Are Men Holding Back the Green Building Movement?

Greenspiration Home Explores the Question in an Interview with Builders of Both Sexes

By Trish Holder

Clark Wilson

Clark Wilson

Nicole Goolsby

Nicole Goolsby

Could a male dominated construction industry be holding back the green building movement? I’ve wondered about this a lot lately, so I decided to confront a couple of builders (one male, one female) with some research as well as some of my own observations of the home construction industry.

 

Nicole Goolsby of Rion Homes in Cornelius, NC and Clark Wilson of Clark Wilson Builders, Inc. in Austin Texas were willing to indulge my questions. Both are experienced green builders and have worked within the home construction/real estate industry for multiple decades. Their answers shed some much-needed light on a subject I believe builders and homeowners struggle with: cross gender communication.

Part 1

Trish: Let’s start with a little bit of research. A December 2010 study found men half as likely to buy into the environmentally friendly green movement as women. Now since men own about 90% of construction companies in America, I’m thinking this does not bode well for the green building industry. What do you think?

Nicole: Men may own 90% of the companies but more and more women are a part of the team, which includes sales, marketing, design, materials specifications and construction. That’s making a difference. Additionally, I see a trend not only with custom builders but production companies and remodelers to put at least some focus on energy efficiency. Collectively men may not be as motivated by the “save the planet” mantra but saving energy and lowering the bills are just common sense.

Clark: The research is not surprising if the question was posed as “green movement”. We found that consumers were and are skeptical of the generic green movement costs. It looks like by the research men are even more so. Owners of construction companies are driven by the market to produce what the customer is willing to pay for.

Trish: Let me bring up another little factoid from the NAHB: Women directly purchase or have controlling influence in the purchase of 91% of all new homes. So women (who are twice as likely to want green products) are dependent upon men (who largely don’t buy into green) to build their homes. Are the odds are stacked against a woman getting the green home of her dreams?

Nicole: Women definitely have more influence when it comes to purchasing or remodeling a home. But the guys are beginning to get that. Whether it is green features or current kitchen and bath trends, savvy builders will strive to provide a product that appeals to women. The key to getting what you want is to educate yourself as a buyer on what real green is and not be afraid to educate your builder. Most builders I know love this industry because of the opportunity to learn something everyday — how to build better, more efficient homes, new materials and new construction techniques, etc. They may not “buy into” green but they do want to sell that next project. Women can and will dictate what gets built with the power of the purse.

Clark: The odds of a customer getting a green home of their dreams is 100% if they are ready to pay the up front cost to build it to whatever specifications they desire. Most projects begin with a budget in mind and the planning stage is an exercise in what we leave in and what we take out to balance the budget.

Trish: I suppose it all comes down to how attentive male builders are to their female target market. I have reason to be pessimistic. Just the other day, a builder told me flat out, “Builders don’t like to talk to women.” Can’t say I liked what he had to say, but I give him props for saying it to my face….

Nicole: I suspect that builder meant that men didn’t like to listen to women. Men and women communicate differently. When it comes to homes, I find women have a lot of questions. Men tend make decisions quickly, so a male builder may feel that a woman who asks a lot of questions is challenging him. He may see this as an indication that she’s going to change her mind a lot. But that is not the case. Women want to make informed decisions and have a better understanding of the construction process. A builder must listen to their client carefully to identify what really matters most to a client. He may find out that it’s not necessarily that she wants to “save the planet” but wants a healthy home for her child with allergies.

Clark: In the previous question you pointed out that women control over 90% of the home purchases. I suspect the builder you mentioned will be in another occupation soon. Maybe handing out towels in the locker room to a pro football team.

(Go to Part 2)

Nicole Goolsby is President of Rion Homes in Cornelius, NC
Clark Wilson is President of Clark Wilson Builders, Inc. in Austin Texas

9 Responses »

  1. For “green” building to become the standard it will have to market driven. “Women directly purchase or have controlling influence in the purchase of 91% of all new homes.” This sounds like controlling interest to me. Green building will grow when women chose energy efficiency over granite countertops?

  2. When the economy was flourishing and wealth was in abundance, the term “green building” together with all the government subsidies associated with the term was a very marketable word. It still is in many circles.

    But I think we are at a turning point where the word “green building” needs to be replaced with a new term and that new term needs to mean something different. Regardless of whether the buyer is male or female, we need the suppliers to talk about energy and water savings in terms of ROI and, if we really want to be good corporate citizens, we need to turn away from government subsidies.

    Trish, you have a great marketing head. How about a new phrase to replace “green building” that means buildings that really save money?

    • Steve,
      You may be on to something. One way we use to market various energy efficient systems is the monthly cost of including the upfront cost in one’s mortgage vs the projected savings in monthly energy bills. Say the “upgrade” to including the entire home (including attic) in the thermal envelope is $10K. That will increase the monthly payment by about $68 per month vs saving well over $120.00 in cooling costs not to mention having a healthier and more comfortable home. The problem with this is illustration is most home buyers have a maximum loan amount that they qualify for and people buy a home for lots of emotional reasons which may not include energy efficiency. Another BIG issue is the current appraisal environment. Appraisers do not give the value to energy efficient upgrades like they should.
      Where do you draw the line is “THE” question that builders are faced with on every component that is included in each project. Our job is to add value faster than we add cost.
      In the south the most efficient thing we found is utilizing the foam insulation at the rafter level and using the sealed attic building science method. You can use foam in the walls as well but that is where the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Same with spending much more on windows . A double pane vinyl window is what we are using now and our modeling shows that adding more cost at that level is adding significant cost and not raising the energy savings much at all. We have found that the radient barrier is also a “belt and suspenders” approach to attic cooling. Once the attic is foamed the entire home is now part of the thermal envelope and your duct work and HVAC equipment are in what is considered conditioned space. Now the tonnage of the AC can and must be sized properly. Actually putting too big of a system in causes the AC to short cycle and not run long enough to dehumidify the air. When that happens the home is uncomfortable and moisture build up can be a real issue. Our guiding principle is the monthly amortization cost vs the monthly payment increase to the consumer. Selling that to the customer and the appraiser is the trick.

      Trish, I look forward to your ideas on coining a fresh term for efficient.

      Clark Wilson

      • I think that term needs to mean more than energy efficiency. To me, “green building” means homes that are built with an eye on avoiding waste of all kinds ( energy, water, material, money, transport fuel, TIME). We as homeowners spend a ridiculous amount of our time, money, and other resources dealing with the fallout of poor construction practices.

        Putting the antidote to all that into a phrase that rolls off the tongue…well….gentlemen….you have certainly presented me with a challenge!

        Perhaps that’s how the term “sustainable” started being tossed around. But I’ve always found that term a bit abstract, certainly for the average homeowner.

        What a great discussion!

        Trish

  3. Change is often driven by external competitors entering the market with a superior offer be it a male or female. However in a male dominated environment, the female innovator just plain stands out (which is a good thing for her). FYI – My CEO of Green Building America is female.

    Mostly this is about communication and empowering the client with information to make an informed decision based on the client’s priorities (be they male or female).

    Enhancements either have a financial benefit, an emotional benefit or both. Financial benefits are universally accepted because they can be included in a financial calculation, such as comparing the cost of additional insulation versus the expected monthly savings. When it is emotional, the value is more subjective because others may not see the value, and is a reason why appraisers often undervalue these features.

    As a green builder and essentially an employee of the client, I support most green features of home building, however I recognize the difference between financial and emotionally based features. Clients need to understand the difference and make their own decision recognizing that their home is an investment. As an investment they should understand some features will enhance the marketability of the home and some may not or could even detract from the value.

    I don’t care if it is a male or female, so long as they make an informed decision, and it is my responsibility to support that process. Perhaps the largest challenge is getting a client couple to come to a consensus !

  4. Somehow along the way the word “green” became synonymous with “granola-munching-hippie-lefty.” Since builders tend toward the right end of the political spectrum, they have a natural aversion to such things.

    I learned about “green” buidling in the 1970s and 1980s, when my Dad (a Reagan, NRA, no-nonsense civil engineer) and my Great-Grandfather (a progressive, burned-by-the-depression, early civil rights supporter civil engineer) collaborated on designing a passive solar home which my family built in the early 1980s.

    From Dad’s standpoint, he was walling off his family from the world of capricious energy prices. From Grandpa Murray’s standpoint, he was employing democratizing energy solutions for everyman. What they agreed on was the technology – passive solar, high efficiency, and a geo-thermal heat pump (remember, this was the early 1980s). Different political points of view/same solutions. Both of them had valid points.

    There’s a big problem with the seemingly rational argument that all green building has to show a positive ROI in the near future in order to be considered as anything but an “emotionally based feature.” The big problem here is incomplete data – once we factor in the true costs of fossil fuels (such as military costs of keeping the Straits of Hormuz open to the shipping of oil, or the true environmental costs of carbon or mountaintop removal coal mining as a couple of examples) – the ROI of efficiency improves dramatically. By ignoring these very real costs (which we pay as part of our taxes), the rationalist’s argument falls apart. ROI for carefully conceived efficiency measures shortens dramatically.

    I know this will be unpopular, but I’m going to put myself out there on this one: Government subsidy for energy efficiency in building and transportation is the right thing to do. Direct subsidy (low interest loans, grants, & tax credits) of proven, off the shelf technology for efficiency is the least expensive way to create “new” energy (by avoiding the building of new generating plants). The benefits include improved economies at home and in the larger world, an improved natural environment, and large savings in our national defense budget – not to mention lots of construction jobs, more comfortable homes, and healthier indoor air quality.

    While you may hate government subsidy, we would at least know where those hard-earned tax dollars were being spent, and for what reason. Where current subsidies to fossil fuels are hidden in our national security budget, environmental degradation and clean-up, and in carefully crafted monopolies, direct subsidies for efficiency would be out in the open.

    True free-markets depend on complete, un-altered information on alternatives. Any time information is hidden (and much is in energy markets), the market is not truly free and cannot act to correct abnomalities such as our dependence on fossil fuels. This is true no matter where you are on the political spectrum.

    • Hi Jeff,

      In response to your comment, “Somehow along the way the word “green” became synonymous with “granola-munching-hippie-lefty,” I’ve got a pretty good example to share. Recently, in a conversation about oversized homes and if they truly make you happy, a homebuilder (who was obviously not pleased with the direction of the conversation) hinted that the conversation was headed down a “socialist” path. Quite a leap, eh? If people can’t have a conversation about home size and happiness without some construction professionals being so threatened that they start tossing around political labels like socialism, we’ve got a problem.

      I think you bring up some very good points and I appreciate your comments. You give a big picture view of the country’s dependence on fossil fuel and I hope people who read it will reflect on it without knee-jerk reactions. As for the coal mining reference — it’s also worthwhile bringing up the health risk of those who live around the mines. Double cancer rates is something that most people find difficult to ignore: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/extra-60000-cancer-cases-from-mountaintop-removal.html

  5. I would have to agree with you, but most builders are from at least a generation away from you and your new wife. Congratulations, BTW! And your wife may find she has slightly different priorities in a few years, once she has experienced the ups and downs of homeownership. Having kids also has a tendency to alter what you value in a home and what you bring into it.

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