THE FIRST GREEN BUILDING program in the United States took shape just 15 years ago in Austin, Texas, as a result of the efforts of a few forward-looking individuals. Today, about 30 green building programs can be found nationally, most of them initiated and run by HBAs. While the pioneering green building programs in Austin, Seattle, and Denver can claim the lion's share of new construction, other regions are gaining momentum.

Of course, the total number of homes built to be certifiably green constitutes a relatively small percentage of the million-plus new homes constructed annually. But experts such as Rich Dooley, an environmental analyst at the NAHB Research Center, point out that thousands of builders have adopted at least some of the tenets and products of sustainable building, raising the bar on energy efficiency—and often improving the overall quality of construction as a result.

HVAC RULES: Heating and cooling account for almost half the energy use in new homes.
HVAC RULES: Heating and cooling account for almost half the energy use in new homes.

“The trend is to look at the house as a whole,” Dooley say. “Builders don't just put in an energy-efficient furnace and call it good. Now, they know that if they have an air sealing package, they can put in smaller HVAC systems—and that money saved can be pumped back into other parts of the house.”

And green building programs have seen a promising shift in the wind lately, primarily because of interest from large production builders. For example, Kim Calomino, director of Built Green Colorado, says U.S. Home will build about 2,000 green-certified homes this year in the Denver area. Shea Homes is also signing on to build homes under the program.

“We will have 6,000 homes under the program this year,” Calomino notes. “That brings us to about 25,000 homes [since 1995]. Next year, we expect to see another surge.”

Resisting Gravity At the same time, the housing industry, like the auto industry, faces a mixed message from the marketplace. Over about the same 20-year period, when sales of large vehicles such as SUVs have reversed overall fuel efficiency, the potential for reductions in energy demands in homes has also been undercut by bloated home sizes, instant-on appliances, and smaller family sizes.

These consumer trends could lead to the misconception that most home buyers don't care about the environmental impact or energy efficiency of their homes. But several recent studies (see “Do Consumers Care?”, page 145) show just the opposite. And builders—even high-volume production companies—have learned that green-built homes appeal to a certain market niche. If you build it, they will buy it.

Of course, for custom builders such as Brian Roznowski of Ashland Custom Homes in Evergreen, Colo., the benefits of environmental features have to be “sold” to clients before breaking ground.

“I got into this for both altruistic and marketing reasons right at the get go [when Built Green Colorado started],” notes Roznowski. “I would say it has paid off.” Buyers have become more green savvy, he says, but “not as much as we had hoped for. It still often comes down to the bottom line—the dollar.”

Lee Kitson, a semi-custom home builder in Grand Rapids, Mich., echoes that sentiment. He says the marketing boost that green building offers is still the greatest incentive for a builder to adopt the tenets of environmentally sound construction.