EcoHome checks in with Austin, Texas, home builder Ray Tonjes, a pioneer of sustainable home building who helped develop the NAHB’s National Green Building Standard.

How did you become a green builder?
I started my home building career in 1983, well before the term “green building” was coined. This just happened to be the same time that the city of Austin started to organize its first energy conservation program. I had been adversely affected by the oil shortages of the mid '70s and early '80s in my previous profession as a pilot with the U.S. Air Force and Braniff Airlines, so I was very much interested in energy conservation. I was keenly aware of the effects oil shortages had on our overall national security and economy. 

I attended the first organizational meeting of the Austin energy conservation program and started to learn about “better building.” There I learned about products and technologies such as blown cellulose insulation, shading windows with solar screens, and first-generation radiant barriers. Austin’s first conservation program--called Energy Star--evolved into the nation's first green building program in 1991. 

What have you learned from your years of advocating nationally for green home building?
Patience! I've seen that here in Austin where it has taken 25 years to get to where we are today, with arguably one of the most aggressive energy conservation programs in the country. That type of progress continues today, as our local program is on track for all new homes to be zero-energy capable by 2015. The second phase of that four-step program goes into effect this month. 

I have also learned it is not the extreme-green highly publicized projects that will lead the way for the meaningful transformation of our industry, but rather the thoughtful incorporation of regional green building programs (Austin Energy Green Building, Built Green, EarthCraft, Earth Advantage, etc.) and more recently national green building programs (NAHB Green, LEED for Homes, Environments for Living, etc.). These programs will help make building a certified green home accessible to as many builders as possible.

Have your subcontractors gotten on board with green building?
Some more than others, but overall, our trades take a lot of pride in what they do. If we, as green builders, can make them aware of the benefits of new building practices and materials, most will embrace the opportunity to become better and more knowledgeable at what they do. This in turn provides more opportunities for them in a competitive marketplace.    

Austin, Texas, green builder Ray Tonjes
Austin, Texas, green builder Ray Tonjes

Why is building science so important to you? 
It has made me a better builder. One of the core principles of building science is that a house is a total integrated system and building this way requires an overall attitude and thought process. You cannot just go through the motions; you have to understand and believe in what you are doing. Green building as an industry has often focused on products that are the silver bullet type of thing, such as tankless water heaters, solar panels, and high-SEER mechanical systems, when the core of green building is really all about enlightened choice. Everything you do as a builder is about making choices that have less impact. This includes promoting good design that provides natural lighting and ventilation and passive solar techniques as well as low-maintenance, durable products and the efficient use of materials. Also important are efficient plumbing and mechanical layouts, proper application and installation of products and materials, and educating homeowners on how to use and maintain their high-performance home. Gradually you can change the culture, but it is hard to do so in isolation and that is why there is a lot of value in the green building programs.

Your remodeling work makes up about half of your business. Why do you feel green remodeling is important?
New construction has always been the primary focus for most of the green building programs and energy code changes. But if you think about it, the low-hanging fruit for real progress is with the country’s 100 million or so existing homes. Selective deconstruction and repurpose, use of more durable materials, recycling of construction waste, as well as energy efficiency upgrades in additions and remodels, is rapidly becoming a bigger part of the overall housing industry.  

How do you market your company?
Well … I’d have to say not very well. I’m a whole lot better at being a high-quality green builder than I am about letting others know about it. My to-do list includes updating my website, starting a blog, and getting on Facebook and LinkedIn. My challenge is to stay competitive with a whole new generation of really good builders who have adapted to the new social media form of marketing.

What is the future of green building?
I think green building is a temporary phenomenon, which serves to bring attention to the issues around it and provide a structure for change. In another 10 to 15 years, these concepts will be the norm and there will be no need to differentiate. We will be back to simply being home builders again.  

What are some of your favorite green building products?
--native Texas limestone
--DuPont Tyvek DrainWrap drainage plane and window flashing system
--Demilec spray-foam insulation
--GreenFiber borate-based cellulose insulation
--Dow SIS structural insulated sheathing panels
--Marvin Integrity windows and doors
--Tru-Stile MDF interior doors
--MoistureShield composite decking and trim boards