I returned from the NAHB National Green Building Conference this morning with my head swimming with new products, cool projects, and lots of new green builder contacts. Though set against a backdrop of a still-recovering New Orleans, the atmosphere was positive, with a vibe of enthusiasm coursing throughout. It also was festive and reflective, as the association marked the event’s 10th anniversary. See below for articles from EcoHome staff covering all three days of the conference. In addition, here are 10 other observations I made over the course of the event:

  1. New Orleans residents are among the most courageous you’ll ever see.   As we toured green homes on Sunday, you couldn’t help but shake your head at the devastation that still plagues the Crescent City nearly three years after Hurricane Katrina. Those who have returned to rebuild, even as most of their neighbors’ homes remain abandoned, are to be admired—and supported.
  2. We’ve come a long way. A lot has changed in the decade since the NAHB’s first Green Building Conference, as Peter Yost of BuildingGreen explained in a workshop. Ten years ago, few of us had heard the terms “carbon neutral” or even “zero-energy.” Now they’re part of the lexicon of nearly every American, from consumers to builders to presidential candidates.

The conference itself is an indicator of progress, being that the event, now 1,200-plus attendees strong--was born in secret by a few staunch believers huddled in a secluded room. “If I had used the word ‘standard’ at the NAHB Research Center [when I worked there] in 1998, I would have been out of a job,” said Yost, pointing to the significance of the NAHB-sponsored National Green Building Standard, which was submitted to ANSI for approval a few weeks ago.

  1. But we have a long way to go. For as rapidly as the industry—and the population in general—is catching on to green practices, it’s still far from becoming the standard operating procedure some veterans predicted 10 years ago. Fifty percent of builders still do not partake in any green practices, for a variety of reasons, and many who do are overwhelmed or aren’t fully committed.
  2. Contradictions abound. It’s no wonder builders are confused. Depending on whom you talk to, a product might be evil or it might be the solution to all your problems. This became blatantly obvious prior to a keynote address, when two sponsors from competing exterior cladding categories spoke separately about how much greener their product is versus everyone else. The best approach is simply to be smart and do your research. Typically there’s more than one solution, and sometimes it’s about picking the lesser of two evils or the greater of two goods.
  3. Quality is job one. Something as simple as improperly flashed windows can quash a key principle of green building: durability. If you don’t master and enforce the basics of building science and high-performance construction, the rest of the green building process is fruitless.
  4. Affordable can be beautiful. I was truly inspired learning about affordable housing development projects shown by Mithun, Torti Gallas and Partners, and Green Builders. These companies are showing how smart product selection, creative thinking, teamwork, and cooperation with local governments and utilities can deliver better affordable houses that look great, operate efficiently, and offer a healthier living environment, all while blending in with the fabric of the existing community.
  5. You can be sustainable and profitable. Keynote speaker Pernille Lopez, president of IKEA North America, outlined a lengthy list of sustainable practices the Swedish furniture company participates in, including in manufacturing, materials, and outreach. Yet IKEA still manages to reign as the largest home furnishings manufacturer in the world. The question isn’t just whether you can be sustainable and profitable, but whether, in the future, you will be profitable if you choose to not be sustainable, Lopez said.
  6. Your people are ready. At least two speakers indicated that their companies’ green practices or involvement were expanded at the request of their employees.
  7. Lawyers are waiting in the wings. The NAHB reported that lawyers targeting the home building industry have green building in their crosshairs. Learn more here.
  8. The future is bright. Despite the economy and the sad state of the housing market, the vibe among builders at the conference was very positive. Though not everyone shares the belief that some day green building will just be “building,” it was clear that more pros than ever are willing and even eager to learn about and start implementing sustainable building principles. The air was optimistic, which is perhaps just what the industry needs right now.

One of the surest signs of progress I saw at the conference was during conversations with builders who admitted they are skeptical. Because no matter how skeptical they are, they were there, learning along with the rest of us about how to do it and why it’s necessary.
As quickly as the industry has changed in the last 10 years, the next decade will likely move even more rapidly. Where will you choose to be in 10 years?

EcoHome coverage from the National Green Building Conference:
National Green Building Conference Kicks Off

Hope Among Heartache

NAHB Honors Top Green Builders

NAHB Recognizes “Building With Trees” Developers

Custom Green Home Opens Its Doors to the World

Green Lawsuits Bound to Emerge