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LBM products multiply in shades of green

BUILDERS ON BOARD Green products represent a profit opportunity for attendees at the NAHB’s 10th annual National Green Building Conference, held in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS —Builders are talking up a storm about “green,” and a lot of that talk is turning to whether dealers can keep up with the needs of pros and with the newest trends in the marketplace.

This year’s 10th annual National Green Building Conference, held in New Orleans by the National Association of Home Builders, drew 1,557 attendees and 120 booths, up from 1,098 attendees and 64 booths at last year’s conference in St. Louis. With the national housing market in a downswing, many of those in attendance said they are seeking alternative ways to increase profits. Both in remodeling and new building, green seems to be a trend that fills that niche.

During one of the conference’s educational sessions, Michael Strong of Houston-based remodeling firm Brothers Strong told those in attendance that frustration is a part of the gamble in going green.

“Don’t expect miracles at the retail level,” he said, adding that some retailers are holding back on green products until older, “irrelevant” items are moved first. “There’s been a sea change in the last six months, though,” he added.

At the same time, he said, there is some difficulty in finding the green lumber and building materials needed to get various certifications, such as LEED for Homes, Energy Star for New Homes and NAHB’s Model Green Home Building Guidelines, all of which have nuances that create different needs for each pro.

And there are, of course, more programs—the Green Builders Initiative offers the Green Globes certification program, while the American Lung Association offers the “Health House” designation. Further local programs like Green Built North Texas and the Chicago Green Homes Program add to the certification opportunities—and the confusion.

“Not all your employees are going to be on board,” Strong told fellow builders at the conference. He said green builders deal with a “lot of stereotypes” when it comes to green building, such as cost of the projects and materials used. “We have to deal with our trade contractors, with our vendors and with our customers,” when it comes to those stereotypes, he said.

Still, there are some advantages to joining the green movement now while the idea is fresh and growing. “There’s a lot more free products than ever before,” he said. “When it comes to green, vendors and manufacturers are falling all over themselves giving this stuff away.”

Among Strong’s most popular green products are Sherwin-William s’ Harmony paint and Panasonic’s “Whisper Green” HVAC fans. Scott Sevon, a custom home builder with Palatine, Ill.-based Sevvonco pointed to battery-operated plumbing fixtures and new building materials made from cork, bamboo, composite veneer or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified lyptus.

“There’s just a myriad of products coming out,” Sevon said, “and you’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg.”

FSC-certified wood has been a green building entry point for many retailers. Home Depot has seen sales of FSC-certified wood—today a part of the retailer’s Eco Options program—grow from around $15 million in 1999 to more than $400 million in 2007, according to the company.

Other names are joining into the increasingly lucrative market for these products. Earlier this year, Standard Supply & Lumber, a 12-unit chain of lumberyards and showrooms in western Michigan opened a lumberyard devoted exclusively to FSC certified wood products, in addition to green kitchen and bath products. The heavy need for green building materials, including FSC-certified wood, led to the opening of Green Builders Source, an exclusively green pro dealer in The Woodlands, Texas.

But the availability of FSC-certified wood is limited, and regulations on identifying FSC certified products are getting more complicated. Most recently, the U.S. Green Building Council’s Materials and Resources Technical Advisory Group changed how FSC-certified wood is rated for LEED-certified projects, the highest profile green ratings system in the country.

The new LEED rules require vendors that supply FSC-certified wood to have valid chain-of-custody certificates. Otherwise, if contractors don’t obtain that documentation, the wood will not “count” toward the points system required by a LEED project.

And there are numerous other considerations that contractors are required to consider when building green homes.

“We don’t do ‘demo’ anymore, we ‘deconstruct,’” explained Sevon, adding that one of the most important components of several green ratings systems is the amount of waste that each project produces. “Building accounts for 30 percent of waste output [yearly in the United States],” he told builders in attendance.

Steve Needle, a custom home builder with Needle Point Homes in Westfield, N.J., builds homes under the Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes program. Needle said that he has run into some of those waste disposal problems.

One home, he said, “was full of sheetrock—we wanted to recycle sheetrock, and it was hard to find somebody to recycle it. I mean, we weren’t even going to give it away, we were going to pay somebody to take it, and we still couldn’t find anybody.”

Eventually, Needle said he found a business in Allen town, Pa., that would take the material.

“It’s an aggravating thing, it seems like there is nobody here who is really looking to recycle,” he said.

Outside the deconstruction issues, Needle’s main concern is in HVAC construction and maintenance, where a variety of specialized products and building techniques come into play.

“The fact is that the most important thing is sizing your heating and air conditioning properly,” Needle told HCN. “Getting very well insulated windows with argon gas between the glass and making sure you don’t have leaks around the frame of the window.”

Many new green products displayed at the National Green Building Conference go back to the goal of providing builders with a source of LEED points or otherwise satisfying the requirements of various programs. Some products are more attuned to the “outside the box” mentality.

Millenia Wall Solutions unveiled a new line of retaining wall units that are made of a composite façade and a hollow interior, surrounded by a resin body. The “bricks” are filled with crushed stone, potentially a receptacle for some of that “deconstruction” waste.

Weyerhaeuser has updated its line of iLevel software for home builders. The planning program allows builders to use various structural frame design tools to reduce job site waste, through helping generate accurate material lists.

Addressing water conservation, a big topic in places like Atlanta and the Carolinas, Rainwater Collection Solutions introduced a rainwater “pillow,” a fully automated system that works to collect rain water for outdoor watering needs. The system can collect 1,000 to 40,000 gallons of rainwater and store it in a crawl space or behind a deck.

Michael Strong of Brothers Strong echoed one sentiment expressed by a number of those in attendance—the shear number of products, on top of the proliferation of national and regional ratings systems, have made the process of green building just a little bit crazy.

“It’s chaotic right now. Years from now, it will calm down and everything will be figured out,” Strong said. “That might be a little boring, so right now, enjoy the chaos.”