THEY KEEP RAISING THE bar, says Jeff Simon. The executive vice president of Madison, Wis.-based Veridian Homes was referring to how the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America program, which first challenged builders to construct a home 30 percent more energy efficient than one built to code, is now thinking of bumping that threshold to 50 percent.

But Simon wasn't complaining. Veridian, which achieved the 30-percent benchmark in 2003, and other home builders continue to reach new energy-saving milestones, and they're doing it through a blend of public and private partnerships.

To start, the federal government has long been a partner in terms of being a standard setter. All of the top 20 builders produce homes that meet the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star standards, according to Jonathan Passe, the EPA's partner support coordinator of Energy Star for homes. Companies such as Veridian and Los-Angeles-based Pardee Homes build all of their homes to meet Energy Star standards.

The Next Level With the most sophisticated builders mastering Energy Star, many have moved on to even higher standards, at least for prototype homes. After achieving the 30-percent target in 2003, Veridian raised the bar a notch higher this past August by unveiling Welcome Home, a prototype house that passes muster under yet another federal program, the DOE's Zero Energy Home initiative. The DOE program challenges builders to work toward developing homes that achieve net zero energy consumption. Welcome Home beat the program's 40 percent above-code standard, coming in at 43 percent.

BETTER BUILT: Homes built with advanced framing methods reduce lumber by 33 percent. Naturally, Veridian did it with the help of a partner, tapping the expertise of Steven Winter Associates, an architecture, engineering, and building systems research and consulting firm based in Norwalk, Conn. “A big part of this program was the partnering component,” says Simon. “We couldn't have done it without [the partners'] help.”

To help builders make the grade on such programs, the DOE becomes a partner in its own way, says Passe, routinely sending builders to architects, consultants, and other experts. It was the DOE that connected Veridian with Steven Winter Associates for the builder's Welcome Home project. William Zoeller, a senior architect at Steven Winter, says he's worked on energy-saving initiatives with Veridian, Beazer Homes in California and Texas, Mercedes Homes in Florida, and Cambridge Homes in Chicago.

Marketing Op Zoeller says he thinks big builders producing energy-efficient homes have a competitive marketing advantage. When companies build green and market it, he says, “other builders have to play catch-up.”

When Pardee unveiled its first Energy Star homes in 1998 in Vista Verde, the Las Vegas subdivision outsold others that had identical homes, according to Rob Hammon, a principal with energy consulting firm ConSol. Hammon worked with Pardee to develop the turnkey Energy Star solution.

Meanwhile, Veridian's Simon says that Building America's possible 50 percent threshold would be particularly challenging in Wisconsin given the area's harsh winters. Still, the builder would strive to exceed it—surely with the expertise of partners.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.