Five years ago, when a builder wanted to build green—or even understand what green was—he had to dig around for information on products, techniques, and systems. Today, it’s the opposite. There’s quite a bit of green “noise” out in the industry as the myriad green programs jockey for the attention of builders, manufacturers, and buyers.
On our pages we’ve talked about the pros and cons of LEED for Homes
, the National Green Building Standard
, Energy Star
, and local green building programs. And today, a builder is quick to point out how many points his homes have earned in a particular green rating program.
But what about the builder who’s actually building the house? Green Builder College
(owned by our parent company Green Builder Media) is an online green building program that certifies the builder—not the home. We decided to check in with some of the attendees and graduates of the program to find out how online educational platform helps them achieve building success and to find out what they are building today.
Science, Not Points
Successful green builders who have been building sustainably for years are students of building science. They are not builders who have simply continued to build as usual but popped in a few recycled products or a high-efficiency HVAC.
“I’ve always wanted to know the science to building,” says Tom Bockenstedt, president of B&H Builders
in Iowa City, Iowa. “I have pursued green education with groups that fit my philosophy; it was never to chase points; chasing points is not being green.”
Bockenstedt, who used to build custom homes but is currently building 20-22 homes in the $220,000 and under market, took the first level of Green Builder College in 2008 and is going through the process of taking level two. “If nothing else, taking courses is a review of the concepts I already knew. But it is important as a refresher and really helps.” Bockenstedt pulls out his hard copy of the course and leafs through it to remind himself of the concepts and to keep his company on the green building course.
While Bockenstedt now uses the basic green course as a review, he theorizes that many builders are not practicing at even a basic level. “I question whether other builders are as knowledgeable about the science of building as they should be. We have such a systemized construction process that the trades become the ‘doers,’ but they don’t always understand why they are doing what they do and that can cause some problems.”
John Freer, a consultant and president of Riverworks
out of Missoula, Mont., has a lot of experience with certification. He is a LEED AP and a verifier for the NAHB National Green Building Standard. For him, continuing education is about constant improvement. “If you are going to call yourself a green builder, you need to be a student of the building sciences, and even though I’ve built and been in the industry for 30 years there’s a lot of information out there that I don’t know and it’s always good to see other perspectives from other markets.”
Freer completed both levels of Green Builder College. “It helped me look at how I do things and gave me tools to enhance what we do.” Freer points to the industry problem of most builders being small volume and who still swing a hammer and think if they read a few magazine articles they will have green down pat. “You have to get in depth in building science and learn how everything works and ties together. You have to learn before you what you don’t know,” Freer adds.
As an example, through Green Builder College, Freer started really looking into the hidden ways air gets in and out of a house. “Maybe a better way to deal with air leaks is to test at several different points along the way instead of just at the end.” This way, problems can be addressed along the time line of the build.
Era of Regulation
Bockenstedt is one of a growing number of builders and architects who doesn’t want amassing green points to be the main thrust of his building philosophy. “Many online programs are set up to chase points. We just try to build efficiently and build energy-efficient homes, and we always have from the beginning. The problem with certification is that you have to monitor to make sure that it is being practiced, so it’s a Catch 22.”
Bockenstedt’s point is valid, but some trends in the industry point to a day that certifications will be necessary—whether it be the house or the builder. One harbinger is the new Energy Star requirements, which will mean changes for builders and in some cases will dictate building techniques that builders have not yet tried. And in many municipalities, such as Los Angeles for example, getting a house third-party verified for energy efficiency (through a Resnet
certifier) is a requirement before any state credits will be paid for renewables.
While he, along with other builders interviewed for this piece believe that green needs to be driven in part by consumers, they all also note that there does come a point where the cost of a green upgrade causes buyers to “lose interest.”
In reality, though, it’s immaterial whether consumers want it or not. It is very likely that codes will dictate the course of green integration—a phenomenon that was hinted at over the past few years ago but that is now increasingly becoming a part of every builder’s business reality.
For Mike Keesse—president of Keesee and Associates
—taking online green education is about getting hands- on information to stay ahead of the competition—and ahead of Florida’s codes. “Green Builder College is hands-on and 40 hours of great information and a lot of science of building. The heat test and IR tests and how important they are to see where a lot of the leakage occurred in homes. We asked ourselves, ‘How can we capture that?’”
Keesee’s firm specializes in residential design and works with custom homes, remodeling, and production builders. About a third of his business is custom homes. “And that [market] is about the best opportunity to present green to our clients,” he says.
Florida’s codes are among the toughest, Keesee notes, but now with the more stringent Energy Star code, builders are going to have to work harder to hit the next level of efficiency. He notes that by 2013 that homes built will have to be 50% more efficient than the 2007 code. He worries that many builders are already doing what they can to meet energy goals and that without renewables, it will be difficult for them to hit those goals. Building as tightly as possible, then, is crucial for builders facing these kinds of stringent goals.
While the most forward thinking green builders have taken advantage of online and in-person training on green, they also expect their subs to educate themselves as well.
“I would recommend Green Builder College to anyone,” says Bockenstedt. “I would especially recommend it to subs because each and every one of them has a section in there that refers to their trade.”
And home buyers would also benefit, he says. “It’s all good, common-sense information.”
Freer, too, recommends green education for all. “I would recommend any education that helps builders improve their building science knowledge,” Freer notes. “From my standpoint, truly building a quality product—indoor air quality, resource efficient, energy efficient—built holistically can be done cost competitively.”
“There are so many pathways to good building,” he adds. “And it is tough for someone to know it all, even though we, as builders, know it all.”