David Warner remembers when he was the only guy in line for the Douglas fir joists and studs that were being dismantled from old army housing at the Presidio in San Francisco. When the last building was deconstructed five years later, contractors were asked to take a number. Demand for recycled materials in the Bay Area has grown exponentially as sustainability becomes the buzzword du jour. Recycling programs for construction-site waste have multiplied, too; Warner says their numbers have quadrupled in the last decade.

Everyone agrees that environmentally sound building materials and methods are quickly drifting toward the architectural mainstream. Google the term “green building,” and a long list of trade shows and directories pops up. But while items such as flyash concrete and photovoltaic arrays are more accessible than ever, they're not quite conventional, even in eco-conscious Northern California. It takes a little more thinking to design and build green. “I'm a good businessman, but we might not be as profitable as someone down the street doing tract homes,” says Warner, a green builder whose 25-year-old company, San Rafael, Calif.-based Red Horse Constructors, specializes in high-end homes.

Philanthropy is a good thing, but architects and builders have practical concerns like profits, reputations, and portfolios to weigh, too. They're balancing support for the industries that offer environmentally friendly building materials with concern for the bottom line. And as sustainable design moves out of the frontier phase, architects still face stumbling blocks ranging from aesthetic issues to finding capable contractors. Green specs may grow on trees, but applying them is not yet second nature.

motivated contractors

The biggest obstacle to building green is finding a general contractor who has a genuine interest in it. The National Association of Home Builders puts the number of U.S. builders enrolled in green building programs at about 1,000—a growing, but still miniscule, segment of the housing industry. “For most general contractors, it's not even on their radar screen,” says Ken Wilson, AIA, who heads up Envision Design, an architecture firm in Washington, D.C. While just one or two people touch the project in its design phase, several layers of people pass through the construction site. It takes a skilled job superintendent to make sure crucial details don't slip through the cracks. “You might be able to convince the owners of the different trades that this is a good thing to do, but they're not the ones doing the work,” Wilson says. “What often happens is that the painter will go down to the store and buy the same paint he's used on every other house in the last 10 years. It's not clicking that this is a special paint and [that he needs] to ask for zero volatile organic compound [paint instead].”

For residential contractors who have long-standing relationships with suppliers, alternative products can mean annoyances and delays. They may have to travel out of their way to pick up supplies from a lumberyard where they don't do business, which could hold up a large order. Wilson ran into that situation when he renovated his own house in Alexandria, Va. Only one local distributor had the formaldehyde-free insulation he had specified, and because his contractor didn't have an account there, the delivery was delayed.

Understandably, builders are leery of installing products and materials with which they're not familiar. They don't want to be the guinea pig and risk battling years of callbacks. Thus, engaging them early is critical. Carbondale, Colo.-based architect Doug Graybeal, AIA, recalls that when he worked on a LEED-certified project for the Aspen Skiing Company two years ago, several team members, including the owner, enrolled in a U.S. Green Building Council LEED-certification course. While the job was under way, the mechanical contractor who had taken the class found an insulated duct to replace what had been specified. “It pays to find those people and get them on the bandwagon,” says Graybeal, who has developed an environmental spec sheet for his contractors to use with subs. “One problem that you do have to watch is that subs will pull whatever they've got—sealants, for example—out of their truck. The contractor can get that stuff for them,” he says, adding that subs soon discover that the less toxic paints and insulation are more comfortable to work with. Graybeal puts the burden on a few trusted GCs to make sure their subs are true to the specs. And he steers clear of contractors he senses are simply trying to cash in on the latest fad.

performance factor

The emergence of environmentally friendly national retailers, such as the green-themed Home Depot now being tested in Canada, should help simplify sourcing. But architects must still research performance and technical issues. Allison Ewing, AIA, principal, Hays + Ewing Design Studio, Charlottesville, Va., is testing some new green products on the home she built with her husband and business partner, architect Christopher Hays, AIA, but for clients, she's careful to select products that have a track record—particularly moisture barriers. “The performance of a product and its green metric can be a balancing act,” Ewing says. “I would seek a product that satisfies both criteria, but where that's not available, particularly when it comes to protecting a house against water migration, I would choose performance.” Indeed, creating a watertight envelope is one aspect of sustainable design in which there's no room for error. According to Warner, very few product lines can compete with the decidedly un-green petroleum-based materials—roofing systems, foundations, and exterior skins, for example—that have been engineered to bear the forces of nature. In the grand scheme of things, he says, purists need not feel guilty about compromising. “If you add up the percentages of those products versus the other green products you can use on a house, water barriers are less than 10 percent of the weight of the structure,” he says.

Architects routinely weigh a product's environmental benefits against the contractor's experience installing it, too. A mistake putting in new plumbing pipe, for instance, can translate to thousands of dollars' worth of damage. It's also important to gauge the homeowner's level of comfort with virgin territory. Robert Jackson, AIA, Jackson & McElhaney Architects, Austin, Texas, has been quietly incorporating green ideas for years, but he says he won't push products a client isn't comfortable using. “It's not our house and not our money we're investing, so it's hard to inflict things on our clients unless they're ready to buy into the chance that it might not perform as well as we thought it might,” Jackson says. “Otherwise you're in a very awkward position where you're selling something. It's like asking a patient to try a new medicine before you understand how well it works.”

In some cases, the extra hand-holding can pay off handsomely. Ewing relies on the counsel of local architects when a commission takes her to a new climate, but for a recent Arizona-based project, she had to push hard to get the local architect to research E-Crete, an autoclaved aerated concrete that provides thermal mass, thus eliminating the need for insulation. The local masonry guys also resisted using the material because it came in 24-inch modules instead of standard 16-inch blocks. Now that the house is done, however, Ewing says the architect loves the product and is convinced it's a good solution for that part of the country.

Still, it's the builders' role to police construction products and drill down to the true costs of installing them, just as they would on conventional jobs. They must separate products that are appropriate and efficient from green-labeled products that are labor-intensive to work with and siphon funds that would be more wisely spent elsewhere. Drew Maran, a general contractor in Palo Alto, Calif., frequently discourages architects from specing a new product until he's worked out all the installation angles. “We won't accept that something is a lower-cost product until we've [used] it,” he says.