Blogs > Sara Gutterman > August 2013

Miles per Square Foot, Anyone?



I had an unexpected moment of revelation during a recent conversation with John Viera, Director of Sustainability & Vehicle Environmental Matters at Ford. We were talking about the various ways that Ford is improving fuel efficiency to reduce carbon emissions, expanding its focus on electrification, and increasing the use of sustainable materials like plant-based insulation, soy foams, and recycled plastic bottles for components, fabrics, and finishes.

I had asked Viera what it will take to wean us off using petroleum to fuel our vehicles since the oil companies have such an oppressive stranglehold on the industry. He responded that it is a complex issue, not only because the oil companies are so influential, but also because many consumers still have a narrow definition of what they want in an “uncompromised vehicle”, which doesn’t necessarily include electrification.

Viera suggested that consumers are still skeptical about electric vehicles, mostly due to inconvenience (they’re used to being able to drive 300-500 miles in a gas-powered car, whereas they can only currently drive on average 60-100 miles in an electric vehicle) and infrastructure (electric charging stations aren’t prevalent or fast enough yet). “People are impatient,” says Viera, “and while gas remains cheap, it will be difficult to transform the conversation, particularly since affordability is the main purchasing driver for most consumers.”

In that instant, I realized that the automotive industry is facing a similar quandary as the building industry: both sectors are stymied by false valuation metrics. Just as determining the real value of a home—which should include energy efficiency, quality, durability, and other sustainability factors—is obstructed by the misleading measurement of price per square foot, establishing the true value of a vehicle is thwarted by the skewed metric of miles per gallon.

In the future, we will value our homes based on the way they perform, the amount of money we save on utility bills, upkeep, and maintenance, and the extent to which they make our lives simpler through automation and intelligence.

Similarly, we will soon value our vehicles based on their computing power and ability to connect with our homes, offices, schools, and communities. Thanks to innovative automotive technologies developed by companies like Bosch, vehicles will quickly cease to simply be a mode of transportation by which we travel from one point to another. They will become an integral part of our communication systems, instructing our homes to turn on lights and HVAC systems when we’re on our way home from work, proactively reminding us of (and providing directions to) meetings and appointments, and communicating with other vehicles to decrease accident rates.

Shai Agassi, Founder of Better Place, says that “an electric car is a modern appliance…more like a cell phone than a refrigerator. The modern EV will be constantly both battery and software.”

Agassi also says that “an electric car is Moore’s Law on wheels.” Just ask Elon Musk, Founder of Tesla. In a recent analyst call, Musk predicted that the price for EV batteries will drop under $200 per kilowatt hour (kWh) in “the not-too-distant-future” (batteries cost $500 per kWh when the original Tesla roadster shipped 5 years ago). At a steady 8% cost reduction trend, batteries will reach $100 per kWh within the decade, making electric vehicles a viable, if not undeniable, economic choice.

Additionally, electric vehicles will become an essential component for self-sufficiency and independence for our homes—we’ll be able to use charged car batteries as backup generators in times of emergency to power our homes. Certainly, as extreme weather events become more frequent and communities experience ongoing power outages, the perceived and economic value of an electric vehicle that can power a house and provide a family comfort and security during a time of distress will become indisputable, especially since a gas-powered vehicle simply can’t provide this type of service.

The connected electric vehicle will invariably shift us away from the miles per gallon metric and towards valuing enabling technologies. Just as it will become nearly impossible in the near future to build a home that doesn’t incorporate and appropriately value energy efficiency, water conservation, improved indoor air quality, and durability, it will become increasingly more challenging to produce and sell a vehicle that doesn’t offer zero carbon emissions, integrated connectivity services, interactive diagnostics, and enabling technologies.

What other similarities exist between the transforming building and automotive industries? Write to me at or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 8/22/2013 12:07:50 PM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

The Future of the Building Industry




As the economy emerges from its long recession slumber, there are a few compelling market trends that will shape the future of the building industry.

According to Matt Power, Green Builder Media’s editor in chief, “Perhaps the most important factor driving the residential building market in the next ten years will be ever-tightening energy codes, water conservation rules, and the interim application of green programs and rating systems. In the future marketplace for shelter, no home will be able to slip under the green radar as it might have in the past. A home with a better HERS rating, for example, will simply be worth more than one that's environmentally inferior, and homeowners will respond quickly to that financial liability. It should be noted, however, that these proprietary rating systems may shift in and out of importance as states tighten their building codes. Once a state or local code mandates that all new homes will meet a zero-net-energy standard—and that day is fast approaching—proprietary rating systems may become obsolete.”

Other key factors that will shape the building industry include:
• Sustainability: healthier, more resource efficient homes are here to stay. We won’t go backwards on this trend. As consumer demand for green homes increases, building professionals and manufacturers will continue to find innovative ways to leverage sustainability for competitive advantage.
• Smart homes: as consumers become increasingly more technologically savvy, so will their homes. Energy management and automation systems that allow consumers to remotely control their homes are already becoming commonplace. Consumer electronics will be integrated into surfaces and design features in creative ways to enable the seamless use of technology. We expect to see the proliferation of other smart technologies, such as glass that can change transparency to create privacy or set a mood, innovative lighting solutions (surfaces rather than fixtures), and decorative thin-film solar sculptures and accents.
• Efficient design: contemporary, sleek, well-designed, compact homes with flexible spaces will become more prevalent and desirable in the future. Homeowners are looking for cleaner, simpler spaces without fussy details or unnecessary clutter that can be transformed for multiple purposes throughout the day.
• ‘Engineered homes’: building assemblies will combine products into a unified operational system that is designed for performance, pre-fabricated, and tested. This grown-up version of the modular unit will become ubiquitous as consumers look for innovative, affordable, and resource-saving shelter options.
• Focus on systems-thinking and building science: homes are not just becoming smarter technologically, they’re also becoming more sophisticated in terms of advanced construction techniques, whole-home systems thinking, and understanding the interaction of products, components, and design elements. However, as homes become tighter, we’ll continue to see a battle between efficiency and indoor air quality as it pertains to proper ventilation, moisture control, and long-term performance.
• Durability: consumers want to spend their weekends playing rather than fixing, so they are demanding homes with low maintenance requirements and costs.
• Custom solutions: there is no one-size-fits-all for green building, and while there will always be point chasers, savvy professionals understand that to remain ahead in the green building race, custom solutions are required for specific projects, climates, and geographies.
• Multi-generational living: as people are staying in their homes for longer periods of time, they require adaptable spaces that will enable them to safely age in place.
• Made in the USA: companies are touting American-made green products and local facilities to impress shareholders and gain customer loyalty. Locally/nationally sourced products are becoming increasingly more important to the sustainability dialogue.
• Product transparency: consumers are calling for increased transparency from manufacturers when it comes to the materials contained within the products that we use. The food and outdoor apparel industries are leading the charge with ingredient disclosure, and we’re starting to see groups like the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) develop product transparency standards for a variety of industries, including construction materials.
• Creative capital: while the biggest issue for production builders is land acquisition, most small and medium-sized builders are facing challenges qualifying for project financing. The vast majority of small and medium builders operate on private equity, since community banks aren’t yet healthy or big enough to lend meaningful dollars. We anticipate that creative financing solutions will emerge to fill this hole in the marketplace.
• Valuation: We expect to see lending and appraisal vehicles that will finally incorporate energy efficiency and other sustainable features into the value of a home. As the moral imperative and financial benefits of sustainability become increasingly more vital, homeowners will become stakeholders not just in the design and construction of higher performing structures, but also in the proper valuation of those homes. They won’t be willing to accept the industry’s false metric of price per square foot without an accurate measure of quality and performance.
• Better consumer communication: builders are good at many things, but they have historically been known for being poor marketers. But this is changing—sustainability has laid the foundation for the development of a common language. Builders are figuring out how to more effectively communicate with consumers about the benefits of green homes, helping them understand the economic and emotional return on investment for sustainable living.

What additional trends do you think will affect the building industry over the next decade? Write to me at or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 8/15/2013 12:38:41 PM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

Weather and the Built Environment



You might be wondering why I have been writing so much lately about climate change and weather patterns. If it’s not yet abundantly clear, my rationale stems from the fact that, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2011 and 2012 were the two most extreme years on record for destructive weather events, resulting in more than $170 billion in damages. Weather has a major impact on the built environment, and restoration after an extreme weather event costs approximately fourteen times more than prevention.

To fully understand where and how we should build in response to our changing climate, it’s of paramount importance that building professionals study the weather. Enter Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist and Director of Weather Communications at The Weather Channel.

Stu shared his story with us during a riveting and provocative session at Green Builder Media’s recent thought leadership summit. In 2007, after decades of denying a link between climate change and intensified weather patterns, the former self-proclaimed hard-core climate skeptic had a moment of enlightenment. A student of weather since he was eight years old, Stu came to the abrupt realization that he could no longer refute his own science, which clearly indicated that human activity has exacerbated climate change and global warming has irreparably changed the weather.

Stu showed us chart after chart that illustrated trends in warming temperatures, increased frequency of heavy precipitation, and rising sea levels. He also made a direct connection between changing weather patterns and the need for a transformed approach to our built environment.

As temperatures become more extreme, our structures will demand greater heating and cooling loads. “The most direct consequence of a planet getting hotter is ... increased heat,” said Stu. “So, building with efficiency in mind seems to clearly be a desirable goal.”

Greater energy demand will inevitably strain our antiquated grid infrastructure and lead to a vicious cycle of increased fossil fuel use and carbon emissions—unless, that is, we begin incorporating decentralized, renewable energy systems into our structures.

Additionally, Stu reminds us that “there have been quite a few particularly massive power outage events lately: the ice storm a few years ago in Kentucky, Arkansas, and thereabouts; "Snowtober" in the Northeast; Sandy, from both wind and heavy wet October snow; and hurricanes which were large in size such as Ike and Irene. Perhaps thought should be given to the need for more backup home power supplies, especially in heavily treed areas?”

Water—too much and too little—will become an increasingly urgent and crucial issue. Rising sea levels and a clear pattern of increased floods and droughts throughout the country should be used to inform decisions about where we locate homes, offices, and communities. Stu advises against building anywhere below 30 feet in elevation. He also suggests that we reconsider building near waterways that have even a remote possibility of flooding, particularly since record floods are occurring with greater frequency and intensity. “The terms ‘100-year’ and ‘500-year’ flood are misunderstood, and floodplain maps for average return frequencies will need to be redrawn.”

It’s no surprise that our water supply will become increasingly more challenged, so we should expect to see augmented demand and regulation around products like water efficient appliances, low flow fixtures, whole-home filters, and harvesting systems.

Raging wildfires will continue to proliferate across the country, which will increase demand for flame and heat resistant building products. And, a word of advice from Stu’s credence to those in the industry who have been rallying against incorporating sprinklers into residential building code—save your time and energy. You might as well give up the fight now, since codes that so directly protect the lives of homeowners are as inescapable as the fires themselves.

As our atmosphere becomes wetter, we can expect to see changes not just in the air above us but also in the ground beneath us. Increased precipitation will cause landslides, cracks, heaves, sinkholes, and, in northern climes, thawing permafrost. These events will inexorably affect the integrity of the built environment.

While Stu’s presentation was eye-opening if not downright disturbing, the thrust of his message focused on encouraging us to assess the risks associated with changing weather patterns and make informed decisions accordingly. Stu understands that our approach to the built environment needs to transform if we’re going to prepare ourselves for the rocky road ahead, and he doesn’t hesitate to remind us that, in the past, rapid shifts in climate have contributed to the demise of unprepared civilizations.

For more information about Stu and his mesmeric climate science, visit

How have you changed your building and design practices to cope with the changing climate? Write to me at or follow me on Twitter @SaraGBM.

For more information about green building and sustainable living, visit, like us on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter at @greenbuildermag and @VISIONHouseGBM for regular updates and breaking news.

Posted: 8/1/2013 12:13:20 PM by Mary Kestner | with 0 comments

About Me


Sara is the Co-Founder and CEO of Green Builder Media.  An experienced entrepreneur, investor, and sustainability consultant, Sara specializes in developing companies that are simultaneously sustainable and profitable.  Sara is a former venture capitalist and has participated in a portion of the life cycle (from funding to exit) of over 20 companies.  Sara graduated Cum Laude from Dartmouth College and holds an MBA in entrepreneurship and finance from the University of Colorado.




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