As the market grows greener, builders are finding new ways to connect with buyers who care about energy efficiency and carbon reduction. One builder in Ann Arbor, Mich., is taking the public “Behind the Drywall” with tours of homes that are under construction in an effort to educate prospects about the benefits of green building. “The end end goal is to get customers, but also to educate them along the way,” says Doug Selby, president and CEO of Meadowlark Builders, which builds roughly two to five new homes and four to eight large-scale remodels each year. Most projects are built to LEED, GreenBuilt Michigan, or EnergyStar standards, and achieve third-party ratings.

When the first tour kicked off three years ago, Selby was expecting a small group of industry professionals to show up. What he got was much more. “I had around 90 people after three days of promotion,” Selby says. 

Since then, "Behind the Drywall" tours have been offered two to three times per year, with roughly six tours offered on a given day. The tours, which are promoted through local newspapers and e-mail blasts made possible by Meadowlark’s suppliers, professional partners, and company records, typically attracts between 160 people to 240 people.

According to Selby, the walkthroughs help inform the public about advanced building techniques, heating and cooling systems, energy conservation practices, and the process of building homes in general. Meadowlark homes are built with insulated concrete forms (ICF); structurally insulated panels (SIPs); advanced framing and insulation techniques; water-saving plumbing fixtures; indoor air quality and ventilation systems; low-energy lighting; geothermal heating and cooling; and sustainable site planning--all of which are discussed during the tour.

Tours are given at the rough-in stage, usually before HVAC systems are operational. This is intentional, Selby says, because one of the goals is to demonstrate how body heat can be captured in colder months to maintain a comfortable temperature inside a thermal shell. Building a tight envelope ultimately benefits homeowners by reducing their heating costs, but as a added benefit, it allows construction workers to work through the winter in colder climates. “Insulation is sort of baked into the projects,” he says.

Demonstrating such virtues, he says, has increased buyers’ willingness to pay more for energy efficiency and improved air quality. “My feeling is people will pay 10% to 15% more for a very green home at LEED platinum level,” Selby says. Some studies support this theory. In a 2008 NAHB study, builders reported that 74% of their buyers were willing to pay more for a green home. They certainly have been willing to do so for Selby. Despite the suffering economy, his first green home sold for $640,000 in June 2008, which was a significant premium over  the next highest priced newly constructed home in the neighborhood, which went for $515,000.

That's not a bad return on investment for the tours, which Selby estimates cost the builder about $1,000 per tour. Expenses include promotional giveaways such as fliers and re-usable shopping bags (to promote a green lifestyle), one to two staff guides to run the tour, and insurance.

The most immediate yield, Selby says, is credibility and name recognition. Some attendees have returned for repeated tours over a span of months before initiating more serious conversations with the builder, he notes. Attendees can be surprising and “across the board,” he adds, including everything from married couples in their mid-30s to “old hippies and everything in between.” The one group that Selby finds in regular attendance are engineers, typically male and below the age of 45.

Not all attendees share precisely the same interests, though. “Women seem to be more interested in wider conservation issues and men more interested in energy efficiency,” Selby says.

Monica Stern-Morales is an editorial intern for BUILDER.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Ann Arbor, MI.