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Green Building Curmudgeon

Making Green Mainstream

This New York Times graph shows the change in home prices in Las Vegas as compared to the rest of the country, from 2001 to 2009.
Image Credit: Kevin Quealy/The New York Times

On Wednesday, December 30, 2009, the New York Times headline read “New Slip in Housing Prices Undercuts Fragile Optimism.” As disappointing as that may sound, I think that it is a sign of hope for green building. Sustainable building has suffered too long from slow acceptance. This is due, I believe, in large part to the drunken orgy of real estate speculation we were living through for much of the last 20 years. Why should anyone care about the efficiency, durability or health of their home if they were going to flip it for a big profit in a few years, or even months? All most buyers thought about was how big is the house and how fancy are the finishes. The bigger and fancier the better, with rarely a thought given to anything as mundane as the quality of construction or, god forbid, even building a house that is actually the size you need instead of yet another starter castle of 5000 sq. ft. or more. Add to this the mortgage industry’s penchant for loaning anyone with a pulse more money than they could ever hope to repay, and you have all the ingredients for the current real estate mess.

Guilty as charged

I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t get caught up in some of the same mania as everyone else. I owned a big, albeit pretty green house at one point. As a contractor, I built and renovated very large and fancy homes, and some of them were not as green as they could have been, partially because the need to make a sale in order to stay in business trumped my ability to convince a client to go green. Recently, I have been pondering the fact that while it can be challenging for every contractor or architect to sell their client on building or renovating green, that is exactly the direction we need to be heading.

Why settle for mediocrity?

I once heard a very wise man make the point that code is a D-minus; anything that doesn’t meet the code is a failure. I would venture to say that many homes today don’t meet code, particularly the energy code, due to a combination of lack of knowledge and ineffective enforcement. Let’s start with the proposition that the codes should be enforced vigorously. That still just gets us to D-minus. What is keeping us from aiming for B or maybe even A in our projects? I believe that the lack of consumer awareness is what keeps us from achieving this. People spend more time investigating their cars, stereos and computers than they do their homes, mostly because they can objectively compare these products, but not the homes they are considering buying or renovating; and the construction industry, intentionally or not, has taken advantage of this. I will go out on a limb here and say that the vast majority of residential construction is of very poor quality, particularly in terms of green building. Homes are complex machines that must be designed and assembled as such. Instead, they are (mostly) designed and built by people who have little communication with each other through the process, many of whom don’t even speak the same language. Insulation, air sealing, moisture control and HVAC systems are thrown together with little thought of how they interact with each other, leaving us with inefficient, unhealthy and failing buildings.

Quality can (and should) equal green

We need to convince homeowners that real quality—buildings that are designed and built as a system, in consideration with the environment and their impact on society—is more important than size and fancy finishes. That is where I think the collapse of the real estate market will help green building. Since homes are no longer short-term commodities, owners must start thinking about holding onto them for years, or even decades. They will need to take into consideration operation and maintenance costs. My hope is this will lead to more demand for real quality construction, which should lead to the understanding that green building doesn’t cost more than just doing it right. If you build crap, green costs more. If you build quality, green comes along with it. If we cannot get past accepting poor quality in our homes, then we don’t have much hope of making green mainstream. Here’s to hoping that people catch on sooner rather than later.


  1. Kyle Sturtevant | | #1

    Carl, Excellent post. I couldn't agree with you more. I too am a huge proponent of sustainable building even though I tend to view it from the entire design and construction process and not solely it's Green advantages. It has been my opinion that the vast majority of the homes constructed over the past 20 years were designed with the primary objective of stripping the costs out of the project. In essence we were not building quality homes from the get go. The greatest thing that this collapse has taught us is that we have to do better. We have been challenged to raise the bar when it comes to home design, performance, functionability, comfort and value. The house is no longer something to be "flipped", but an enduring object which should provide pleasure for generations to come. The Builders who can capture this holistic approach will become the leaders who shape this great industry as it is re-defined.
    Keep the comments coming.
    Kyle Sturtevant

  2. Steve | | #2

    I am a fairly new rater, and new to home building industry. I can't believe what builders are getting away with, and they are actually building to code! Code needs to change. Hopefully some of the things i am hearing about code improvenent and implementing "green codes" will actually happen.

  3. user-755799 | | #3

    Good Post. I agree with the notion that code compliance, when it comes to home performance, is a minimum. I often discuss (and have to defend) with fellow builders, the tightening of homes. Many in my area are still engaged in "don't get them too tight" practices. Their notion is that they are burdening a homeowner with mechanical ventilation, and many HVAC contractors support them with this idea (what does the "V" stand for in HVAC?).

    Advanced framing is where I really agree with code compliance and will proudly take my D-. Oversized headers, corners packed with studs, and triple trimmers around windows are still the norm in most areas. Unfortunately, advanced framing is equated with lesser quality, shortcuts and generally being cheap.

    The good news is that when I do get in front of a homeowner, I can explain how tightening a home and advanced framing benefits their home and their comfort. What is unfortunate is the number of homes being built everyday that are already in need of an energy retro fit.

  4. Sylvain Cote | | #4

    Making Green Mainstream
    Well, congrats Carl on a fine piece here. I read quite a few similar articles lately, but yours seems to rise above them all - Maybe it is due to your perspective, your experience and your honesty, not being afraid that, hey, you went along the ride yourself not so long ago.
    Will this article permanently stay here at this URL location, so I can link it and forward it to several people?

  5. Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP | | #5

    Upgreening building codes
    Terrific piece Carl! I also agree with the comments about codes. I am currently undertaking the greening of our local (Bainbridge Island, WA) codes by means of a citizen's action group. Our local building department, like many across the country, has been decimated by staffing cuts with little or no ability to review or "green" their current codes. I firmly believe that green building codes will assist in preserving and enhancing property values while making our communities better places to live.
    I, personally, am very excited about this project which was essentially kicked off with the HDDP which was featured in Sustainable Industries last month. I will keep you posted on our progress.

  6. Erik T | | #6

    Green vs Sustainable
    The building industry would benefit significantly by embracing "Sustainable" vs simply "Green" practices. Whereas green addresses environmental elements of construction and buildings, sustainable takes a more comprehensive view, including environmental, economic, social, and cultural elements. A more socially responsible approach to building would certainly include a standard of quality well in excess of code compliance.

    As the word itself implies, a "Sustainable" structure would need to be "able to sustain" its intended purpose over time. How well do most tract homes built in the last 3 decades stand that test? As a seller, how would you like to have to disclose that the 20 year old home you are trying to sell was constructed to minimum standards and has only 5 - 10 years of remaining useful life?

    A truly sustainable building would be designed and built with a minimum 100 year life, or designed with a deconstruction plan, so that the components could be reused or upcycled at the end of their useful life. They would also foster sustainable communities by encouraging resident interaction, access to transit, and usable public spaces. Front porches, community parks, town squares, and train stations would be commonplace. PV arrays would replace shingles, grey water processing and irrigation systems would be standard, and composting stations would be built in. The market, salon, coffee shop, and theater would be within walking distance, and the streets would safely accommodate bicycles.

    I agree wholeheartedly that rapid appreciation, and "flipping", is counter productive to quality design and construction. Unfortunately, we have been taught to value buildings on a price per square foot basis, rather than on cost to operate and maintain over the design life of the structure. Intangible factors, such as indoor air quality, functionality, and efficient use of space are not factors in the appraised value of a building.

    Popular financing programs have also contributed to a short term perspective on ownership. People used to actually burn their mortgages when they were paid off after 20 - 30 years. Now we just hope the balloon doesn't burst when it comes due in 5 years!

    It will require a paradigm shift in values and mentality for quality to outweigh affordability, but there will continue to be a growing market for well designed and built sustainable buildings. The more available they become, the more their value will be realized and demand will increase. Hopefully evolving technology will also cause sustainable construction to be cost competitive.

  7. Carol Cahill | | #7

    Right on!
    Your assesment of the trend that buyers will pay more for better built homes is true. Where statistics are collected ( Atlanta and Seattle as of 2009), green properties sell faster and for a higher % of the original list price.
    Flipping real estate is out for a few years to come and we see sustainable options entering all sectors of trade. But more importantly, consumers are seeking BETTER quality now that we can't afford to make mistakes. Green is, and always was, the best choice.

  8. John W.Patterson | | #8

    I wanted to say thanks.
    After being bludgeoned with green and sustainable building practices through the years by you, I wanted to say thanks for the information and knowledge that you have passed down to us.
    As a builder both in practice and by degree, I have been lucky to have been mainstream building for 19 years and above code for over 15. It is great seeing both the good ,the bad and what lasts. Most builders are locked in a social market as much as a housing market. No matter how you cut it , the price , the bottom line, and the quality are affected by green production. At the end of the day ,most of the masses will not recognize the value or want to afford of a greater sustainable home. They see 4 finished walls. Which to many, they are proud only to have a roof over their heads.Like appliances many may buildings become a disposable commodity of even returned back to the bank. I can't see the government as a solution but only as a mediator and collector.
    The government is the code and the problem.
    Now, if appraisers could value sustainable practices accurately, rather than say only heated and non heated square footage,then your market could change as well. The thoughts of the investor will change. Then trends could evolve into benchmarks that homeowner associations , contractors ,and Realtors will embrace rather than be forced to live with.
    Its only a thought, but one that would have long term implications within the phase of this industry.

  9. user-282515 | | #9

    Great Post!
    Great post, Carl. I cannot tell you how many homes, built during the past 10 years, I have investigated that are literally falling apart. The first thing the homeowner wants to know is who to blame? How did Codes let this happen? I have to explain to them that Codes is just the bare minimum and the builder saw no need to go beyond that.

    The best education is experience, and I am afraid many homeowners are getting the education of a lifetime. Ultimately, it will be up to homeowners to be educated enough to know what to demand because builders do not seem to be taking the lead.

  10. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #10

    "How did the codes let this happen?"
    There is a second answer to your question, "How did the codes let this happen?"

    Building codes are rarely enforced.

  11. user-282515 | | #11

    Right You Are, Martin
    But the consumer does not know that - and that is not to say that they would know what to do about it if they did. On a daily basis, I watch Code Inspectors get out of their vehicle and slap a green sticker in the permit box without ever going on the lot! I also have watched them fail something for no good reason. After correcting the supposed problem, a different inspector will come out and fail it for a different reason - maybe part of their pay is reliant on re-inspections?

    Codes officials aren't all bad though - I know some who were fine history, English and art majors in college!

  12. user-723121 | | #12

    Inspectors as stakeholders
    If we put an energy performance standard on new and remodel projects, the inspectors would have a greater stake in the project. An energy efficient building is a well built one, there are no shortcuts to quality or energy efficiency.

  13. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #13

    Standards and enforcement
    Thanks for all the great comments. Its always gratifying when a post stimulates good discussion.

    RE: Doug's last comment on energy performance standards - while having high standards is important, it is even more critical to have adequate enforcement. Most energy codes are actually pretty good, and the new 2009 code is very rigorous, but as Martin said, they are rarely enforced. We need to work on enforcement. I had the "pleasure" of serving on the Georgia Energy Policy Council a few years ago along with about 20 industry and government stakeholders (almost none of whom had any interest in conservation or efficiency), and I practically lost my voice screaming at them to allocate money to enforce existing energy codes. Once I made the analogy to putting more cops on the streets to enforce existing laws, they finally heard me. Making more stringent rules that won't be followed is a useless endeavor.

  14. user-723121 | | #14

    Performance standards
    Carl, What I am suggesting is that new and remodel projects must meet a certain level of energy efficiency or the final inspection can not be signed off and a certificate of occupancy can not be issued.

  15. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #15

    Performance Standards
    Doug - I am all for what you are saying. But in practice, this has proven very difficult to accomplish. Even the new 2009 code, while including performance testing, allows some "outs" by deferring to visual inspections of ducts and air sealing in lieu of the actual testing. Many green building programs have the same problem - LEED allows sampling on multiple homes, NAHB makes testing optional. Local programs range from 100% testing to entirely self certification. When we get to codes and legal requirements, there will be so many lobbies fighting for their interests that we will be challenged to get anything comprehensive in place. Just look at what's going on in congress these days.

  16. user-723121 | | #16

    We need performance guarantees and we must engage the energy rating community. Energy use is predictable for those who wish to do so.

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