Green Building for the Rest of Us

How a good idea can make it into the mainstream

| November / December 2007

In the past decade, America’s corporate haunts have evolved. Instead of erecting the same old fossil fuel–guzzling behemoths, companies have been building sleek headquarters that conserve energy, use less water, are healthier workplaces, and are generally kinder to the earth.

This shift isn’t occurring because corporate America’s heart suddenly started bleeding green. “Just five or six years ago, the term ‘green building’ evoked visions of tie-dyed, granola-munching denizens walking around barefoot on straw mats as wind chimes tinkled near open windows,” Harvard Business Review ribbed in June 2006. “Today, the term suggests lower overhead costs, greater employee productivity, less absenteeism, and stronger employee attraction and retention.”

Unfortunately, the message that green building’s benefits are as much personal and fiscal as they are environmental isn’t following many workers home after they punch the clock. Ecofriendly building may have infiltrated the commercial sector, but suburbia remains a relatively green-free zone. According to a March study by the National Association of Home Builders and McGraw-Hill Construction, a meager 0.3 percent of U.S. homes were identified as “truly green,” meaning that they incorporated several environmentally friendly building features.

That’s not nearly enough to make a dent in the building industry’s impact on climate change. Buildings account for more than 40 percent of the United States’ carbon emissions, the lion’s share of which comes from burning fossil fuels for lighting, cooling, heating, and ventilation. Though it’s crucial to have the commercial sphere on board, in order to truly minimize the construction industry’s environmental footprint, the green building movement has to hit us where we live.

Fortunately, some forward-looking builders, home owners, and advocacy groups are slowly but surely laying the foundation for green building in the residential market. Local and regional green home-building programs are introducing builders to ecosavvy strategies that make sense for their bottom line. Home owners who are fed up with feeling like there’s nothing they can do about climate change are stretching their budgets to incorporate green elements in their new homes and rehab projects, and they’re finding that it pays them in the end. Even affordable-housing developers are discovering that green homes make environmental and economic sense (see “Low Rent High Tech,” p. 49).

Now the trick is to expand green building’s toehold in the market by winning over mainstream consumers and builders, and by making sure that as the appeal of green building grows, its standards aren’t watered down.