McCutcheon says that if you ask anyone whether they want toxins in their homes or want to waste money or be uncomfortable, undoubtedly they would say no. Then the issue of cost comes up.
But looking at cost is not always as simple as comparing two price tags. In the process of selling, remodelers lean on one of three tools: They compare products such as regular tile versus recycled glass tile; they tout the return on investment of energy-efficient products or product life span; or they avoid the issue altogether by simply showing the stunning results of beautiful, sustainable building practices.
Plaskoff claims people will pay 10% to 20% more on a green bath remodel where they are substituting green products for conventional ones, but in actuality, when the job is tallied, it usually only costs the customer about 5% more.
Dennis Allen of Allen Associates in Santa Barbara, Calif., points to the remodeling process as a key place to keep costs in check. “If you get everyone on board in the beginning, you always save money on the systems and the execution,” he says. “Trying to Band-Aid a project later in the process is always more expensive.”
Allen asks for a “mini pre-construction contract,” which stipulates that he be paid $85 per hour for bidding and consulting on green issues, offering preliminary estimates, and reviewing building technology issues. “Even if a project doesn't happen, we get paid,” he points out. “More than anything else, green did that for us.”
Eric Carlson, president of E.C. Construction in Des Moines, Iowa, finds energy efficiency and indoor air quality to be the selling tool in his market. In one job, a garage being turned into living space, Carlson put radiant heating in a new poured floor for comfort and installed a geothermal heat pump, which keeps the owner's heating and cooling bills at $150 per month year-round. “These things are not for the faint of budget,” he says, “but they are not extreme expenses. If your house is energy-efficient, you will spend less money — it's a value-add.”
That may be true, but Alan Abrams of Abrams Design is always amazed at how, when he talks about the return on investment of green in the Washington, D.C., market where he builds, people's eyes glaze over. “It's the most compelling way to sell green: It makes more sense to put your money today in a SEER 19 air-conditioning unit than to put it in your IRA, but it just doesn't register with people,” he says.
Abrams, who pursues passive solar design in all his projects, is mollified by the fact that those clients who can't be nudged along by dollar savings can be motivated by exquisite design.
“Our process and design approach are a direct response to nature, with wonderful windows, overhangs, and solar orientations that create beautiful, sensuous space. You don't sell it per se, you show them photos and take them to visit the space to let them get the feel of it.”
McCutcheon agrees, saying that if you focus strictly on cost, you are missing the boat. He relays a story of an advanced green planning class he attended, where the instructor gave a hypothetical exercise that asked members of the class how they would spend $25,000 to put green features in a 250-home development. At the end of the class, the instructor unveiled his model, where by simply doing about 20 things correctly — some adding cost and some subtracting cost — he actually “saved” $4,000.
“People who think green takes more money just don't get it,” McCutcheon says. But maybe, others say, it's simply that they aren't willing to do the planning and education necessary to make the numbers work.
“Green building requires homework, thinking, and training,” Johnston agrees. “Ultimately, when the time comes, [remodelers will] make it work for them. Remodeling companies that are ahead of the curve [with green] gobble up market share. It's the single best way to grow your company.”Never Stop Learning
Possibly the most exciting part of green's foray into mainstream for many remodelers is the intense education that surrounds it. Harrell Remodeling sent a whopping 30 of its 40-plus employees through California Green Builder program (www.cagreenbuilder.org) certification. “We felt that there was a huge value in having the sales staff and carpenters and other on-site staff follow through with green principles,” Kannel says.
“You can't have a salesman saying, ‘My boss likes to do this stuff, but you can do conventional if you want,'” adds Johnston, who advises remodelers to include sales staff in any green training since they are selling the company's green products and systems.
“You have to be familiar with the products that are out there,” Johnston adds. “Get an enthusiastic staffer and say, ‘What kind of paint should we use?' and let them go. The Internet is your friend.”
But remember, the Internet is also a good friend of your clients. “The Internet is a huge resource,” Carlson says. “People ask questions now, such as, ‘How long will this off-gas?' If you can't answer their questions, they'll go with a company that can.”
Carlson also notes that clients want to know that nontraditional products aren't junk. “Some people say, ‘How come you are using TJIs; I want 2x12s.' You then have the opportunity to educate them: 2x12s don't come 25 feet long and straight.”
Allen believes that education is an ongoing initiative that pays off in most cases but not necessarily in all. In a tiny project in Santa Barbara, Calif., he and the owners worked hard to make the 500-square-foot addition energy-efficient — on a budget.
The team explored new windows with R-values up to four times better than anything they had used in the past. But for various reasons, including cost, they ultimately decided not to use the windows.
However, for every nonstarter, there's a bull's-eye, Allen says. The team was excited when it found a paint additive at 4 cents per foot, which has a ceramic molecule that creates an insulative barrier.
The team will monitor how the house, with its energy-efficiency features, performs compared to similar homes. “We want to say, ‘We can give you a project that is using 50% to 70% less energy than Title 24 requirements [California energy-efficiency mandate].' We now have documentation to back that claim,” Allen says.Opening New Doors
Some remodelers enjoy increased sales as they pursue other business avenues related to green.
Susan Pierce, AIA, owner of Commonwealth Homes in Vienna, Va., for example, wants to become a third-party resource for other building professionals on green building and is relaunching the company's Web site to be an educational portal.
Marinkovich is in a pilot program in California called the GreenPoint Rater system (www.builditgreen.org), which trains third-party pros to rate homes and developments. As a green rater, she will also keep her company's name in the public eye as a green builder with experience.
Kelly just launched a business unit called Home Performance, which is an energy audit service that analyzes clients' homes. “We make recommendations for improvements they can do to make their homes more energy efficient,” he says.
Without continuing education, contends Johnston, remodelers will lose sales. “You are no longer in the remodeling business; you're in the house-doctor business,” he says. “You have to see the problems that are bigger than the kitchen addition. There are lots of things upper-end remodelers can do that will endear them to the homeowner. ‘Thank goodness you saw that; you're my hero,' they'll say. It's an add-on sale; your best future client is your current client.”
Cati O'Keefe is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati.