At the Greenbuild Conference in Phoenix last week, custom builder Tedd Benson faced off against Shea Homes’ executive Rick Andreen in front of several hundred professionals over the green home-building movement.

Speaking in a quiet, but forceful tone, Benson, owner of Bensonwood Homes in Walpole, N.H., chastised home builders for not crafting high-quality homes anymore. “A Consumer Reports investigation found that 15% of new homes are seriously defective,” Benson told pros attending the conference’s Residential Summit. “This is the hard truth about what we do and what plagues us all.”

Green builder Benson questioned why his counterparts, both large and small, aren’t constructing houses that save energy and resources and that make better the health of the occupants. “We’ve known what to do since the 1970s … but our industry leaders have been fighting the rules and regulations,” he added, quipping that before the housing debacle, big builders were more concerned about “ceaseless growth and unfettered profitability.”

Benson said that once the recession abates, pros must “build long-term value into homes that improves peoples’ lives. The materials are available to you. This important work we do comes with an obligation.”

But the 30-year veteran builder told the audience that high-performance homes cost more than standard houses. “You can’t double the insulation or add better windows without increasing costs.” In addition, Benson said that buyers must be made aware that “a $20,000 home theater will cost $75,000 over 25 years because of the additional energy costs.”

The green construction advocate also called for increased builder education. He noted that in almost every state, professional hair stylists need licenses to practice their craft, but that “you only need a ladder and a hammer” to be a contractor. “We lost the old skills and haven’t yet acquired new ones,” said Benson, the author of three books on timber frame construction. “Building trades people can’t be stupid anymore.”

SIGNS OF PROGRESS
Andreen, the Phoenix-area president for Shea Homes, the nation’s largest private home builder, said Benson was a tough act to follow. As a production builder, he said “I must take some responsibility” for the industry’s failings. But he added: “There has been progress; not all has been bad. Homes are significantly higher quality than they were 5, 10, 15 years ago.

“Profits are not evil,” he continued. “We just have to find ways to take the technologies we have … and make them affordable.” For example, Andreen said that models in the Shea Green Certified Homes program, which launched two years ago, come standard with photovoltaic panels, but that the builder loses money on each installation. If solar were optional, Andreen said he doesn’t think many buyers would pay for it. Despite their higher costs, Shea Homes is exploring other energy-efficient technologies, including home generation stations, natural gas HVAC equipment, and photovoltaic thermal systems.

The Shea Green Certified Homes package is standard on all the company’s Trilogy models. The green homes, which use 15% fewer materials, have a 48% reduction in their carbon footprint compared to the standard new house, Andreen said.

With average energy and resource savings of 20% compared with conventional homes, Shea Certified Green Homes exceed by about 30% the International Energy Code, according to the firm’s Web site. Besides solar systems, the eco-friendly houses include, among other products, solar-powered attic fans; Energy Star-rated appliances; dual-pane, low-E windows; and high-performance insulation.

During the question-and-answer segment, there was one significant point Andreen and Benson agreed on; that is, that consumers aren't powering the green home movement.

“There are always going to be people who want the fancy granite countertop, but it’s changing, and [builders] are going to have to drive it,” the Scottsdale-based executive said.

Benson concurred: “The only way that the built environment is going to get to zero [environmental] impact is if we push our clients, push our manufacturers, and push ourselves.”

Jean Dimeo is Chief Editor Online for EcoHome.