A prominent consultant on green construction told dealers and builders that one of the best ways to sell green is to add green innovations without ever calling them that. He also urged contractors and LBM workers to set modest goals and accomplish some of them in part by taking advantage of the small gains that can come from taking other green steps.

"You don't have to say you're going green," Gord Cooke of the Building Knowledge consultancy said Tuesday during Huttig's Greener Selections Conference in St. Charles, Mo. "All you need to do is tell the people what you're doing that is green."

Even with all the publicity about environmentally sensitive techniques, only about 10% of customers--typically, people age 55 and up--will pay extra for green innovations, Cooke said. Another 35%--primarily the more eco-conscious younger generation--want green innovations, but they expect those to come automatically at no extra charge.

Given that those groups still add up to a minority of all consumers, Cooke urged against a whole-hog approach to going green. Instead, builders and dealers should aim for a 20% to 30% improvement in the green performance of the homes they supply and build, he said. That's similar to WalMart's environmental commitment and the gains in fuel mileage that a hybrid car gets, he said; it's a big enough gain to earn public respect but small enough to be reachable without overwhelming effort.

Cooke also suggested that when planning construction projects, builders look for opportunities to save costs in some areas as a result of investments in others. For instance, "most air conditioners [installed in homes] easily are 30% oversized, and in this market, they're twice as big as they need to be," Cooke told the St. Louis-based audience. Spending on extra insulation and a good building envelope can be covered in part by buying a smaller HVAC system, he said.

Likewise, homebuilders often spend thousands of dollars more on framing lumber than they would need if they employed advanced framing techniques and kept an eye on reducing waste, he said. That money then can be used to buy better windows and doors, or perhaps even more insulation.

But going green entails smart selling as well as clever building, Cooke stressed, and successful marketing requires a combination of knowledge, empathy and out-of-the-box thinking. It starts with gaining deep understanding of green construction and then expands to learning how green's benefits apply to the ultimate customer. And then? "Take all that you've learned and put it in the back pocket," he said. It's time to listen.

Cooke started his dialogue on selling with the standard observation that people tend to look for a home because they need to relocate, or want space, or have changed their lifestyle--not because they want to save the Earth.

"It's okay not to be green right out of the chute," he said. Instead, sellers should do what they always should do: earn the customer's trust so that a seller's arguments will be accepted and embraced. This in turn means asking questions, learning the buyer's desires, and then finding ways to show how green principles can make them happy.

"Don't ever ask the question 'Are you interested in energy efficiency?' because all it will get you is the answer 'Sure'," Cooke said. "It doesn't get to the emotion of the issue." Instead, he said, sellers need to stop asking qualifying questions about price, size and financial prowess and focus instead on listening to the potential buyers' wants. During that time, he said, the seller should be thinking about how investing green will benefit that customer.

As an example, Cooke said that an $8,000 to $10,000 investment in energy upgrades easily can save people 25% to 30% in annual energy costs--typically $800 to $1,000 per year. He then produced a simple table looking at how much a $10,000 investment can yield if instead it were put into a bank account or added to the mortgage. In many cases, the green option is the winning one.