate the pieces.”

Assisted by programs and partnerships, including the American Lung Association and the federally sponsored Build America program (in which builders partner with green-minded architects and building science groups to test and market environmental innovations), McKown has assembled a system that includes such specifications and low-emissivity (low-E) vinyl windows, mastic-sealed ductwork, and radiant barrier sheathing panels that work together to better control thermal transfer—and thus improve energy consumption and indoor air quality—in Ideal's homes.

Such specs and systems, however, ideally address specific geographic and demographic markets, and are often used to qualify a house for a local green building or federal Energy Star rating or certification. Appropriate to Seattle's climate, for instance, Alexander included a 7,000-gallon cistern in his latest custom home project to collect rainwater for irrigation and other water demands, while Miller's solar hot water mandate makes social and economic sense in sunny Tucson and other Sunbelt markets.

Among other educational materials (see “Green Resources,” at end of article), NAHB's forthcoming green building guidelines, due out next year, should provide builders (and dealers) with a checklist of products and performance standards from which they can create a strategy to build green. “Never before have [green building] practices evolved into a single, written set of criteria,” says Ray Tonjes, an Austin, Texas–based builder and chairman of NAHB's Green Building subcommittee. “The guidelines will ensure that all builders have the necessary tools and guidance to create resource-efficient and environmentally sensitive homes.” And they're guidelines that lumber and building materials dealers can use to supply and serve them.

Market Acceptance

It's generally accepted that the green building movement began in response to the energy crisis in the mid-1970s, eventually spawning the development of Energy Star, LEED, and similar initiatives that pushed (if not mandated) awareness and practice beyond the personal passions of a few fringe builders and architects.

What's evolved now is a groundswell of support for green building among consumers. Independent and industry surveys indicate that issues such as energy efficiency and indoor air quality are among the most desired features in new homes; more recently, buyers have indicated a willingness to pay for them, as well, especially if they result in lower energy bills, better mortgage terms, utility rebates, and tax credits. “Green building has true market value to home buyers,” says Tonjes.

Alexander believes that the housing industry is actually behind the consumer curve. “The level of eco-awareness [among homeowners] is huge,” he says. “Builders are catching up, and there's no reason why the industry won't soon be at the same level.”

Until then, builders such as McKown, Wade, and Miller continue to lead the industry—and prove that green building is marketable, profitable, and even affordable.

For instance, despite a $1,500 premium to upgrade its specs for better energy efficiency and indoor air quality, Ideal Homes maintains a gross profit margin above 30 percent and saw its housing starts, sales revenue, and profits rise while selling homes from the mid-$70s to the mid-$200s. “Green building gives us the ability to defend our margins,” says McKown. “People are fascinated with it, and they'll always choose a healthy home over one that is less healthy.”

As much as his company's own success, however, McKown sees Ideal Homes pulling its competition into the pool. “Given our size [number of starts], if we push it, others get in line to compete,” he says, noting increased local demand for low-E vinyl windows 18 months after Ideal Homes pioneered them as a standard specification.