At 10 am on Wednesday morning of the International Builders' Show, Peter Yost  of BuildingGreen, Inc., asked a room full of builders to think about porn. 

Cheap shot? Actually not. To make the point that “green” (a term he doesn’t even like) means very different things to different people, the eco-building guru invoked Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famed 1964 opinion on hard-core pornography (“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced … and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it …”).

Sure, open-cell foam and PV panels are less salty than all that, but they're no less controversial. The “I know it when I see it” example means this: There’s a spectrum of green. Here are tips from Yost for getting serious about eco-smarts and selling that value proposition to your customers.

1.Define Green. Architects, builders, and their clients often have differing opinions about what that is. “I actually hate the term ‘green building,’ says Yost. “It’s way too ambiguous.” He likes the EPA’s definition. The methods that follow will help, too.

2. Get Your Priorities Straight. This way you’ll have quick, meaningful answers to client questions.  It’s hard to build green, but you have to make it look easy—and easy to understand. That’s the way clients will grasp the value proposition. Rank a project’s impact using these six environmental priorities: Site, Energy, Interior Air Quality, Water, Materials, Waste.

3.Show Them, Don’t Tell Them. Yost suggests this simple visual to explain your green smarts. Draw a small circle and write the six priorities around it, like numbers on a clock. Next, draw a line between the circle and the word. The shorter the line, the better you’re doing impact-wise, the longer, the more need there is for improvement.  Draw a circle connecting the ends of each line (you’ll have a blob).  Now, color it in. The bigger the blob, the bigger the environmental footprint.

4.Go By the Numbers. With the six priorities as your framework, use these metrics to assess how eco you really are.

  • Site:  Density

  • Energy:  Heating and cooling consumption per degree day and per square foot (admittedly, this standard makes it easier for large houses and harder for small ones)

  • Interior Air Quality (IAQ) This is a tough one, allows Yost. But he does have advice. (“Want to get into trouble?  Say how healthy your home is.  A home is dead.  But its occupants can be healthy.”) The slope gets more slippery, because “healthy” involves factors over which you have no control: all the other environments in which a home’s inhabitants spend time. Testimonials are the safest and most powerful way to say your IAQ game is on.

  • Water:  Gallons per person per day

  • Materials:  Embodied energy per pound, per linear foot, or per board foot (embodied energy is the energy that went into getting the product to the jobsite)

  • Waste:  Pounds per square foot

5. Demand Quality, Insist on Teamwork. “It’s a squishy word,” says Yost of “quality.” “There’s all this circle talk around it.” He defines quality as a three-legged stool:  design, specs, workmanship. To make his point, several home-building horror shots were shown. All could have been avoided if those on the project were working together. Quality can’t happen unless architects, builders, contractors, and subs remain accountable so nothing falls through the cracks.  Yost suggests using checklists like the  easy-to-download Word documents posted here .

6.Connect Quality with Value.

  • Green is about long-term value, not price. "If you're going to do investments that are greater than the life of the home, they should be about value transfer," says Yost. If you do the good work, it's the bankers, the Realtor, and the appraisers that need to recognize this."

  • Translate attributes into benefits your customers can recognize. Energy efficiency is a feature, and a lower utility bill is the benefit. 

  • Train everyone, but especially your sales staff.
  • Do energy bill guarantees. Guarantee the portion of the bills over which you have control—the space conditioning, which is determined by the quality of the mechanicals and the envelope. 

7.Keep Current. Yost calls this “keeping your head up—and down,” always the hardest part when you’re focusing on the details and keeping a business running smoothly. (Indeed, Yost presented some head-spinning facts and figures about open-cell insulation regarding global warming potential versus ozone depletion potential.)  Sure, it’s about the ultimate big picture: the planet. But keeping current with research on the ecological impact of the products you’re using helps you see what’s coming and gives you an edge on the competition.

Amy Albert is a senior editor at Builder.