Remember when Ron-­ald Reagan mused, in 1981, that “trees cause more pollution than automobiles do”? A sizable number of home builders seem to have taken that statement to heart over the following two decades. The way many of them plowed through farmlands, forestlands, wetlands, and whatever open space was available for development often showed a serious disregard for the environmental ramifications of growth.

Many builders still view environmental protection the way Vice President Dick Cheney does, as “a personal virtue,” or in other words, as someone else’s problem. Their home designs give short shrift to energy and water conservation, as size trumps efficiency and cost controls trump everything else. Builders and buyers who flock-ed to suburban subdivisions in search of larger, cheaper lots and homes conveniently blotted out how longer commutes to job centers would create more traffic congestion and pollution. Smart growth, with its ideals for denser, walkable communities that at least nod at sustainability, was something builders resisted because for them it translated into less profit. To be sure, home buyers weren’t exactly clamoring for eco-friendly options or locations, either.

This special report looks at how residential construction has contributed to the world as it stands today: with depleted natural resources, soaring energy prices, and a diminished natural environment. A still-small but increasing number of builders now realize that old methods of design, development, and construction must be altered, and fast, to minimize environmental damage as the industry strives to meet the housing needs of 100 million more people by 2030 in the U.S. alone.

How many builders see the future this way remains to be seen, since even respected scientists and economists wonder if climate change will be the calamity environmentalists expect. Still, a paradigm shift among builders toward greener and sustainable houses seems in order as more consumers ask for green homes and more states ­enforce green building statutes. From a purely economic standpoint, “the real risk,” says Greg Kats of Capital E, which invests in eco-friendly construction, “is not going green.”—J.C.