Wholesalers educate consumers and contractors on sustainable products.

The House of the Future just outside Madison, WI. Photos courtesy of Resource Robin

Green building, sustainable building, call it what you like, but the march toward energy efficiency is not about to disappear from the collective consciousness.

“I don’t think the concept of green is plateauable,” F.W. Webb Vice President of HVACR Controls John E. Thomas said. “I think it’s evolving. It will constantly take effort and awareness. But I do think that it’s not like there is one technology or one thing you do that’s green.”

Sluggish economy or not, wholesalers such as Bedford, MA-based F.W. Webb and Wisconsin-based First Supply continue their efforts to educate contractors and consumers alike about green products and technological advancements ready for their homes or businesses.

“Green is an envelope for a lot of different things,” Thomas said.

Michael Miller, general manager of First Supply’s branch in Madison, WI, believes he is seeing more action on green products because he works in green-savvy Madison.

“I believe green is a big, big deal in Madison. You see it more here than in any of our other locations, like Rockford (IL) or even La Crosse (WI),” Miller said on First Supply’s Gerhards showroom floor in Madison. “People will ask about green typically only when they see a green piece or they’re building a green home.”

To balance the scale between consumer and contractor knowledge on First Supply’s green initiative, Miller believes wholesalers need to hit the books hard. On First Supply’s website,www.1supply.com, the company features the green projects happening in the area and also provides links for customers to see what rebates are available in Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota for green products.

“We have to learn more about being green, even as wholesalers,” Miller said. “There are some vendors who think about it, talk about it and want to be it. They have a long ways to go to catch up to the consumer. The real consumer understands it.

“So to bridge that gap we just have to continue to push. We are constantly hosting seminars on Saturdays for retail. We hold green seminars with the vendors that we know are truly green. That is how we are trying to bridge the gap.”

James Poehling, an engineer with First Supply, said contractors and wholesalers need to ease the minds of consumers who are leery about the higher upfront costs of green technologies.

“If you’re going to go green, you’ve got to go out and sell it,” Poehling said. “You’ve got to try and convince people that they really want to do this. Or at least know what is available to them.”

First Supply’s bath-and-kitchen showroom, Gerhards, has a platinum partnership with Robin Pharo of Resource Robin and her House of the Future project 10 miles outside Madison, Miller said. The House of the Future is a project designed to build a “repeatable, sustainable house that extracts the best building standards, products and ideas to create a new house standard.” The mantra is a house that is “connected to nature, enhanced by technology, designed for all.”

“We’ve partnered with [Pharo] and she is one of the green leaders in technology here,” Miller said. “She’s done a really nice job of taking us with her. The manufacturers came along with us and we asked, ‘Would you partner with us?’”

Manufacturers who have joined the effort include Uponor, Kohler, Moen and Bemis. The house will feature WaterSense-certified fixtures from Moen, the 2010 WaterSense Manufacturer Partner of the Year. The toilet seats are made from SmartWood and made by Bemis. In 2005, Bemis and its SmartWood was certified by the Rainforest Alliance as a company that use reclaimed wood and preserve the integrity of the environment and the health of its workers and community. Kohler is providing the Persuade dual-flush toilets, which reduce water usage significantly.

The radiant floor-heating system for the House of the Future is covered up by cloth.

Planting 'Green Experts'

Another of First Supply’s initiatives is to turn its employees into “green experts” who will pass that knowledge down to contractors and customers. They have trained employees with knowledge on high-efficiency toilets, water-efficient faucets, solar potable water, high-efficiency boilers and water heaters.

“We let employees, if they show an interest, run with it,” Poehling said. “We’ve got an employee that’s really interested in ground source heat pumps. We let him run with that and get the training he needs so that he can disseminate it not only internally, but to contractors when they ask, ‘What’s going on with my system?’”

Still, wholesalers like First Supply continue to fight conventional thinking when it comes to green technologies. How do you let the customer know about the down-the-line benefits of green technologies while calming their fears about the higher upfront costs? The answer still isn’t clear.

“I’ve never quite figured out how you get people turned on about the subject. That is the hard part,” Poehling said. “That’s the way we’ve done green. It hasn’t been anything like someone going out and saying ‘You must [go green].’”

Poehling also believes wholesalers need to convince contractors to think beyond the advertisement or the sticker that says a product is green. Contractors must think about the monthly bill that will be in their customers’ mailbox.

“The way I evaluate anything green is how much energy are we actually talking about saving?” Poehling said. “People have to talk about energy savings.”

Workers adjust the piping on the House of the Future. The house is using many different green technologies and products.

All-Encompassing Future

When F.W. Webb’s John E. Thomas looks at green building trends, he doesn’t see any specific product being the future of sustainable building. Instead, he sees consumers, contractors and building operators looking at the bigger picture.

“The trends that have been taking hold will continue most likely,” Thomas said. “Anything that saves energy, lowers fossil fuel consumption or increases the efficiency of a system could be considered green. I think that concept, more so than any particular product specifically, is more of a trend.”

Thomas also sees more commercial buildings looking to cut utility bills wherever possible.

“More buildings are becoming conscious on energy consumption and the reduction of that energy,” Thomas said. “Whether it relates to pumping of water, heating or cooling of a building or lighting in any respect, the trend isn’t specifically rooted in one area. It’s becoming more and more common for buildings to consider it as opposed to saying, ‘I want that technology in geothermal.’ It’s more of an evaluation.”

Keep It Simple

Brian Scallan, the director of business development in new construction for Trane, looks to Apple’s iPhone and iPad when focusing on the new green building trends - particularly when it comes to new products. Products similar to the iPod were available before Apple launched its landmark digital music player, but the clean wheel-and-button design of the iPod is what customers gravitated toward.

Scallan believes that if a product isn’t simple from beginning (manufacturing) to end (customer usage) and everywhere in between, the product could be dead in the water.

“If you don’t make it simple you’ve missed the mark,” Scallan said.

With so many different companies working on various technologies and products that may come together in one home in Wyoming or Arkansas, Scallan sees difficulties in putting a nice bow on an energy-efficient home.

“[The technologies] are very much disconnected from one another. Integrating those things effectively, efficiently and in a simple manner for the homeowner is really going to be one of the longer-term challenges,” Scallan said. “You have companies doing solar - and variations of solar - some doing solar water heating. You have a lot of competing technologies. And guess what? They all come to roost in the home. And these are technologies that consumers have little or no familiarity with.”

Scallan sees a bigger push to make buildings give back what energy they take over their lifecycle. “The real trend is net-zero energy homes,” Scallan explained. “In California by 2020, half of new construction is intended to be a net-zero home. Now if you look at where we are today, the technologies that get you there aren’t really in place, at least not in a cost-effective manner.”

Still, builders are conjuring up new ideas and designs that wholesalers could get behind and secure a stronger foothold in the still burgeoning green building market.

“You have builders really pushing the envelope,” Scallan said. “I have seen an uptick - especially in Texas - where builders’ minimum efficiency standards are well above the Department of Energy standards. Once you have enough builders do that in a given market the rest of the market really has no choice to migrate there in order to compete effectively.”

'Future' Savings

In the “House of the Future” near Madison, WI, you have a simple choice to make in the bathroom: How green do you want to be?

The green project by Robin Pharo, also known as Resource Robin with the Treysta Group, is set to install Kohler’s Persuade dual-flush toilets  that give users the option to use 1.6 gallon or 0.8 gallon per flush. According to Kohler, the toilet could save nearly 6,000 gallons per year.

The Persuade toilet is just one of the many Wisconsin New Homes’ environmentally friendly products that will help Pharo and “House of the Future” reach $700/year on utility bills. Pharo has partnered with Kohler, Moen, Bemis, Gerhards and First Supply among others, to build a “sustainable house that extracts the best building standards, products and ideas to create a new house standard that anyone could and would want to build.”

The Persuade gives users the No. 1 or No. 2 flush option, but it doesn’t break the bank and is designed to blend in like a conventional toilet.

“The price point is almost identical (to a one-piece),” Pharo said. “It’s a nice option to have and it has the look of a one-piece.”

The faucets in the house are Moen and include the Bamboo and 90 Degree lines. The shower is the IO Digital Shower, which saves water and provides the house a touch of luxury.

“It is one of struggles. People want to have luxury. They say ‘I want this spa,’ but they also want to conserve,” Pharo said.

Construction on the House of the Future is set to wrap in mid-October.