To many of us, they are frighteningly familiar. Still, it's almost become a fact of life, the sound of perilously high winds howling in the background of someone we're talking to on a cell phone. The person on the cell phone may actually be safe, but it's hard to be assured of that, as screaming, percussive gusts blast through the wireless networks, drowning out phrases and muffling the words of the person talking. You can barely keep yourself from conjuring up the image of Anderson Cooper reporting in his logo-bedecked storm gear, the CNN mini-van in the background, and online video streams of damage and destruction in the wake of the storm. But in some fair number of places, double-digit per hour winds, with even higher gusts, are not that unusual, especially this time of year, as warm and cold fronts seem to be engaged in a kind of game of road rage high up in the atmosphere.
Norman, Okla., due north of Dallas, due south of Wichita, and about equidistant from the two, would be one of those prairie places, where the wind can and does have its way. So when I caught Norman-based Ideal Homes' co-owner and president of sales Vernon McKown on his way back from lunch one Friday a couple of weeks ago, I asked him about what sounded like a tornado just off to his left or right. He said it was just the 45-mile-an hour winds, pretty par for the course around there.
It was striking at that moment, as this magazine focuses on the $250-billion in annual business metrics, innovations, enterprise challenges, market dynamics, and leadership of America's largest production builders, building and selling a million-and-a-half houses this year, that to actually provide safe shelter for people is a phenomenon that sometimes gets lost in the noise.
As much as the economy depends on an industry that's producing, delivering, and closing 2,400-square-foot units at $85 a square foot, at a rate of about three-per-minute, people who buy and occupy those homes expect their dreams and unalienable rights to dwell in utter safety there.
We're in a business that literally crosses the lines of profit and loss into the emotional and cultural well-being of society, which is why so many evident business questions have no black-and-white answers.
For instance, for high volume home builders in particular, an issue at the nexus of “it's the right thing to do,” “it's the smart thing to do,” and “can I afford to do it?” is green building. The NAHB is predicting that the growing well of awareness among home buyers will catalyze growth in green home building from a scant 2 percent today to between 5 and 10 percent by 2010, accounting for between from $19 billion to $38 billion in residential construction investment.
Ideal Home's McKown and a few others who not only build green but crusade for it recognize that in matters of choice where human nature prevails, pragmatism trumps altruism nine times out of 10.
“We're talking about energy-saving features that hit where home buyers live,” says McKown, “in the pocketbook.”
More builders are operationalizing and even marketing “high performance” rather than green, because tight, well-insulated, well-ventilated, mold-free homes are the next best thing to sustainable, environmentally responsible construction.
And they're finding that home buyers—given the choice of adding money to their mortgage payment to offset spiraling fuel costs versus paying for some other option or upgrade—might actually opt for the “right thing” too.
So, as nature perennially challenges home builders' capacity to ensure safe abode, the very human invention of Earth Day in April each year challenges builders' business models to course correct toward a more sustainable future. Upfront costs are inevitable when it comes implementing fuel-stingy and environmently-friendly systems and materials. Still, they can and will pay off, sooner than later. They can even bolster efficiency measures, especially when you look at longer-term liabilities.