Find Your Shade of Green

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In a market as competitive as housing, popular green trends can be quickly redefined to serve all sorts of interests. Without a standard definition, it's hard to know exactly what constitutes green. Can a remodeler who installs energy-efficient windows, for example, call himself green?

September 01, 2007
Sidebars:
What It Takes to Market Green

Crestco, a construction waste recycling company, ground the excess wood and drywall from this remodeled home and used it in the landscaping.
Photos courtesy of PATH Partners

In a market as competitive as housing, popular green trends can be quickly redefined to serve all sorts of interests.

Without a standard definition, it's hard to know exactly what constitutes green. Can a remodeler who installs energy-efficient windows, for example, call himself green?

"Somebody took hold of the word 'green' and turned that into meaning good to the environment, but there are all sorts of subsets and offshoots of that word," says Mark Richardson, president of Case Remodeling in Bethesda, MD., the largest full-service remodeling company in the country.

Before you start selling green, you need to come to terms with what it means to you and — just as importantly — what it will mean to your clients. That will set the standard for your business.

In the absence of a national consensus on what green means, the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) offers some assistance in defining green and helping you make it a business advantage.

The Buzz

As the numbers show, green is red hot.

According to an NAHB survey, more than 25 percent of remodelers saw an increased demand for green projects in 2006, compared to 6 percent in 2005. A majority already incorporate some forms of energy efficiency into their work: 85 percent use low-energy windows, 68 percent use insulated exterior doors, 65 percent upgrade their insulation and 56 percent install high-efficiency HVAC systems.

The survey also shows that many remodelers use environmentally friendly products. More than 75 percent minimize harvesting of old-growth forests by using lumber alternatives like engineered wood. Sixty-five percent already incorporate recycled or recyclable materials into their projects.

While green homebuilding gets a great deal of press, the greatest opportunities for green lie actually within the remodeling industry. Not only is the stock of homes more than 100 times bigger, but remodeling a home is itself greener than building a new one, simply because you use far fewer resources.

"The only way to bring green into 120 million existing households is through remodeling," says National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) Remodelers Chair Mike Nagel. "Americans spent over $230 billion last year in home remodeling, with energy-efficient and sustainable products representing an increasing share of the market."

Who is Buying Green?

So who are these green homeowners?

There is little research on remodeling clients in general, much less on those with green tendencies. However, we get a pretty good understanding of green homeowners in research on new home buyers and their responsiveness to green practices and technologies.

A 2006 NAHB study found that green buyers are more likely to be affluent and well-educated, in their mid-40s and married. They're more likely to live in the Southern or Western states. Women are also more likely to think green than men.

Eighty-five percent of these homeowners were more satisfied with their green homes than with their previous, more traditionally built homes. And the new homeowners buying green homes were willing to pay an $18,500 premium.

According to more than 60 percent of the homeowners NAHB surveyed, consumer awareness, additional costs and the limited availability of homes are obstacles to green homes gaining a bigger foothold in the market.

These homeowners also said the biggest obstacle to green in homes is lack of education on the topic.

Proper air sealing is fundamental to producing a green remodeling project. These areas of the home are common sites of air leaks where sealing can make a significant impact.

Defining Green

In the most basic sense, green building is using techniques and technologies that have less impact on the environment. But what green means to your clients may be something quite different.

"Some homeowners, with all due respect, contact us about green remodeling because it's good cocktail party talk, while others are socially conscious," Richardson says.

NAHB found that 50 percent of green home buyers were motivated by environmental concerns and their families' health. However, 63 percent said lower operating and maintenance costs were their key motivators.

But many clients have only a foggy notion of what green means and come to the remodeler to help them figure it out. The remodeler needs to understand not only what's green, but what's possible in the home they're working with.

"Home builders are working from a blank slate," says David Johnston, co-author of "Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time." "Remodelers have a lot of limitations, so they have to know what is possible and how to apply it."

PATH defines a building product as green if it meets at least four of the following criteria and is neutral in the other:

  • Energy efficient, water efficient, resource efficient or durability enhancing
  • Made from reused, recycled, rapidly renewable, preferably local or other environmentally preferable materials
  • Easily recycled at the end of its life
  • Free of pollutants harmful to the air or water
  • Effective in minimizing the environmental impact of the building.

PATH's Technology Inventory — a list of more than 180 technologies that improve durability, efficiency and environmental performance — can help you find products that meet these criteria.

Be aware that some products have competing green attributes. For example, steel studs are often made with recycled steel and are recyclable, while wood is renewable and often local. Because both possess positive green attributes, you must be able to explain why you recommend one over the other. In many respects, this is no different to explaining your preference for one brand of windows or HVAC equipment.

A Whole-House Approach

A truly green home isn't achieved product by product. Carl Seville, president of Seville Consulting and NAHB National Green Building Awards' Remodelers Advocate of the Year, advises that remodelers "make the building work right first, then start looking at green materials."

This means considering the performance of the entire home.

"Simply putting in that Low-E window doesn't solve the problem. Remodelers need to use a whole-house approach to maximize efficiency," says Michael Strong of Brothers Strong in Houston.

By a whole-house approach, Strong means considering the impact of each upgrade on the overall performance of a home.

Here are some main performance areas to consider in your next project:

  • Reclaim or recycle as much of the material you tear out as you can and contain the dust and debris created during demolition.
  • Minimize energy use through passive solar design; proper insulating and air sealing techniques; and efficient HVAC, lighting and appliances.
  • Minimize water use inside and out with smart plumbing and appliance choices, Xeriscaping with native plants, and rain-water collection systems.
  • Use fewer materials by choosing prefabricated components, and buy your materials from local sources when possible to avoid the environmental impact of transporting them across the country.
  • Choose technologies and building tech-niques that improve indoor air quality, such as low-VOC paint and concrete floor finishes.
  • Favor durable components that require minimal maintenance and less frequent replacement. Examples include metal roofs and composite decking.
  • Build smaller. Use design techniques that use space wisely to reduce the environmental footprint of the home. The more space you have, the more materials and energy you use. You have to help homeowners determine when enough is enough.

Happily, a lot of green remodeling can be achieved through better remodeling techniques that don't require a whole lot of extra outlay and may even save some money. Your clients may clamor for solar panels because they're all the rage, but if the walls are poorly insulated, adding solar panels won't greatly improve comfort or savings. Green remodeling means smarter and better remodeling, not just fashionable technology.

Want a better handle on these concepts? PATH, Energy Star for Homes, the U.S. Green Building Council and the Building Performance Institute all offer excellent resources. NARI has also developed a green education program with classes online and through local chapters. NARI has launched a green remodeling certification program that will help remodelers differentiate themselves from their competition.


Author Information
Scott T. Shepherd writes about better building practices on behalf of the Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH). PATH is administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Learn more at www.pathnet.org.

 

What It Takes to Market Green

Before you rush to market yourself as a green remodeler, give your approach some thought.

Green is not something that you can turn on and off in your projects. Green is like quality — it has to become part of the core values for your company.

Case Remodeling in Bethesda, Md. is just beginning to implement a green strategy, in part because company president Mark Richardson wants to avoid becoming part of a fad. He's taking his time to figure out what green really means and what part of this movement Case can undertake and do well over the long haul.

"Most of the rest of the world is putting their spotlight on green," Richardson says. "What we are doing at Case is identifying a pretty distinct position, defining it and trying to communicate that to our clients and to our team."

Which leads to the point that you don't have to meet every element outlined by a green building program to be considered a green remodeler. Because there are so many variables in a remodeling project, it may not even be possible.

What you do need to do is provide the client with an honest and accurate assessment of what upgrades are possible and what impact they will have on the home. This may require spending more time educating homeowners — and your employees — than you have in the past. You will need to account for this additional time in your employee training and cost estimates.

Fortunately, there are several handy resources to help you talk about green with your clients, including the homeowners' section of PATHnet.org, PATH's Technology Inventory at ToolBase.org, the Energy Efficient Rehab Advisor at Rehabadvisor.com, and Energy Star at EnergyStar.gov. These tools will help you explain your diagnosis of the problem and the recommended treatment.

"The remodelers we work with sell themselves as house doctors that can help bring your home into the 21st century," Johnston says. "When they describe what they do in that way, it brings the remodelers clients they didn't even know they were missing."

And that means a whole different kind of green for your business.

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