Green building: It’s not what they say … it’s what they want

by Nov 16, 2017

I was at the Greenbuild conference last week, and my general, unscientific assessment would be this: there are many passionate individuals – true believers – holding down the green building fort and pressing it forward.

But the event seems smaller than it used to be. It seems to me there were fewer booths than there were six or seven years ago, and the ones that were there were smaller.

I’d love to say that’s because green building is so mainstream that there’s just no need for a separate conference on it. But at the International Builders’ Show earlier this year, I didn’t exactly see a preponderance of green messaging in booths, and there certainly wasn’t a huge emphasis on it in the educational tracks (definitely some sessions, but I wouldn’t call it a major push).

So what’s going on? One of my clients noted that his experience as an exhibitor at Greenbuild is that there are a lot more attendees looking to learn, not really to buy. And in the quarterly profits cycle we live in, most companies want to see immediate leads and sales come out of an expensive trade show investment.

When I talk to builders and architects, I hear the standard refrain: consumers aren’t asking for it. Maybe, in turn, builders and architects aren’t asking manufacturers for it, so they don’t see a need to showcase it.

They would all be wrong, by the way.

The reality is, Americans do want greener homes. They just don’t call them that. In fact, if you created a profile of the person in the market for a new home and put it alongside a profile of the person who’s already bought a certified green or energy-efficient home, you’d see that those two profiles are almost identical.

Today’s new home buyer is looking for all the benefits of a green home:

  • Comfort: They might reference that their current home is drafty or that there’s one room that’s always colder than the others – and of course, they don’t want this in their new home. Consistent temperature and improved comfort – that’s a benefit of a green home.
  • Excellent air quality: The average American will almost never say these words. Although more than 60% of Americans are concerned about indoor air quality, they don’t exactly know what leads to diminished air quality or what to do to fix it. What they will say is, “My son has asthma,” or “I know it sounds crazy, but I sometimes think our current house is making us sick – I can feel fine all day at work and then I come home and my nose gets all stopped up. It’s like I’m allergic to it.” Breathing easier – that’s a benefit of a green home.
  • Control: Nobody likes getting 12 surprises a year, even if they can afford them. Yet that’s the experience most of us have with our utility bill. It’s usually more expensive than we imagined, sometimes less, but always feels like a wild card. If you add some smart tech into your higher-performing homes, you can offer lower, predictable monthly bills. And that means peace of mind – another benefit of a green home.
  • Peace and quiet: This doesn’t get mentioned a lot on the front end of a sale, but it’s something we hear from people who live in high-performance homes. They say, “I can’t believe how quiet it is. I don’t even hear the garbage truck!” It’s a benefit they didn’t know they needed, but one they quite enjoy. And it’s another benefit of a green home.

The folks interested in greener homes – again, they’re essentially the same folks interested in a new home – also want open floor plans, walkable communities and smart technology to manage things automatically for them. So give them these things. And build green homes. And talk about all these benefits to sell your green homes. It won’t matter if you ever utter the word “green.

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About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.


  1. Bruce H. Glanville

    Code compliance, adopted and enforced will require new homes to be “green” if and when that finally happens. 2015 and 2018 codes are as good as Energy Star V3 Rev 8. Once we get there it is no longer a choice for builders, buyers and architects, it is the law.
    Retrofits for existing homes are another matter.

  2. Trina M.

    Great post, Suzanne. I always find your perspective enlightening. But here’s a valid question: How do we incentivize green building in parts of the country where there simply aren’t enough homes for people to buy (Seattle and Denver come to mind) and consumers will not have the final say? Yes, building codes can play a role in greener buildings, but they don’t cover all aspects (like IAQ). And when you’re desperate for a home at a reasonable price point, you can’t pick and choose a green one. This also poses a huge problem for walkability and mass transit, since builders routinely squeeze 3 homes (and at least 6 cars) onto lots that formerly housed one home (and 1 or 2 cars) – and the city allows it. I’m watching this happen in real time, and wondering what, if anything, we can really do about it. Where land is at a premium, it’s a seller’s market, and there is not nearly enough supply for the demand, then the last thing consumers are going to get is a green home (imho). Rather, they will get a home that has been designed to use as much lot size as possible, the least expensive building practices that still meet code, fast (and shoddy) construction, and the cheapest (and most off-gassing, least durable) interior finishes. Am I wrong? (Please tell me I am!) I’m a green building advocate, I believe in creating healthier, more efficient spaces, and reducing environmental impacts. But there seem to be so many competing forces… Maybe this “reality” is part of why you’re seeing lower turnouts at these events? It just seems like green homes will continue to be a niche market – sadly – and that only a few consumers with deep pockets and great timing and a dash of good luck will be able to live in a *truly* green home.

  3. George Kopf

    Suzanne, once again, you have hit the nail on the head. As an industry, we have got to get better at selling what our customers want to buy. Whether it’s comfort, improved indoor air quality, lowered carbon footprint, it doesn’t matter to us because our process will deliver all of those.

    You keep delivering top notch content like this and I will continue being your #1 fan. 🙂

  4. Allison Friedman

    I found the conference inspiring, but I agree it was a cozier crowd. I think we have to work harder as an industry and as a community to reach organizations and people who don’t already know about green building materials, products, practices, and services. If Greenbuild is trade focused (and for those who’ve already consumed the Kool-Aid), then maybe it’s naturally a smaller show as we move forward, with leading edge ideas and networking – and continuing education credits. In this case, there’s only so much companies that do need sales from booth investments want to pay to talk to the same people? Or, we can rethink and open major events up more widely as a part of a larger information generating effort to grow demand for all. It’s a good note and a good question – especially as traveling and sizable exhibits are expensive and carbon intensive endeavors. I look forward to thinking about how we share information as an industry – to get more stories and success examples out there through events of different sizes, and of course online as well. The challenge and need are bigger than any one event resource, or organization.

  5. Erik Blair

    Great article and summary of the key messages Suzanne. I’ve been using this message when talking to realtors. They’re clients want green homes, but they use all the words you’ve laid out in the article. The fact is, as you say, these are one in the same.

    The reality is that it’s not just the words we use, it’s the outcomes people want that are important. We find that using health-related messaging related to green homes gets more of a response than just about any other messaging, including cost savings. If you have a child with respiratory problems like Asthma, would anything else be more important in your home purchase than indoor air quality? Sure, people want an energy efficient home, but what they really want is to feel good about owning a home that keeps their family healthy and comfortable. So let’s talk about it!

    And hey, bragging rights about some extra resale value never hurts.

  6. Mary Love

    Good advice. I tell fellow Realtors and Builders, that advertising is all about finding the correct words that have the desired outcome.

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