Photos: Courtesy ZK Homes

Until last year, Houston builder-devel-opers Lee Zieben and John Kirksey Jr., partners in ZK Homes, didn’t know they were green. As a start-up in 2005, the business had doubled its closings every year through 2008 thanks first to the overall economy and later, the relatively mild effect of the recession in Texas.

But as traffic slowed considerably toward the end of last year, Zieben and Kirksey turned to green as a possible competitive advantage. They compared their specs, plans, and practices to several green building programs and found that without changing much they could achieve the lower levels of certification.

But instead of simply boosting their insulation levels a little and plastering “green” on their advertising, the two got serious. “Once we made the commitment to build to the highest levels of green, we got educated and applied building science to understand how everything works together,” says Zieben.

Not only is that an enlightened approach, but it also is proving successful. At The Enclave at Lake Pointe, a new, 100-unit project on a 12-acre infill parcel in Sugar Land, Texas, sales are averaging one per month for luxury homes priced from the $400s to the low $700s, thanks in large part to a model home that earned NAHBGreen Gold certification.

The model serves as a real-world opportunity to show and tell the building science behind its product and serves to educate the builder’s sales staff. “You can spend all the money in the world [to achieve a high-performance standard], but if you can’t articulate its value, it’s wasted money,” says Zieben.

To help get its message across (and hold buyers’ attention), ZK Homes has devised an in-house program that focuses on three areas they’ve found resonate most with consumers: indoor air quality, energy efficiency, and sustainability.

For instance, the spray-foam insulation ZK Homes uses to create semi-conditioned attic space and air-seal the house from thermal transfer helps the builder reduce the capacity of its HVAC equipment by half. That value is then translated into lower energy bills for the buyer and also portrayed as an example of better-built housing that will last longer and hold its value better than the competition.

It helps, too, that buyers at The Enclave and the builder’s two other communities are typically a demographic that’s more educated and interested in technology and can follow the logic stream from a can of foam insulation to sustainable housing value.

ZK’s methods and results have given the builder some negotiating leverage to secure construction financing. “[Lenders] may not give much credit to a green-certified house, but they understand the value of one built to a higher level of overall quality,” says Zieben.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Houston, TX.