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What green does and doesn't mean to homeowners

By Berit Griffin April 9, 2014

Suzanne Shelton, president of Shelton Group (Knoxville, Tenn.), has spent the past decade thinking green. As a researcher, Shelton has studied how Americans feel about environmental and energy issues, and building professionals should take note.

The If you build it, they will come philosophy may work for cornfield baseball diamonds and ghosts, but green building? Not so much.

In an interview with BUILDER senior editor Jennifer Goodman, Shelton offers a harsh, but helpful assessment of how green building has been marketed by professionals and perceived (or not perceived) by prospective homeowners:

Shelton on what consumers think of high-performance housing:

“High performance” is one of those terms that builders and their advisers have gotten really comfortable with, and, unfortunately, it’s begun working its way into consumer-facing marketing materials. Here’s why that’s unfortunate: Last fall in our ninth annual Energy Pulse study, we asked Americans if they could confidently and correctly explain the term “high-performance home” to a friend. Eighty-four percent of the American population said, “No.”

We must stop using this term unless we’re going to really make the effort (i.e., support with marketing dollars) to make it meaningful to consumers. I love it and happen to think it’s a much better way of communicating the value proposition of a more efficient, sustainable home, but when 84 percent of the population tells us they don’t get it, it’s a great indicator that we’re just talking to ourselves on this one.

Shelton on the best way to market green home features:

Americans care more about comfort, their health, keeping their family safe, resale value, and lower utility bills than they do about “green.” So that’s another term builders should stop using. For years, we tested the term “energy-efficient home” against “green home,” and “energy-efficient home” so handily clobbered “green home” year over year that we stopped testing it. “Efficient” is something they can make sense of. “Green” sounds squishy.

But make no mistake: consumers care about many of the benefits of a green home, they just aren’t turned on by the term. So builders should talk about the health benefits (keeping allergens and toxins out of the house), the comfort benefits, and controlling energy costs. They also should talk about resale value. We see that as the No. 1 barrier to Americans truly embracing efficient homes. They believe they’ll pay more for it without getting their money back when they sell it, yet they believe they’ll get their money back for aesthetic awesomeness (granite countertops, hardwood floors, etc.).

A recent UC Berkeley/UCLA study of 1.6 million home transactions found that green labeling improved selling price. Controlling for all other factors, such as location, school district, crime rate, time period of sale, views, and amenities, researchers found that the 4,321 certified energy-efficient homes sold at an average price premium of 9 percent. Builders should start using this fact as part of their pitch to help Americans really embrace the value of a better built, more efficient home.

We highly recommend reading the rest of Shelton’s BUILDER interview here.