If custom builder J.D. Holt represented a critical mass of your customer base, your inventory would likely be quite different than it is right now. Though you'd still stock lumber and panels, windows and doors, siding, millwork, house-wrap, insulation, cabinets, flooring, decking, and other building materials, if you expected to sell the products they'd have to meet (and you'd have to document) a high standard for their environmental impacts. It also would help to know more than a little about their green qualities and how, combined, they create a sustainable, healthy, and energy-efficient structure.

For now, though, Holt is in the minority. The Austin, Texas, builder's goal is to deliver homes that achieve the highest rating possible (five stars) according to the Austin Green Building Program, which he did with his own 1,600-square-foot house in 2004. Only a dozen other homes in Austin have earned enough points from the 132-item checklist to achieve that standard since the program evolved to a five-star rating system in 2002, though six more eyeing that prize have been started already this year by Holt and other builders.

Credit: Charlie Brown/www.charliebrownphoto.com

And though Holt and the relatively few builders like him are on the leading edge of sustainable building, the rest of the industry is closing in fast. Austin's program alone counts 200 or so active participants and gains eight to 10 more through orientation meetings every six weeks. Meanwhile, the NAHB Research Center is currently tracking more than 30 local green building programs in 20 states, from Hawaii to Wisconsin, a number expected to increase as the NAHB's own set of green building guidelines, released last year, continues to inspire other markets to follow suit.

On a similar scale, the supply chain also has taken notice. Fifty-five of the dealers listed in the 2006 PROSALES 100 survey and ranking of the nation's top construction suppliers reported selling (if not stocking) lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) in 2005 (see page 74).

Most full-service dealers already have a healthy mix of products that are essential to sustainable construction, if not yet entirely up to green standards, but they don't—or aren't aware they can—promote it. The four local building materials suppliers Holt relied on for his five-star-rated house “had common materials, like composite decking, engineered lumber and wood flooring, and fiber-cement siding,” he says, “but they weren't very informed [about chemical composition, certification, or chain of custody issues] nor did they stock specific materials as green products.”

In other words, a dual-pane, low-E window is sold as a casement or hung unit, not as a green spec, and plated roof trusses are simply an alternative to stick-framed roofs, ignoring their more efficient use of lumber and lack of construction waste by comparison.

All that is poised to change, however, as several related yet still mostly separate forces inch closer together to drive significantly greater demand for green products and building materials that reduce energy use, conserve natural resources, reduce pollutants, and deliver healthier indoor air. “Standards, guidelines, and product development [for sustainable construction] are leveraging each other,” says James Hackler, program manager for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) in Washington, such as extra points awarded to Austin green builders who use products rated by the federal Energy Star program. “There may not be one [national] standard, but they are all moving toward the same goals of better-built and sustainable housing.”

Consider the Energy Star program, which promotes the use of energy-efficient products and building methods. Launched in 1992 by the U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Star now qualifies and labels more than 13,000 models represented by 1,200-plus manufacturers of appliances, lighting, HVAC equipment, windows and doors, and other products that exceed the minimum model energy codes; Energy Star's home-certification program has exploded from a scant 55 dwellings in 1996 to a total of 400,000 homes as of last year. The program's leadership predicts that by 2012 about 1 million new homes annually, a market share of 60 percent, will be built to its standards.

Then there's the USGBC's new LEED for Homes program. Spun off from the successful LEED certification standards for non-residential buildings, the housing component is currently under a one-year pilot review process; within six months of announcing the nationwide pilot phase last summer, LEED for Homes had registered 76 builders representing nearly 350 housing units.

Meanwhile, the American Lung Association's Health House program, which sets strict standards for reducing pollutant sources and delivering high-quality indoor air, estimates that about 2,000 homes have earned its Health House distinction since the inception of the program in 1993; last year, the Health House evolved to an even higher standard and started registering builders and entire communities, including some in development by Fort Worth, Texas–based D.R. Horton, the nation's largest home builder.