One year ago, in this space, we ran a story that established the relevance of environmentally friendly building practices. It accompanied the launch of our GreenSpeak and GreenSpec departments, which every other month report on sustainable building practices and products.

Of course, the editorial content of our magazine isn't the only place where an increased focus on green building is evident. Both the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and the National Association of Home Builders have green certification programs in the works, for example.

Why the relatively sudden increase of interest in sustainable building on the part of building professionals and the industry in general? Florida remodeler Bob Black, who has been involved with green building for decades, says he knows why. “Remodelers catch on to where the market is heading pretty quickly,” says the president of Access of Sarasota. And energy-efficient remodeling is definitely where the market is headed.

COMING AROUND Exactly what has homeowners thinking more about these and other processes and practices is unclear. A popular sentiment has always been that remodeling customers who purchase energy-efficient windows are doing so to save money on their heating and cooling bills. That's particularly relevant these days, with oil prices near record levels. However, a study conducted on behalf of insulation manufacturer Johns Manville reveals that slashing their energy costs may not be at the top of the list of homeowners' priorities. Seventy-eight percent of respondents reported an increase in their heating and cooling bills in 2006 — one in five said they saw an increase of 20% or more — and a roughly equivalent percentage said they were aware of federal tax credits available for making certain energy-efficient home improvements (under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 — these credits are also available for the 2007 tax season). Yet less than 25% actually took advantage of the credit, even though 82% made home improvements that would have qualified.

While it's most effective to take a holistic approach to bettering a house's energy efficiency, there are simple, low-cost steps you can take — insulating conditioned space, for example — to make smaller but still-significant improvements.

Michael Lotesto, president of Performance Exteriors, in Crystal Park, Ill., says that energy bills are the second biggest reason people call his company, which specializes in building performance testing in addition to energy-efficient remodeling. The most common reason is comfort. “They say ‘It's drafty,' or ‘It's cold,'” Lotesto says. The Perfect Home Survey, a study commissioned by window and door manufacturer Jeld-Wen, lumped the two together. The survey found that of the things that homeowners “hate” about their doors and windows, draftiness and inefficiency were the complaints cited the most often.

While cost savings and comfort surely play a large part in the growing interest in energy-efficient remodeling, it's hard to ignore the role global awareness of “green” has had. Popular culture and mainstream media have latched on to the growing concerns about global warming, and even President George W. Bush — criticized by many early in his presidency for his environmental policy — recently called for international cooperation on sustainable development for the entire world at September's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

“People are enlightened to global warming,” Black says. “They may be 30 or 40 years behind the times, but it's happened.” He adds that for this reason, he's confident that the green movement will stick more than it did the last time there was a surge in energy-efficient remodeling. That occurred during the 1970s, when the country faced a major energy crisis. As energy prices returned to normal levels, he says, most people by and large ignored the larger issues. That's not likely to happen this time around. “I don't see energy prices going that low again,” Black says. “Cheap oil is a thing of the past.”

Scott DeShetler, director of marketing communications at Johns Manville, says that most homeowners agree with Black's assessment. “Research today says that most people don't believe they'll see a reduction in energy costs in the foreseeable future,” he says. Citing internal research conducted by the company, he says that 90% of homeowners anticipate an increase in energy costs over the next three to five years.

Given that there are a variety of reasons why homeowners may be interested in energy-efficient remodeling, Black doesn't assume one as the primary factor when talking to his potential customers. “I pitch it as a whole package,” he says. “‘These windows are quieter, more energy efficient, and come with a hurricane-resistance option. Isn't it common sense to put them in your home?'”

Lotesto likens his company's procedures to a medical exam. The company interviews homeowners at length and performs a battery of tests to determine what the house needs to be more energy efficient. Lotesto chooses his words carefully. “We provide solutions, not products,” he says.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS Dana Bres of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) says that there is currently “an exceptionally open market” for remodelers, like Black and Lotesto, who can articulate the value of energy-efficient remodeling. Most believe that the demand for these products and services will continue to increase during the coming years. “Green building will become a standard that consumers will expect,” says Willie Delfs, president of Able Home-builders in Sioux City, Iowa. “It may even be mandated, to a point.”

Delfs declined to speculate on a timeline for when building codes would reflect more energy-efficient technologies, but did cite specific instances of local builders' groups pushing stricter local codes as a forerunner to national code adoption.

Long something of a niche market, green building and remodeling products and practices will soon become integral to a contracting business' survival, most say. Remodelers who don't use low-E windows or who fail to suggest energy-efficient alternatives to big, drafty additions will find it increasingly difficult to get work. “It's all part of doing the job right,” Black says. “If you don't do it, you'll lose the market to those who do.”

Advancements in window technology, such as triple-pane units and low-E glass, have helped reduce homeowners' energy bills despite oil price increases.Photo Credit: Courtesy Bristol Windows

Bres, a research engineer with HUD's Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) program, suggests that remodeling is the logical choice to lead the movement going forward, since the majority of the housing stock in the U.S. already exists. “You see a lot in the press about zero-energy [new] homes,” Bres says. “Well, if every home built this year consumed zero energy, that would reduce the total energy consumption in America by about 1%.” On the other hand, Bres continues, if you reduced the energy consumption in all existing homes by 10% — not a particularly difficult or costly endeavor for an individual house — “that would be the equivalent of 10 years' worth of zero-energy homes.”

Bres emphasizes that builders should still strive to make new homes as energy efficient as possible. “But we're not going to build our way out of this problem,” he says. “We have to remodel our way out of it.”