Green building materials gain ground in a soft housing market

Today’s Wall Street Journal writes about how environmentally friendly options like upgraded insulation and more efficient air conditioners and furnaces are doing well in an otherwise soft housing market.

All over the International Builders Show that ran here in early February, suppliers of green materials were reporting stories of banner performance, even as the general mood among builders was subdued and cautious following a drop of 14.7% in single-family housing starts last year. Many industry economists predict a housing recovery is still a year away.

“Fifty-dollar- to $60-a-barrel oil is the biggest driver” behind green building, says Kermit Baker, chief economist of the American Institute of Architects, which is based in Washington. “If oil went down to $28 a barrel, I’m not sure how much of this would stick.”

And that mind-set presents a challenge for green manufacturers. Solar energy, which is getting renewed attention recently, was all the talk in the 1970s after the Arab oil embargo but quickly faded away when gasoline prices went back down. The higher cost of green homes continues to be an impediment to their wide-scale adoption by the buying public, despite any savings consumers might see over time. Quadrant Homes in the Pacific Northwest, for example, reports that only about 4% of its buyers are willing to pay an extra $2,500 for an energy-savings option that includes things like better insulation and an upgraded furnace.

I can’t help but wonder if people aren’t fully informed about the benefits of energy savings upgrades when they choose options like granite countertops instead. Maybe energy savings just don’t give most people the feeling of “dream house” like that other stuff. Maybe they should try and sell it with an estimated payback time, so that people can see that they’ll come out ahead after X number of years.

I’m considering the “efficient attic” option for my house, but a friend of a coworker said he had been disappointed with the energy savings so far, so now I’m not so sure. I’m also thinking about tankless water heaters.

Anyone out there with a green feature on their house that they have added lately that has made a big difference in energy bills?

Preston February 22, 2007 at 2:50 pm

Sometimes, green features require the occupant to work with the features, to get the most out of them. Depending on the house, an efficient attic may/may not be effective at lower bills. I think there are two issues: (1) hot/cool air seeping into the attic and getting wasted and (2) hot/cool air from the attic affecting the indoor temperature.

With the tankless, you’re going to have hot water faster and there’s no perpetual churning of warm water in preparation of future use. That will have an impact on your bill, most likely, both in the water and electricity line-items.

People talk in terms of payback, but that’s a cost analysis. You paid $200 for it, you save $50 a year, and it pays for itself in 4 years. But houses are appraised on value, not cost. People opting for the granite countertops is a phenomenon of that. Future purchasers are more likely to see the value in the counter tops than insulation in the attic that reduces bills. They are more likely to see, that is. At some point, green features are going to have a perceived value equivalent/superior to granite, but it’s going to take our Jonesin’ society some time.

Ron February 22, 2007 at 4:43 pm

I think the biggest challenge we face in sustainable building is in educating owners to think of their buildings as a series of systems that function together, rather than individual elements. I’ll bet the reason your coworker’s friend had disappointing results with additional attic insulation was the rest of his home is so energy inneficient it just couldn’t compensate. The average home in the US leaks so badly it’s equivelant to having a 3 foot square opening to the exterior, every day of the year. In addition, the average home HVAC ducting system wastes 20% of the energy it tries to deliver due to leaks. If you cranked up your heater this winter but were still cold, and found the front door open, the first thing you’d do is shut the door, not add insulation. All those other leaks around your home just aren’t as obvious.

I’d suggest a whole house energy audit. You can read up on it at ( ), then hopefully find someone in your area who is properly trained to do the work. It’s like getting a diagnostic on your car, and will help determine the proper steps to take. I’m a general contractor in CA and am considering branching off into this field. I’ve a hunch, in the next 5 years, you won’t be able to sell a house without a written energy audit. They’ll be as common as home inspections. The energy saving potential for your home is enormous.

Jason Stone March 3, 2007 at 4:42 pm

I have three green solutions for you that should result in IMMEDIATE energy savings:

1) Install a programmable thermostat. (8-10% savings on heating/cooling)
2) Replace every incandescent lightbulb in your house with a CFL you should save about $10/year per bulb (in the average house that’s $400/year). See
3) Increase the R-value of your attic insulation. Most homes are significantly low in this area and can make up a lot of ground just by beefing up what they have.


1) Get a thermal scan on your house. It should run $100 to $300, but if you can recoup the cost by blocking up the areas you’re losing efficiency. Follow the scan to filling in all the little voids, nooks and crannies where your expensively heated and cooled air is escaping from your house!

BTW, a tankless water heaters are awesome for new construction, but just a heads up that a retro-fit can be pretty pricey if you don’t have the right flue work.


Jason Stone
Sage Homebuilders
St. Louis, MO
Visit for information on “Enlightened Living” in a custom-built Sage home. Efficiency, comfort and health — all in one beautifully designed, green-certified home package.

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