Many have taken pen-in-hand to describe the benefits of green homes. Some are card-carrying members of the "green building community" and approach the topic with a reverence that tends to preclude words of caution on implementing green building technologies. Positive media coverage on the benefits of green building in both trade publications and mainstream media is also frequent and well deserved, and has driven up consumer interest in recent years. However, as with any change in building practice, it takes some experience to get green building just right.
Over the past decade, Home Innovation Research Labs — either independently or for/with others — has undertaken several market research projects to uncover what consumers know or don't know, like or dislike, want or don't want in green homes. This long-ranging look at consumer preferences has given me some unique insight on the topic and I'd like to address some of the most meaningful and easy remedies to barriers that might confront builders heading down the green path.
First, the good news. Our survey research continues to find that the vast majority of green homebuyers are pleased with their home choices and would wholeheartedly recommend a green home to friends. Buyers enjoy the lower energy and water bills, healthier indoor environment, and knowing they made a choice that will benefit the environment. But (you knew there was a "but" coming, right?), there are some recurring performance issues buyers of green homes experience that may negatively impact the long-term health and growth of the green building industry.
When a green homebuyer’s experience with their new home falls short, it is commonly attributable to one of three things: 1) under-performing plumbing systems; 2) uncomfortable indoor air; or 3) expectations of energy performance not being met. Fortunately, these issues are readily addressable with currently available solutions. Some of these points of dissatisfaction can be solved with slight re-consideration of plumbing and HVAC system designs and product selections. Some can be remedied simply through better communication between builder and buyer, as green home features sometimes require buyers to modify the way they are used to living in their homes. Regardless of the remedy sought, we've consistently found that features that reduce a buyer's comfort and/or convenience are almost always bad choices — even when the buyers seem to agree at first that they can live with the changes.
A very common complaint we see from survey data on green homebuyers is slow delivery of hot water, or there is just not enough for two fixtures to access hot water at once. Many occupants believe it is directly related to their tankless water heater, but I suspect that very-low flow faucets combined with old-school main & branch water distribution systems contribute equally to long waits.
It is imperative to properly size and locate hot water delivery for today’s household habits, which includes using point-of-use water heating, manifold plumbing systems with smaller diameter piping, and energy-efficient hot water recirculation systems. Underperforming plumbing fixtures — toilets, faucets, and showerheads — continue to receive homebuyer complaints. Green homebuyers want to save water but not at the expense of a comfortable shower or toilets that perform reliably. This is an area where I'd advise builders not to skimp on fixture performance.
Some homeowners have reported in surveys and focus groups that the air is “stuffier” in their new energy-efficient homes — a disappointment and counter-intuitive when they believed that green homes offered healthier indoor air. A deeper probe tends to implicate high indoor humidity or inadequate ventilation (or both). Occupant solutions to this problem include turning the AC thermostat lower or opening windows for fresh air — both of which can defeat the purpose of the energy-saving features of their homes. Properly designed whole-house dehumidification and energy-recovery ventilation systems are two builder options to solve these issues. Attempting to save homebuyers money by not incorporating these technologies into green homes may, on balance, be the costlier alternative.
Most systems that contribute to a home’s energy efficiency are hidden away behind the walls, floors, and ceilings of the home — heating/cooling systems and insulation for example. So it’s probably not a coincidence that green homeowners are more likely to say they are disappointed with their mid-quality windows than with any other system in the thermal envelope. Occupants can feel heat escaping windows in the winter and heat entering the home in the summer – constantly reminding them of their dissatisfaction. In recent decades, homeowners have become very conscious of the impact of windows on comfort and energy savings — from their own past experience with drafty windows and from a steady flow of advertising messages from the replacement window industry. So don't skimp on systems with high buyer visibility, like windows. One cautionary note: some energy-saving window films allow less light into the home, which is a complaint I’ve seen frequently in our consumer survey work as well.
George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." As a builder you know that better air quality doesn’t cure allergies or respiratory ailments. And that "low maintenance" doesn’t mean "no maintenance." But do your buyers know that? Some consumers report they are disappointed because green homes fall short of their expectations. But often it's actually their expectations, and not their home's performance, that are the problem. Open, honest, detailed, and frequent communication with prospective buyers to manage expectations is critical in the green home transaction process.
One area where disappointment abounds is higher-than-expected energy bills. Green home builders do their part by providing energy-efficient heating, cooling, hot water, and lighting. However, homeowners need to complete the energy-usage equation by eliminating wasteful habits, which don’t go away just because they buy a green home. Builder communication should be exceedingly clear and frequent, clarifying the occupant’s role in realizing the energy savings and other green benefits of their home.
Our research has also shown it’s generally not a good idea to emphasize "illogical" functions or features of a new home to a buyer. That's not to say you can't include them, they just may not be on your list of benefits to tout during the sales process.
For example, a lower capacity HVAC system correlating to energy/cost savings may make sense to an industry insider, but is hard to reconcile in the mind of a less technical homebuyer. The first time something doesn’t seem right about the cooling system, the decision to “undersize” the system will be the first place that homeowner will seek to pin the blame. Another feature that can escape a consumer's comprehension is an HVAC fan that runs all day. While mechanical ventilation like this may improve comfort, air quality, and energy efficiency, it is a constant reminder to occupants that energy is being used (not to mention, the noise can be annoying to some). Quieter or variable speed fans can be a solution to this annoyance, but it's still something that a consumer may not fully grasp.
As green homebuyers experience their new home, they will view it compared to their old home. For this reason, it helps to know your buyers' homebuying context and history to be able to set proper expectations. How old was their former home? Did it have updated or original equipment and systems?
Homebuyer characteristics and demographics also play a role in how they will experience a new home, especially a new green home. For example, older buyers are more likely to have complaints about comforts, while younger buyers are more likely to cite convenience-related issues with new green homes. Some background on the buyer may help anticipate sensitivities before they result in dissatisfaction.
I've seen and fielded dozens and dozens of surveys, interviews, and focus groups on green home building and these are the points that have risen to the top for me. But this brief summary only scratches the surface of what we now know and what we hope to continue to learn about this segment of the homebuying public. If you are interested in finding out more about green home marketing, green home buyers, or other market segments, let me know.