How Custom Builders Can Manage Client's Green Expectations
A custom home buyer’s expectations for a green home mean a whole new level of satisfaction. Learn how to stay on the same page.
The first interactions between a custom builder and a client are exciting: The client's decision to sign a builder is rife with hopes, dreams, and expectations. The custom builder is thrilled with the opportunity to build a home that satisfies those desires.
Then reality sets in. Moving the process from happy anticipation to satisfaction can be hard work under normal circumstances — and add to that the high expectations of buyers looking to build a green home. Custom builders are more frequently faced with this challenge as green construction becomes more popular and their buyers want features that many production builders can't deliver.
So builder, beware. The onus is on you to make every effort to understand what a “green home” means for your buyer. Create an open, probing, ongoing dialogue about what they are trying to achieve and the lifestyle that green represents for them. If you know what your company can accomplish; listen and communicate well; and are meticulous with your follow through, you'll be able deliver a green home your clients will love for years to come. Whaddya mean, green?
Communicating well with the client at every step of the process is crucial. It's even more important with green building because the concept of green is so varied. It touches on everything from energy efficiency, to indoor air quality, to use of recycled materials and durable design — with varying combinations and degrees of each. Throw in all the possible green building standards to choose from, and the term “green home” could mean many things.
“I'll ask what they have in mind,” says Owen Roberts, founder of the Owen Roberts Group, a custom home building company in Bothell, Wash. “What are they trying to accomplish? I start asking questions to determine if they are light green or dark green. Some people are just light green — they want to feel green.”
Frank Dalene, vice president and CFO of Hamptons Luxury Homes in Bridgehampton, N.Y., formed the Hamptons Green Alliance, a Web portal to educate clients about some of the choices they have when it comes to green construction. It's a collaboration of tradespeople who are experts in their field and leaders in green building.
“Our idea is to communicate what green building is in a very practical way to the consumer,” Dalene says.
Expect the green dialogue to continue all the way through the process and that repetition will be necessary.
“They'll forget something we said about tankless water heaters,” says Chris Parker, president of Parker Custom Builders in Nashville, Tenn. “I'll get three months into the project and they'll say, “Hey, I was talking to a friend of mine and I heard that tankless water heaters are horrible.' I'll say, 'OK, I've put in 50 of them, and here's my experience.' There are plumbers out there that don't know how to install them that are going to push back. But it's a continual dialogue with [clients] about some of these things.”
If you are marketing yourself as a green builder, you should be able to speak knowledgeably to your buyer about approaches to green. Educate yourself about your capabilities, and be on top of new green products and technologies, which are coming out at a fast and furious pace. Parker attends the International Builders' Show each year with an eye toward what's new in filtration systems.
“I'm very confident in how we are installing our HVAC systems,” Parker says. “We're having the systems engineered by, in my opinion, the best mechanical engineer in town. ... [And ] we're doing all the things you should do. But I think the level of what is available as far as extra components to the system and filtration and energy recovery ventilators continue to improve every year.”
Healthy skepticism is good.
“We've been stung in the past with certain products and representations that were made on performance,” says Dalene, “and when we used them they didn't come true. A lot of products haven't been proven [to work] over time. The liability issue for us as builders is really scary.”
You should also be well-versed on the various green building options in your area. Custom builders should at least familiarize themselves with those most used in their market and understand the pros and cons of each.
“It's our responsibility to lay out everything that we can do that I have experience with that I feel good about,” says Parker.
Even if you are not marketing yourself as a green builder, green is so prevalent that your buyer may have that expectation of you even if you haven't discussed it.
“Being in Seattle, everybody wants to be green,” says Roberts. “It's a big deal here.”
“All builders … have to ask, 'Do you have any green expectations?'” says Jay Freedman, partner with the Newport Beach, Calif., law firm Newmeyer & Dillion. “There are arguments that can be made that the home buyer is going to assume some level of green component whether the builder advertises it or not.”
Custom home buyers can be quite knowledgeable about green — it's safe to assume they've done some research online. Often they understand nuances of one green path versus another, and so should you. For instance, if a so-called green product has to be transported a long distance, the use of fuel increases, which reduces the net green benefit.
A great tool as you begin your conversation with your client about his or her green home is a list of possible features.
“We've developed a green menu,” says Roberts. “It includes all the things we could think of that are possible candidates for inclusion in the house. We use this green menu to remind ourselves to check off and consider everything for each job.”
“There are about 15 things,” says Parker of his list. “It takes me a good 15 to 20 minutes to go through that with clients. I don't want them coming back at the end of the project saying, 'You never told me about X. I would have come up with the extra money if you had told me about that.' So I feel that's our responsibility to present all that.”
Of course, one collection of green items doesn't work for every house; each is unique in shape, style and lot characteristics. But having a list provides a jumping off point and helps clarify the elements of green that are most meaningful for your client. And it's important clients know all their options — even ones you don't think they'd want to take.
“For a lot of our clients, this is the last house they are building,” says Parker. “Their strategy is different. I hear, 'I'm staying in this house. I want to make sure we're doing it right from the beginning.' We're not cutting corners, especially on the things we can't change in your walls very easily. I can't rip drywall off and re-insulate because you've decided once you move in that your energy bills aren't satisfactory.”
Green features of the home should be thoroughly discussed at the design stage, if not before. Roberts was impressed with a green charette the architects orchestrated for one of his clients. In addition to Roberts and the two architects, the home owners, landscape architect and a mechanical engineer were on hand.
“The architect grabbed the white board,” Roberts says, “and we put everything we could think of for this particular house on it. There were no value judgments. We'd go back and rate them for their viability later.”
Return on investment for the customer should be an important consideration for the client. Paying a premium for green makes the most sense when you factor in the cost savings over time. Rolling the overage into the mortgage makes the bite less painful.
“It's better to pay off the mortgage than to send that money to the utility company or oil company,” says Dalene.
After Roberts' charette wrote all their ideas on the white board, a discussion took place with all the experts in one room to evaluate each idea on its merits, including cost.
“A wind turbine was up there,” Roberts says. “The wife thought that was the coolest thing. The mechanical engineer said, 'Yeah they work, but it will never pay for itself in its lifetime.'”
When they discussed photovoltaics, the engineer shared that by the time they start to pay for themselves in about 25 years, they will wear out and need to be replaced — a break even situation. But for geothermal heating and cooling, the numbers looked good, especially for the particulars of this client.
“They were doing a guest house and a pool,” says Roberts. “Turns out that geo exchange heating and cooling is particularly effective when you're heating a pool, because you aren't trying to raise the temperature too much. The payoff was about six or seven years for the extra cost. So even though it was more expensive up front it was a better deal.”
Building a good green home requires trades and subcontractors who are educated on product specs and techniques.
“The builder has to possibly take another look at its standard scope of work or subcontracts to make sure that the right information is being included,” says Freedman. “So if you are looking at low-VOC paints, the painter not only sees the specification for a particular quality and color, but also knows that it needs to be low-VOC.”
In the end, the goal isn't to just meet your buyers green expectations. You want to exceed them.
“We all get in a hurry, and we get impatient,” Parker says. “But what's really key is setting the expectations in the right place, educating them on what we're doing and why we're doing [it]. I'm not going to say that eliminates any problems, but at least it gives you a fighting chance.”
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