If the last few years were about defining green, this year seems to be all about embracing the green movement. It's nearly impossible to turn on the TV, walk through a store or listen to a speech in this election year without hearing about energy efficiency, climate change or other green topics. Whether it's energy prices hitting to the pocketbook, increased social awareness or just a hot trend, 2008 is shaping up to be the year green went mainstream.
The results of our annual green survey of remodelers bear that out. We surveyed more than 500 professional remodelers across the country about their attitudes and how green is affecting their business. We also talked to some of the leading green remodelers in the country about what they're seeing in their businesses and local markets. (We're also hosting a live Webcast presenting and discussing the results Oct. 23. For more information or to register, visit www.ProRemodeler.com.)
By an overwhelming majority, remodelers are enthusiastic about green. In fact, 80 percent of them say they think it's important to use green building techniques in their company's remodeling projects. An equal number say green features are important to them when choosing which products to use.
Although attitudes toward green seem to be predominantly positive, not everybody is convinced.
Twenty percent of remodelers say they think green remodeling is a fad. Those in the West are most likely to think so (28 percent), while in the Northeast, only 16 percent see it as a fad.
Even some of those who are big believers in green see some truth in that statement.
“I think partly the reason they're saying that is that they're smart,” says Michael McCutcheon, president of McCutcheon Construction in Berkeley, Calif. “They've picked up on the fact that there's a lot of 'greenwashing' going on.”
Too many companies — whether building products manufacturers or oil producers — are not changing their behaviors yet still slap a green label on a product to take advantage of the green hype, McCutcheon says.
“Everybody wants to claim to be green,” he says. “In that sense, it is a fad.”
The problem may be one of education, says Donna Shirey, president of Shirey Contracting of Issaquah, Wash., and a national officer with NAHB.
“I think some of them say it's a fad because they don't know much about it,” she says. “They're scared, so they say it's a fad. They don't want to have to learn something new.”
Whether a fad or not, remodelers need to know what's going on in green to deal with more informed clients, says Michael Anschel, a principal with Otogawa-Anschel Design Build in Minneapolis.
“I would rather position my company to be ahead of the trend, and if it's a fad and the fad lasts 10 years, and it means that my company benefits and our clients benefit, I don't see the problem with it,” Anschel says.
Not surprisingly, the increased focus on green from remodelers is in response to rising consumer demand.
“Over the last six months, some of the remodelers in our market who previously didn't look very favorably on the whole green movement have started doing green projects, and that's because their clients are requesting it,” Anschel says.
Although not every client is coming to his company asking for green remodeling, that number is growing.
“It's maybe 10 percent, but when you offer the opportunity, most homeowners will respond, 'Yes, I want that,'” he says.
Remodelers are also finding their staffs are open to green remodeling, with 89 percent reporting that their staff is receptive to training in green remodeling.
“Initially, maybe 10 years ago when I started down this road, there was a lot of opposition,” McCutcheon says. “What's happened is the ones who aren't interested have dropped off. We've attracted people who are excited about it, and the people who aren't interested, they've just ended up going elsewhere.”
To make sure people are going to mesh with the company culture of community service and taking into account the needs of others, McCutcheon discusses “green” in the interview. To him, a candidates' interest in green is an important indicator of whether or not they will be a good fit with the team.
“We make it really clear it's not an option, it's not something we want them to think about; it's an absolute requirement,” he says.
For Sage Homebuilders in St. Louis, green has helped the company land some very talented employees, says Principal Jason Stone.
“The people we've hired are kind of drawn to the idea that we're endeavoring to do this next big thing,” he says.
Remodelers are turning their beliefs about green into action to varying degrees.
Only 1 percent of remodelers say they haven't incorporated any green features into their remodels. The most popular features are energy-efficient windows, appliances and lighting; high-efficiency HVAC; and water-saving fixtures. (See adjacent chart for the complete list.) Not surprisingly, these are features that can provide a return on investment for homeowners in the form of lower utility bills. More expensive changes, like geothermal and solar, aren't as popular.
“A lot of our clients are intrigued by the green products out there but aren't necessarily ready to pay the premiums for them,” Stone says.
While a lot of features and practices are driven by customer requests, many remodelers are making moves to green projects on their own.
“We don't give them an option,” McCutcheon says. “We don't ask them if they want to use low-VOC paint. We just tell them, 'You'll be happy to know we're using low-VOC paint.' Nobody objects to that.”
We also asked remodelers to rate themselves on how green their projects were, on a scale of 1 (have used no green practices or materials) to 10 (have maximized use of green materials/practices). The majority of remodelers (60 percent) rate themselves 4 through 7. Nineteen percent recorded an 8, 9 or 10; 22 percent registered a 1, 2 or 3.
Many remodelers also think it's more difficult to remodel green, with 57 percent saying so. Beyond that, 85 percent of remodelers say green disrupts normal remodeling processes, citing increased costs, confusion over certification and more trouble finding products.
The challenge for many remodelers is that they try to do much green all at once and get overwhelmed, Shirey says.
“You can do just one thing to get started,” she says. “You don't have to be putting every green feature into every building.”
(For more on easy green fixes, see this month's Green Room.)
Most remodelers (75 percent) say there should be minimum standards before a company can call itself green.
“It's important — it's actually critical — that when we talk about green building, we talk about it in the context of a standard that is legitimate,” Anschel says. “Without that, it gets very subjective about what is and what isn't legitimate.”
That's where the agreement ends, though. Remodelers are divided into three almost equal camps on who should set those standards: third-party groups (34 percent), trade associations (32 percent) or the government (31 percent). Right now, of course, all of these groups are setting standards to varying degrees.
This has created a situation where there are so many programs that it's not clear exactly what each stands for. More than half of remodelers cited confusion over the various certification programs as one of the things that makes green difficult. Many cities or states have their own standards. NARI and NAHB are pushing their programs. All told, it can leave remodelers incredibly confused.
“If remodelers are confused, imagine what the consumer must be feeling,” Stone says. “These programs need to get together so there is a clear understanding for the consumer that there is an accepted program. Otherwise, the risk for greenwashing is there.”
One of the problems is that while local programs in places such as Austin and Atlanta have been around for years, national groups such as USGBC, NARI and NAHB have only released national residential guidelines in the last year.
“There have been a lot of successful local programs, and we've kind of been behind at the national level,” says Shirey, a national vice chair of the NAHB Remodelers. “NAHB is finally catching up, and we need to figure out how all these programs are going to fit together.”
Another problem is that a standard put together by NAHB, NARI or any other trade group is unlikely to be accepted by most consumers, McCutcheon says.
“I think we need a strong green building standard — one,” he says. “The thing is nobody's going to believe the home builders. Nobody's going to believe the remodelers. It's like having the car companies set fuel efficiency standards. It doesn't work.”
Remodelers are eager to learn more about green, as well as get their teams educated on the trend, with 76 percent of companies training their employees in green remodeling.
Companies are using a variety of methods to train their staffs. In-house training is the most popular option, so it seems most companies are relying on finding their own information from a number of sources.
“We're always looking and learning,” Shirey says. “We do our best to stay up on everything and relay it to our staff.”
For Sage Homebuilders, the three principals spend a lot of their time reading and researching green by attending conferences and local events.
“We see that as a potential competitive edge — developing our own in-house training and best practices,” Stone says. “We have a policies and procedures manual, and one thing we're striving toward is to make sure that encompasses the best green practices.”
Because there is a wealth of information out there, sorting out the good from the bad is an important part of the job.
“At the core, that's the piece that's probably the most important — just the constant questioning of what's out there, filtering through all the noise to get to what's real,” Anschel says.
Otogawa-Anschel does that by bringing the staff together in regular meetings where the team discusses the information and tries to evaluate it. They'll also bring trade partners and field staff into the discussion to see what they think of the information.
One of the most important things the team looks at is where the information comes from. If the source is the Department of Energy, for example, Anschel is going to regard it with more weight than if it comes from a manufacturer. Sometimes the decision comes down to gut instinct.
“Is it sound, does it resonate right, does it stand up to criticism and analysis?” he says. “This is not a purely quantitative field. When you talk about issues of health, issues of social justice, those are not quantitative things. You can't measure them.”
While most companies are remodeling green to at least some extent — even those who think it's a fad — most are not marketing themselves as green to potential clients. Only about a third of companies, in fact, are doing so.
Interestingly, that small group includes a significant portion (11 percent) that think green is fad. So while they may not be believers in it themselves, they're recognizing a business opportunity.
There's a significant difference based on volume, with 43 percent of companies doing more than $1 million in 2007 revenue marketing themselves as green, compared with only 27 percent of those with less than $1 million. A lot of that difference, though, may be because many companies with less than $1 million in business are much less likely to do much, if any, marketing at all.
Companies in the West (42 percent) were the most likely to market themselves as green, compared with 37 percent in the Midwest, 35 percent in the Northeast and 32 percent in the South.
Many companies are focusing on education as a way to deliver the green message by holding seminars and workshops for homeowners. Shirey Contracting is preparing a model zero-energy home that will demonstrate high-performance options to potential clients. The company then will offer tours to consumers to show off the cutting-edge technology.
Marketing green is really like marketing any type of remodeling service, Anschel says.
“Marketing is marketing,” he says. “You can put out there luxury, luxury, luxury, or you can put words out there about design, or you can have a message of cheap, cheap, cheap, or you can talk about green.”
Otogawa-Anschel has also won several awards for green remodeling and has parlayed that into local media coverage and a reputation as a local green expert.
The most important part of any marketing effort is to focus on the benefits a company can deliver, Stone says.
“A lot of people, you can call it 'green,' but they don't really know what that means,” he says. “We talk about the lower utility bills, we talk about the improved air quality, we talk about the environmental impact. We try to be a little cautious when we get into those conversations because we don't want this to be a political thing.”