A Builder’s Duty

Builders deliver one the largest and most important investments that families make. It’s a sacred honor and consecrated duty to get it right.

I spent last week in Las Vegas at Design & Construction Week, a lively gathering of some 100,000 building professionals. Exhibits filled the massive halls of the sprawling convention center, experts offered sage insights at jam-packed educational sessions, and attendees took advantage of networking opportunities to position their businesses for success.

While it was lovely to see old friends and meet new colleagues in person after a few years of pandemic travel drought, I was dismayed by the number of builders who still seem to be clinging to outdated building practices, antiquated thinking, and a status quo that never deserved to work.

Sara presenting IBS 2023

Green Builder Media CEO presenting a session on Generational Marketing at Design & Construction Week

For some reason, I decided that it would be a good idea to present five sessions during the show (not sure what I was thinking), during which I was able to get a reasonable feel for general showgoer sentiment. 

For the most part, the building professionals who attended my presentations were there because they genuinely wanted to learn about the topics—decarbonization, next generation homes and communities, generational marketing, and ESG. 

But I got the distinct feeling that some showed up just to hear the rhetoric and throw stones at those who would dare to explore ideas for a different future and call for a reimagining of our approach to home building.

During one of the sessions (which had over 250 building professionals in attendance), as I relentlessly poked the bear with suggestions for how we can build sustainable, net zero, all-electric, resilient, healthy, connected, solar + storage powered homes (that reached the audience with varying levels of efficacy) I had a realization. 

I was making the argument that if we’re just building to the lowest upfront cost and cheapest price per square foot metrics alone, we’re simply building tomorrow’s slums, emphasizing that the only way to build long-term, generational wealth for first-time home buyers and every homeowner afterwards is to shift away from the outdated price-per-square-foot valuation metric and finally acknowledge that lowest upfront cost isn’t full cost. 

I pointed out that, according to the Department of Energy, homeowners can save up to 20% on utility bills with high-efficiency HVAC systems, 15% with upgraded insulation and proper air sealing, upwards of $600 annually on high-performance windows, and over $350 annually on heat pump water heaters. 

With relatively short payback periods for high performance products, the numbers clearly pencil out in favor of sustainability.

I also stressed that rebates, incentives, and funding from the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Bill will actually allow builders to increase their sell-through and profitability for electrification technologies like heat pumps for HVAC and water heating, induction cooktops, smart panels, solar + storage, demand-side energy management systems, as well as energy efficient windows, doors, and insulation.

I noted record high levels of consumer demand for sustainable, healthy homes—primarily from Millennials who understand total homeownership value more than any other generation and recognize that even if their mortgage payments are a little higher, a home with low energy bills and operating costs is ultimately going to yield a net positive financial result for them.

But as I paced across the stage, it dawned on me that I was leaving out an essential part of the argument. Affordability and profitability are essential factors in the equation—I get that it’s paramount to provide homes that families can afford, and I acknowledge that many builders are working with razor thin margins. 

But the flagship reason why we must transform the industry isn’t about economics. It’s about human dignity.

We as building professionals provide a basic human need: shelter. Shelter is listed on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as one of the most primal physiological needs, along with air, water, food, and sleep. 

Maslows hierarchy of needsAccording to Maslow’s seemingly timeless assessment, humans can’t evolve up the hierarchy without it, and the more dignified their living situation is, the faster they’ll be able to reach higher levels on the pyramid.

As I ponder this concept, I’m filled with more questions than answers. How is it possible that our industry doesn’t actively discuss or recognize the concept of dignified living?  

Why is the homeowner experience so low on the priority list for many builders when designing, building, and selecting products for homes? How are some builders even allowed to deliver homes that make families sick, that cost too much to live in, and that require repairs within months of a purchase?  

Why aren’t we following the guidance of industry leaders like Sam Rashkin in our Housing 2.0 program, which teaches architects, builders, and developers how to create sustainable homes that are less expensive for builders to construct and yield a far better, more comfortable and cost-effective homeowner experience?

We know that there are positive examples of builders like Thrive Home Builders, Tim O’Brien Homes, Addison Homes, Younger Homes, and others, who have incorporated the concept of dignified living as a foundational pillar of their businesses. These companies are offering sustainable, healthy, high-value, attainable homes while still making a healthy profit. 

How can we as an industry encourage—or demand if we must—that our friends, colleagues, business partners, and stakeholders shoulder the yoke of stewardship for ourselves, our communities, our customers, and, ultimately, homebuyers everywhere so that we, as an industry, are delivering high quality homes that enable dignified living?

And finally, how can we hold our industry accountable for the things we manifest into the world? 

We certainly don’t have to be righteous about it, but it’s our fundamental responsibility to get it right.