Green building is reaching into the heart of America. In an amazingly short time, the American consumer has become increasingly aware of green building and its inherent benefits. But do they put their money where there mouths are? Has environmentalism moved beyond activism to action? HousingZone.com’s GreenBuilding Survey asked just that.
Knowing about the benefits of resources-efficient construction is one thing; spending money for those same features is quite another. In the survey, consumers were asked to choose their three most important upgrades when buying a new home. In top down order, they said: energy efficiency features - 87.2 percent, kitchen cabinet upgrade - 65.8 percent, and improved indoor air quality - 49.6 percent. Though at the bottom of the desired upgrade list, xeriscaping did finish ahead of a whirlpool tub.
It’s important to recognize that new home features can readily be integrated into remodeling projects, too. As more homeowners opt to improve their existing home, energy and environmental retrofits are a growing niche.
Energy upgrades are one of the first things that consumers would pay extra for - up to $1,000 - if they could expect to see a payback through lower monthly energy costs in two to three years. Only 5.1 percent of the home buyers said they would not be willing to pay more in up front cost for energy-efficiency upgrades that would reduce monthly utility bills.
Improved indoor air quality is also among the top three priorities for home buyers. Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed are aware that certain building materials emit gas chemicals into the living environment. Forty-five percent said that it was very important to live in a home free of toxic chemicals inside. Another 30 percent rated it high on their priority scale.
It is easy to be suspicious and attribute these priorities to self-interest or the "What’s in it for me" buyer. After all, saving energy means saving money. Toxic chemicals are a scary thought. Of course, when asked, anyone would respond to these issues from the standpoint of the health and financial security of their own family.
But interestingly, when consumers were asked what their three most important environmental issues are, they said saving energy, using recycled-content building products, and improved indoor air quality. Saving old-growth trees came in a close fourth. It is significant that larger environmental issues such as recycling and saving old-growth trees are close to as important as the "self-interest" issues. This is a departure from earlier local surveys, particularly one conducted in Denver in 1998 that identified resource conservation issues as very low in buyers’ minds.
When asked if, for the same price, they would rather have a home that used old-growth trees or one that used no old-growth trees, 64 percent said they would prefer a home that used no old-growth lumber.
These numbers correlate with surveys over the last decade indicating that over 70 percent of the American public consider themselves environmentalists. Consumers are starting to see their house as an expression of their environmental values.
When asked if energy savings on a monthly basis offset the additional mortgage costs of adding green features, whether they would rather pocket the cash or put the savings into green features without an immediate payback, 65 percent said they would opt for the additional green features.
Wanting something is only the first part of the equation; the real question is the importance and value attached to green building features. To learn the relationship between want and value, survey respondents were asked to value each topic on a one-to-seven scale, with seven being most important.
Overall, 89 percent of consumers were willing to pay more for green-building features if they improved quality, durability and the health of the house. More than half were willing to pay between $2,500 and $5,000. A small, but significant, 9.5 percent were willing to pay $10,000 for a green package.
David Johnston is president of What’s Working, a design and consulting firm in Boulder, Colo., specializing in environmental construction technology. His book, "Building Green in a Black and White World," is published by Home Builder’s Press.
The State of Green Building 2000