Building product makers need to talk sustainability with builders

Speaking Sustainably

Building product makers need to talk sustainability with builders

House frame
FlickrOregon Husky2006
Building product manufacturers can help increase sustainable practices in the residential construction industry by talking with builders about materials and procedures.

Last month I spent three days in Las Vegas speaking in the Owens Corning booth at the annual International Builders’ Show, doing presentations about the Sustainable American Dream — and laying out what Americans want in their homes relative to conservation and sustainability. Here’s the gist:

  • They want all the stuff we mean when we talk about sustainability — they just don’t call it that.
  • They want better homes.
  • A better home is a home that looks beautiful, feels comfortable, is built to last and gives me a sense of control over my universe (I can control all the systems from my phone, and my utility bills are predictable and manageable).
  • They don’t want trade-offs: No sacrificing aesthetics for efficiency; no sacrificing comfort for aesthetics.
  • They want this all baked into a home when they buy it. They don’t want to have to make a bunch of upgrades after the fact — they want builders and others to essentially “do it for them.”
  • When we market to them about it, we need to avoid technical jargon (which may not seem like jargon at all to those in the industry) and talk about benefits.

Given that I was speaking daily on this topic in the Owens Corning booth, they clearly were trying to get a sustainability message out to their builders. The trouble is that Owens Corning was one of only a handful of manufacturers I saw directly communicating to builders about sustainability. Knauf Insulation had a nice chunk of real estate in their booth devoted to it; Kohler (also a Shelton client) had a panel devoted to their sustainability communications platform, Believing in Better; and every HVAC manufacturer mentioned efficiency and touted a smart thermostat. SolarCity was there in a big way, pushing their Builder Program (and their booth was well trafficked) — but I didn’t see much else. Which caused me to wonder why.

  • Do building product manufacturers think that sustainability is baseline now, so ordinary, so “baked in” that they just don’t need to talk about it anymore?
  • Have many building product manufacturers just given up on sustainability or decided they don’t need it as part of their corporate branding or product strategy?
  • Or, worse, have building product manufacturers just decided builders don’t care, so they’re not talking about it?

I’m a little worried it’s the third bullet. Here’s the bottom line: Much like the average American, perhaps the average builder doesn’t know to ask about sustainability or to ever use that word, but they are for sure interested in selling homes. And the homes Americans want are sustainably built (although, again, Americans don’t call it that).

Building product manufacturers have a lot to gain by packaging up their philosophy and actions around sustainability into an easy-to-understand, easy-to-communicate communications platform. McGraw Hill predicts that by next year 29 to 38 percent of new homes built will carry some sort of green designation. That means we’re hitting the mainstream: We’ll be sending the market a signal that This Is How We Build Homes. Not every builder is there yet, so manufacturers can do a lot to help. How?

  • Make your products inherently better — more efficient, less toxic, less embedded energy, more mold-resistant — and tell builders about it so they understand that the products they typically use in their homes are actually better than they were a decade ago.
  • Connect that story to the story of what the consumer wants (as I laid out above). Help builders tell a benefit-laden story to their prospective customer.
  • Literally help builders build better homes. This will NOT work if you’re asking them to completely change the way they’ve always done it. Give them two or three changes to make to their existing multi-step process. Help them master those steps, then give them a few more steps. Help them eat the elephant of building better homes one bite at a time.

Manufacturers, get your sustainability house in order, start talking about it and start working with your builders to use it to everyone’s advantage. If you do that, everyone wins.