• Jacob Atalla, senior director of sustainability initiatives, KB Home.
    Jacob Atalla, senior director of sustainability initiatives, KB Home.

For Jacob Atalla, senior director of sustainability initiatives at KB Home, the nirvana of sustainable building is not just building net-zero homes—it’s building them affordably. He expects the industry to reach that point within the next 10 to 15 years. But the work—the construction—has to start now, he stresses. In other words, if you aren’t already offering net-zero homes to your buyers, you may not only be missing an opportunity, you may actually be slowing progress.

“We are building net-zero energy homes and offering them as an option to home buyers now, even though the demand for them, to a large extent, is still non-existent,” Atalla says. “We’ve initiated this so we can start organizing our suppliers and our trades, and even trying to get the volume in place, so we can be part of the market transformation going forward. Product pricing goes down with critical mass. We can encourage this critical mass by starting to build for it.”

According to Atalla, building net zero also helps bring awareness to the consumer by physically showcasing and demonstrating what is possible and, even more so, what is next. That, Atalla believes, will drive demand.

In fact, he has seen firsthand that exposure can drive demand and, ultimately, eliminate cost. In 2002, KB Home decided to introduce radiant barrier roofing material to home buyers in select markets. With some consumer education, Atalla says homeowners instantly saw the value of the energy-efficient roofing material, and take-rates went as high as 50% to 60%. In a matter of months, the company introduced the technology to all of its markets and started exploring ways to make it a standard offering. By streamlining down to one trade partner, KB was able to turn an energy-efficient option into a standard, no-cost feature in a mere nine months.

That example also highlights what Atalla thinks is another key component to achieving the goal of affordable sustainability—working closely with suppliers to find ways to drive out cost barriers. In some cases, that may mean the builder will not only have to initiate the conversation, but push to make it happen.

For example, when KB decided to make low-VOC paints a standard feature at no extra cost, its paint supplier said it wasn’t possible. But after going back to the supplier and asking them to dig deeper, the two companies found that something as simple as standardizing on one shade of white made low-VOC paint a feasible—and affordable—standard feature. In fact, as of last month, KB is in the process of transitioning to zero-VOC paint at no extra cost to the home buyer.

Atalla feels the final component to making sustainable building affordable is for the industry to harmonize their efforts with utilities and the organizations that create policies, codes, and incentives. “All of us have to work together to harmonize all of these initiatives,” he says, “Whether it is from the utilities’ side offering incentives, or the code organizations—we all have to synchronize our efforts so that they align, and join forces to get this market transformation happening in an orderly fashion. That way we can avoid either overloading the market, or leaving the market without incentives to move forward.”

As for what is next, Atalla envisions a future where utilities and home builders will work together to design and build smarter homes that will take advantage of the smart grid. He also sees modernized appraisal and mortgage processes as well as increased attention to issues that go beyond energy efficiency, specifically indoor air quality and water efficiency.

“The challenge is how to get all of these advancements moving forward while maintaining the affordability of homes,” Atalla says. “As we all mature in how we look at sustainability and the home building industry—maybe using the 10 different focus areas that Vision 2020 has put together—I think we will find ways to continue to grow the efficiency of our product, keeping it affordable while at the same time making it more environmentally friendly.”