Green is Here To Stay

To provide enlightenment on the state of the green building movement in mainstream home building in this country, Residential Design & Build questions Ray Tonjes, chairman of the NAHB’s Green Building Subcommittee, and custom builder from Austin, Texas.

Are homeowners driving the green building movement more than builders, or are builders the driving force?
It’s a combination of the two. In an ideal world, builders react to consumer demand, but I think we’re in a position right now with the energy crisis where builders have an opportunity to get out in front of the need and demand.

Which of the two will drive green building into mainstream acceptance?
Once again, I believe it’s going to be a combination. But the builder will have to be able to offer consumers a much better value for the dollar by incorporating these green building principles into their homes, which ultimately is going to reduce their clients’ monthly costs.

Who can influence mainstream adoption of green building more, builders or architects?
To bring green building to the mainstream, builders have a bigger responsibility than do architects. That is because when you get into larger volume operations, the builders drive the design process. In the custom market, we may see more architect-driven projects, but to drive the majority of the mainstream market builders must take responsibility.

We’ve seen news stories about homes that produce more energy than they consume, also known as zero-energy homes. Can the technologies designed into these homes be applied in the real world, or are these concept homes?
A complete zero-energy home using solar technology is not feasible at the current time unless it’s heavily subsidized. However, there is the opportunity to get much closer to the zero-energy home. We need a little bit of preplanning, and then as new technologies become available, both solar and wind technology can be incorporated into the existing home so they can be zero-energy. For example, the builder can run conduit in the attic so it’s easily wired to accept both solar panels and emerging residential roof-mounted wind-power technology.

What kind of traction do the NAHB’s green building guidelines have? Do they provide real incentives to build green?
The National Association of Home Builders and its new Model Green Home Building Guidelines are starting to rapidly be accepted among our membership, more specifically our home builder associations around the country. We have programs in Houston, Dallas, St. Louis, Albuquerque, and programs starting up in Phoenix, North Carolina and Maryland.

You’ve received awards for your commitment to green building. What separates you from a non-green builder? How easy can a non-green builder become green?
I have certainly been an advocate and a practitioner of green building for a number of years. More recently, I’ve had the opportunity to chair the Green Building Subcommittee for NAHB for the past six years, and to chair the Green Building Initiative, which is a nonprofit group that is partnering with NAHB to help our local associations develop their programs. As a practitioner, I am very mainstream, and my focus has been to incorporate energy efficiency and good building science and green building principles into conventional styles of architecture in homes. It’s a very easy step for the builder committed to his or her profession and continuing education to really take the lead in bringing green building to the mainstream.

What might prevent a custom builder or architect from becoming green? Is there a misperception of what a green builder/architect is, and what green means?
Historically, I think the green building movement was hampered by highly publicized, out-of-the-ordinary buildings. For instance, straw bale, rammed earth or domes. It created the misconception that green building was difficult and out of the ordinary, and that really hampered getting more builders involved. NAHB’s focus has been on incorporating green building into the mainstream, and that’s what is so significant about NAHB’s leadership in greening the American dream.

What are the five most common green building practices/products used in custom homes? Why?
To be beneficial and have market transformation, we need to look at the low-hanging fruit. For instance, in my high-humidity Southern climate here in Austin, some of the most efficient things you can do don’t have a large cost. For instance, when we clear trees and underbrush, we use it as mulch to protect existing hardwood trees. We will design houses to minimize west- and east-facing windows to minimize solar gain, or we will incorporate high-performance windows and overhangs to cut down on the biggest factor in heat gain in our climate. Other things include using conventional materials that are becoming more widely used, like finger-jointed studs, engineered wood products and blown cellulose insulation.

As chairman of the NAHB’s Green Building Subcommittee, what does the group do and how is it influencing the green movement?
The subcommittee is the focal point of all NAHB’s outreach to the general public, the national media and to our membership for all things having to do with green building. In addition, it coordinates with the NAHB Energy Subcommittee, so we are starting to work more with outside organizations such as EEBA, Environments for Living, the Building America program, and others.

To learn about green building practices, products, and how to incorporate them, where can custom builders and architects turn for more information?
If you go to the NAHB website at, and do a search on green building, you will see pages and pages devoted to the subject. You can download the Model Green Home Building Guidelines, get tips for affordable green projects, and more. A number of local programs have excellent websites. My favorites are the Austin Energy Green Building and Built Green Colorado sites. Additionally, there’s the Green Building Initiative and the Department of Energy’s Building America site.