As chair of Leading Builders of America's energy working group, Meritage Homes chairman and CEO Steve Hilton discusses climate change earlier this spring on Capitol Hill. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ALLIANCE TO SAVE ENERGY A bit after lunch on March 10, Steve Hilton stepped up to a podium and took a shot at what has to be one of the more thankless, exasperating, and very nearly futile jobs imaginable—getting through to Congress.

The Meritage Homes chairman and CEO had taken time out amid the critical spring selling season—and from his firm's sworn oath to return to profit this year—to neither account for financial mischief nor to appeal for a bailout, as might be expected these days. Rather, Hilton was in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., among policymakers, academics, nonprofiteers, and other senior level business executives to talk less about the downturn today and more about a burgeoning crisis tomorrow.

Climate change. Global warming. Fuel costs and consumption. Foreign dependence on oil. The list of issues culminated in one concern: energy.

With nine of 10 production home building company executives more fixed on current matters like survival, it would seem curious that the energy issue would show up on Hilton's radar. Credit those who see energy savings now as a lightning-rod issue that, if ignored today, could combust tomorrow.

Where housing, economics, politics, acuity, blurriness, sanity, and madness play havoc with one another, Hilton stood with other leaders who gathered for the Alliance to Save Energy's seventh annual Great Energy Efficiency Day (GEED) and said his carefully scripted piece. Hilton may have been a surprising face among the other corporate brass, but as chair of the recently formed Leading Builders of America's (LBA) energy working group, Hilton's credentials were hardly lacking.

In his remarks, he pointed out that the LBA's 16 home building member companies produced and sold about 130,000 homes in 2008, one of every four new homes sold that year. He also noted that the group accounts for almost 370,000 jobs through staff or subcontractors, and that LBA member companies' homes are one-third more energy efficient than homes built 10 years ago.

“We are here today because we are all convinced that building energy-efficient homes is the right thing to do, and we want to play an active role in formulating strategies to reduce energy consumption while also preserving and creating jobs to help strengthen the economy,” Hilton said. “Most importantly, consistent with LBA's mission ‘to preserve home affordability for American families,' we want to ensure that homeowners realize a net benefit from the added costs of building more energy-efficient homes.”

Therein lies the rub—and the reason for Hilton's LBA group's high-stakes call on Congress this past spring. In no uncertain terms, Hilton and his fellow big builders reckon that not one, not two, but three separate catalysts are driving the energy-efficiency agenda. The salient question, as it often is in such matters, is “Who'll pay?”

“Rather than get dragged kicking and screaming into mandated changes and higher costs, we wanted to be part of shaping the policy,” says Clayton Traylor, one of LBA's Capitol Hill advocates. Traylor most recently had been director of government and industry relations and sustainability officer at pre-Pulte Centex, and prior to that, had served with the NAHB as a senior staff vice president overseeing construction codes and government relations.

“The Gordian knot in this issue is to find a mechanism by which the incremental cost to reach higher levels of energy efficiency is somehow off set in the monthly ownership cost,” Traylor says.