Tom Hoyt, co-founder with his wife, Carolyn, of Louisville, Colo.-based McStain Neighborhoods, says their relationship with the land has always been the underlying principle for the company's pioneering work in sustainable building and development practices. "We both came out of architecture school," he says. "We got into the home building business because we thought, 'Holy smokes, if you want to affect land use, this is the way to do it.' If you do it right, you can make a big difference. We just feel really fortunate that the world is figuring it out, because we’d be doing it anyway."
We talked to Hoyt about how far green building has come, where it needs to go, and its acceptance by American consumers.
The United States still lags behind most countries in terms of acceptance of green practices, both inside and outside the building industry. What do you think needs to happen for that to change?
We've had it too easy. We just have had a lot of everything, historically. We haven't had to live with the constrictions that drove the planning and building practices in Europe and other places that are further along [than we are in the U.S.]. We haven't learned as a society how to live in cities, towns, and villages with more density and diversity and not sacrifice the American dream. But I think it is happening. There are examples cropping up in almost every municipality--denser, more diverse, closer-in projects that people are choosing. Certainly our customer base is. It's the focus of our whole strategy, really, building houses for those folks who are willing to sacrifice size for design quality, green, and a shorter commute. I think you're finding a generation who lived with their parents being in the car all the time and saying, 'I'm not doing that.' They're saying, 'What do you know? If we bring enough people into the cities, we can improve the schools.' … There's no question we got trapped by our own ease of consumption. Now that it's apparent things won't always be in cheap supply, we just start making changes.
Is there one part of the construction process where builders can make a significant contribution to sustainability? If so, what is it and why?
Number one, where you build is the single biggest difference you can make. If we're building where there is not existing infrastructure and where it's inordinately expensive to provide, it doesn't make sense. We need to build in a more compact environment. The second issue is how we put things together within a neighborhood. Diversity and density are the mantra in being able to create a neighborhood. You need density to create open spaces and make transit work, and you need diversity in order for the community to be able to function so the babysitter is across the street instead of across town. In relationship to the house, it's the envelope, the things that are difficult to change. You can always put in a new furnace or Energy Star do-das, but you make the difference with size and the envelope.
How has green building changed since you started building 42 years ago?
Probably the single biggest thing is the availability of materials, suppliers, and contractors. What you would want to use is available. The mechanical systems were really bad for years and were incredibly inefficient. And the premiums for stuff have dropped significantly. The first low-E windows we were putting in had a $100 premium, and that was 20 years ago. Now it's a premium to go the other way. The other change is that it has become more difficult. Regulation has gone up astronomically in that time. Most conventional zoning today flies right in the face of everything I've been talking about. If I am going to point finger at one culprit, it's public engineers with standards that do not make sense and conflict with each other and totally get in the way of doing the right kind of design.
The other thing is that there's a bigger overall awareness of climate change. The Internet has been key. We're so much better connected, and our customers know so much more. We think at least 90 percent of our customers have touched us on the Internet before we ever see them. They're doing serious research.
Builders often tell us that they'd love to go green, but that their customers don't care about it and won't pay for it. What would you say to them?
If you keep thinking that way, we'll keep our market slot. Clearly people care. All the surveys indicate that, especially today, there's a high awareness that doing something sustainable makes sense. Our experience is people will pay for it. The real key is you can't give it to them in the form of an option. You have to be the expert showing them, 'Here's how you can be part of the solution.' If Volvo made its safety features optional, people wouldn't choose them. You have to make the commitment to put the package out there; then people are making a clear choice, saying, 'It does make sense the way [the builder] put it together for me.'
I've been told that research doesn't support a pricing premium for green building practices, either at sale or resale. What's your experience been in that area?
We think it does. … It's hard to tell in a market where you're selling half as many houses as you used to and everybody's discounting, but … we're doing better than our competitors. We have market share gain. We're in urban infill locations, places where sustainability oriented consumers are going. They're more willing to make decisions than other people. We're maybe not getting premiums, but I bet we're making sales other people aren't. … You can't do green without good design, high quality, and good customer service--all these things are intrinsically tied together. We're pretty sure customers pay a premium for this mix, what we call true love. They want to trust us first as consumers. Then they'll trust us for the green products. It's difficult. We stay on top of pricing weekly, not just in this market but also in good markets. I really believe innovative design is an important part of today's market. Where people are willing to make decisions in this market, it's almost always because of good design, something that's not available otherwise. Green is a piece of that.
What's the next area of opportunity for green builders?
We think the remodeling game is where there's really an opportunity. It's still fractionalized the way building was 40 years ago. Few people have gone at it with green as the organizing principle. I just think there's an enormous opportunity.