Are Men Holding Back the Green Building Movement?

Greenspiration Home Explores the Question in an Interview with Builders of Both Sexes
Jun 20, 2011 4:00 PM ET
An Interview by Trish Holder   Could a male dominated construction industry be holding back the green building movement? I’ve wondered about this a lot lately, so I decided to confront a couple of builders (one male, one female) with some research as well as some of my own observations of the home construction industry.   Nicole Goolsby of Rion Homes in Cornelius, NC and Clark Wilson of Clark Wilson Builders, Inc. in Austin Texas were willing to indulge my questions. Both are experienced green builders and have worked within the home construction/real estate industry for multiple decades. Their answers shed some much-needed light on a subject I believe builders and homeowners struggle with:  cross gender communication.      Trish:  Let’s start with a little bit of research.  A December 2010 study found men half as likely to buy into the environmentally friendly green movement as women.  Now since men own about 90% of construction companies in America, I’m thinking this does not bode well for the green building industry.  What do you think?   Nicole: Men may own 90% of the companies but more and more women are a part of the team, which includes sales, marketing, design, materials specifications and construction.  That’s making a difference.  Additionally, I see a trend not only with custom builders but production companies and remodelers to put at least some focus on energy efficiency.  Collectively men may not be as motivated by the “save the planet” mantra but saving energy and lowering the bills are just common sense.   Clark: The research is not surprising if the question was posed as  "green movement". We found that consumers were and are skeptical of the generic green movement costs. It looks like by the research men are even more so. Owners of construction companies are driven by the market to produce what the customer is willing to pay for.   Trish:  Let me bring up another little factoid from the NAHB:  Women directly purchase or have controlling influence in the purchase of 91% of all new homes.   So women (who are twice as likely to want green products) are dependent upon men (who largely don’t buy into green) to build their homes.  Are the odds are stacked against a woman getting the green home of her dreams?   Nicole: Women definitely have more influence when it comes to purchasing or remodeling a home.  But the guys are beginning to get that.  Whether it is green features or current kitchen and bath trends, savvy builders will strive to provide a product that appeals to women.   The key to getting what you want is to educate yourself as a buyer on what real green is and not be afraid to educate your builder.   Most builders I know love this industry because of the opportunity to learn something everyday -- how to build better, more efficient homes, new materials and new construction techniques, etc. They may not “buy into” green but they do want to sell that next project.  Women can and will dictate what gets built with the power of the purse.   Clark: The odds of a customer getting a green home of their dreams is 100% if they are ready to pay the up front cost to build it to whatever specifications they desire. Most projects begin with a budget in mind and the planning stage is an exercise in what we leave in and what we take out to balance the budget.    Trish:  I suppose it all comes down to how attentive male builders are to their female target market.  I have reason to be pessimistic.  Just the other day, a builder told me flat out, “Builders don’t like to talk to women.”  Can’t say I liked what he had to say, but I give him props for saying it to my face….   Nicole: I suspect that builder meant that men didn’t like to listen to women. Men and women communicate differently.  When it comes to homes, I find women have a lot of questions.  Men tend make decisions quickly, so a male builder may feel that a woman who asks a lot of questions is challenging him. He may see this as an indication that she’s going to change her mind a lot. But that is not the case.   Women want to make informed decisions and have a better understanding of the construction process.  A builder must listen to their client carefully to identify what really matters most to a client. He may find out that it’s not necessarily that she wants to “save the planet” but wants a healthy home for her child with allergies.   Clark: In the previous question you pointed out that women control over 90% of the home purchases. I suspect the builder you mentioned will be in another occupation soon. Maybe handing out towels in the locker room to a pro football team.   Trish:  Countless research has shown that the construction industry has been slow to respond to the needs of their primary target market – women.  What’s up with that?   Nicole: I agree that the industry has been slow to respond to the preferences of women.  Kitchen design is a good example. I never a build the kitchen as drawn; there is always a better way to make it more functional for a family.    But the industry has made strides.  In 1997 only 6% of the construction industry was made up of women but that number has risen to 10% in recent years.  As a result, I’ve seen a change in attitudes.  It’s the 3rd generation builder families whose daughters are now moving into the management role; it’s the female vendor representatives selling insulation, brick and windows; it’s the first generation builders like myself with a natural attention to detail and desire to create a home, who are making the building process more attentive and friendly to women.   Clark: I think the "construction industry" and the "home building industry" are really two different animals. Successful homebuilders have known forever that we are selling primarily to women. Most men simply want a good spot to put a recliner in front of the TV and low payments. I think if it weren't for women we would still be living in caves. So construction companies are bidders of owners’ plans and homebuilders are retailers and merchants appealing to speculative homebuyers.    Trish:  What is your advice to women who genuinely want to build green, but find themselves without a pool of green builders to choose from?  What advice do you have for them so that they don't have to compromise their desire for a green home?   Nicole: My advice to women or men is first to educate yourself.  Learn the difference between what is truly energy efficient, sustainable, or environmentally friendly versus “green washing”.   Identify what is important to you, such as conserving water, lowering energy costs, indoor air quality, sustainable materials, etc.     Once you have done your research, make sure you research the builder.  There are directories that list professionals who have actually studied and made a real effort to learn about best practices and have green building experience.  NAHB has certified around 5000 Certified Green Professionals, almost half of which are classified as builders.  You can also check out who in your area is building Energy Star homes because they already practice many of the green building techniques.     Then find the builder who wants to talk to you, who wants to listen and who you feel you can trust.  Interview and check out references.  Just because he built your parents’ house 10 years ago, may not make him the right builder for your home.    Let your builder know that you understand the true costs of incorporating green features into your home.  Some features will be more expensive than traditional building products, but many are not.    Finally trust your instincts.   My best friend in another state was contracting a builder to renovate her kitchen.  They had spent some time with him, made some selections and even signed the contract.  The next day she called me feeling very uncomfortable and said the guy was a jerk.  A week later they cancelled the contract.  Building your dream home is going to involve a lot of big decisions and one of most critical will be choosing your builder -- one that will work with you and be willing to learn with you to create a beautiful green home.    Clark: Honestly with the market where it is today I can't imagine anyone not being able to find a custom builder that would be willing to build whatever the customer desired. I am sure there are local building associations that all have very informed green builder councils. I would start there and interview several candidates from the roster. Once you find a good match and have a budget I would once again go through an interview process with several architects until I found one that I liked that had experience in the price range I was looking to build. Then I would sit down with the team and set out to build my dream.   __________________________________________________________________________________  Did we answer the question? Have men held back the green building movement? I’m not certain that we did, but one thing is for certain. Communication is key and without better communication between builders and their clients, homes will never quite fulfill our dreams, no matter how green they are. Women probably think they communicate their needs while male builders tune them out or try to refocus their attention on budgets and punch lists.    I know many builders believe that homeowners simply aren’t willing to pay, but I wonder how many are willing to take the time to help homeowners make an informed decision about what’s more important: a high SEER HVAC system or a 3-car garage.  I do believe that female builders (assuming they have the expertise to share) are more likely to engage in such conversations. And because of that, as more women get into the construction industry, I believe the green building movement will pick up speed.     ***** Greenspiration Home LLC is an online resource dedicated to helping homeowners build, renovate, and decorate green.  Whether your aspirations lean toward deep green and granola or practical and energy efficient, Greenspiration Home is loaded with homeowner-based content that will save you time, money and frustration