Bob Barreto’s builder customers occasionally pick his brain about sustainable design and construction. But when he and his team at GBS Building Supply in Greenville, S.C., found themselves increasingly short on answers, they went back to school.

The yard co-sponsored a research seminar at nearby Clemson University combining 12 graduate-level students in the fields of civil engineering, architecture, and construction management. The class included the semester-long task of designing a net-zero-energy house.

Students explored the “climate specific design” concept which tailors home design to the natural lighting, organic ventilation, and solar-gain capabilities of its region. “The only way to develop expertise was to get engaged in a project like this,” he says.

Barreto used his dealer perspective to prompt students to think about the types of materials available and the practicality of incorporating them into the project. Despite using non-traditional materials such as solar panels and autoclaved aerated concrete—a lightweight mixture with microscopic holes used to cast walls with an R-22 insulating value—the 1,300 square foot project cost $110 per square foot to build.