When the “There is a Difference” blog and video series was concepted, we envisioned talking with people that see and do things differently. Sara Gutterman, the co-founder, and CEO of Green Builder Media is a showcase example of a person with a vision to seeing the construction industry differently and doing something meaningful about it. Sara’s commitment and that of her associates is leading real change for the betterment of the world. It is sincere honor and privilege to share this incredibly insightful interview with you.
I’m Sarah Gutterman. I am the CEO and co-founder of Green Builder Media. Green Builder Media is North America’s leading media company focused on green building and sustainable living. We do a lot of different things, starting of course, with our media and communications channels. We have a really robust spectrum of online, mobile, digital, social, and print media, one flagship publication, Green Builder magazine. We just won best trade publication from NARI for the ninth year in a row, which we’re really happy about, but probably not surprisingly the bulk of our communications is through digital media and online, email, RSS feed, and social media. We really specialize in custom content generation and content marketing. We also have demonstration projects, live events, and a really cool suite of market intelligence and data services that we call Cognizance smart data.
When I’m not working, I’m generally hiking, snowboarding, doing yoga, or hanging out with my husband. He likes to watch football. Therefore, I like to watch football, if I want spend time with him. And we live in the mountains of Colorado. So I get to play outside a lot. That’s my non-work passion.
What good has come from our experience with the pandemic?
I feel like there has been some good that has come from the pandemic. I actually want to back up to the 2008 recession and talk about some good that came out of that. When that recession hit, everybody became super cognizant of their energy bills. And so in some ways, the 2008 recession was the best thing that could have happened at that time for energy efficiency, right? I think energy efficiency really got a lift, because of that recession.
I think because of COVID, healthy home and indoor air quality, and just being conscious of the fact that things like COVID and other viruses can be transmittable via the air or via surfaces, all of that has come to the forefront of our national dialogue.
And I think that what that has done for the general public is one, really help us understand how to maintain healthier, more hygienic, more sanitary homes and spaces, and to really address our own personal hygiene in general. I think what’s also happened is that homeowners have really reprioritized, right? So for almost two years, we’ve been told that our homes are the safest places that we can be. And so we’ve really rethought the way that we live in our homes in terms of cultivating, not just that health and hygiene, but also peace of mind and general wellness.
I think people obvious cooked a lot more. We actually have seen a shift in diets. People are eating more healthfully, a lot of the millennials and older Gen Zs, which is an audience segment that we track very closely, have shifted in the last couple of years to plant-based diets, partly for health reasons, partly for environmental reasons.
And again, I just think that there’s been a massive re-prioritization in terms of how we live in our homes that now engenders a greater sense of health and wellness, and balance, and peace of mind. And I think that is going to be long-lasting and systemic. And I think it’s also a good thing. We are big advocates of remote working at Green Builder Media. We’ve actually always been virtual. We’ve always had satellite offices or people who have worked remotely. And I really believe that for those people who understand how to create a better work-life balance through remote working, it’s really a model for success.
So now, I think companies across the spectrum of our economy are finding that out, as well. So, I think there’s a lot of good that’s come from the pandemic. Not to disregard the pain and the suffering, and the deaths and the illness, because that’s very real, as well. And I think the mental and emotional toll, and the psychological toll that the pandemic has taken, is very real. And we can’t discount that, but I do think that there is a light side and a shadow side, and the light side will be a good thing for those of us in the industry who really believe in healthier, more sustainable, and even higher performance homes.
What do you see for construction, architecture, and design, 10 years from now?
So that’s a great question. I think that we are absolutely at one of the most exciting and transformative times in the construction sector that we’ve been in for many years, maybe since the advent of the air conditioning system, right? Which totally transformed building science and how we live in our homes and buildings.
I think that the ugly trifecta of labor challenges, material shortages, and soaring costs across the whole spectrum, from labor to all kinds of materials is really pushing us through the eye of the needle in the building industry, and specifically in the housing sector towards things like panelization on offsite and prefab construction and higher performance alternative building envelope systems like structural insulated panels or SIPs, or insulated concrete forms, ICFs. And I think that’s partly because those products and systems have actually become the cost-effective solution.
And fortunately, for those of us in the sustainability sector, they’re also a higher performance, more resilient, more durable, and sometimes healthier solution, as well. So I do believe that we are shifting towards panelization, prefab, offsite construction, and a greater adoption of those types of alternative building envelope systems. In fact, I think we’re at that hockey stick growth curve, where we’re really at that inflection point.
I also believe that we are getting very soon, to a place where all homes and buildings are going to be net zero and effectively their own kind of mini power plants, right? So I think not only will they be energy efficient, which they have to be, but they’ll be renewable energy power, and mostly solar-powered in the built environment. And so I think we’re going to see a lot of demand-side energy management interaction with the grid, where there’s two-way dialogues with peak-load shifting and just a lot of onsite energy generation, not just for houses, but within communities, so that those communities actually optimize energy, harvesting use management and storage before that energy even hits the grid.
I think we’re going to see a lot of that on a community scale, and say, an office park scale on the commercial side of things. I also think we’re shifting towards an all-electric built environment. I think that train is leaving the station and people can choose to be on it or not. They can choose to fight against the codes that are coming, right. They are coming, so just be ready, or they can jump on the train and be a part of the party, because it’s going to be a great party. And then I think we’re absolutely also shifting towards a healthier, more resilient built environment. And that is really being pulled through, by consumers, the data that we have on consumers in general.
But again, millennials in particular, since millennials and older Gen Zs have now seized the top influencer position in the housing market, spending more money on building and remodeling homes, than any other age group, partly because they’re just now hitting their peak-buying potential. But also because they have a very distinct and different set of values than older generations, they absolutely want compact, efficient, healthy, resilient, smart efficient homes that are solar powered, that they can interact with from anywhere, from the coffee shop or from abroad. So it’s bringing a whole new suite of expectations to the housing sector. And I think all of these things are coming true now and they will be in place and established in 10 years.
I think one last thing I’ll say, because I know that’s already a lot of change, but I think not only the end result is going to be different, but I think how we design and build is also changing and is going to be very different in 10 years in terms of the use and deployment on job sites of things like drones and AI, and robotics, robots that actually can lay bricks or paint walls or do some of the heavy manual labor to actually take some of the pressure off of the labor market. And I think that’s going to be a good thing.
I think we’re also going to use artificial intelligence and augmented reality to look at job sites, and see the art of the possible, right? And to make some game-time decisions about, okay, do we really want this wall or this trust here? Or do we want to move it over here? So, we’ll be able to make some better decision on the fly to improve the construction performance and overall resource efficiency of homes and buildings, as well. And I think we’re going to have flying electric air taxis, taking us on short-term trips, not long-haul trips, but short-haul trips.
What role does the building industry have in addressing the climate crisis?
The building industry plays a major role in addressing the climate crisis. Not only does the built environment consume about 70% of our nation’s electricity and actually emit a similar amount of emissions, but it just utilizes so many resources, energy, water, it has impact on the health of our air and even on our soils. And so, we’ve got to clean up our act. I mean that’s the long and the short of it, right? So, we’ve got to get to net zero energy, right? That’s just the no brainer.
That’s the first step. That’s really the low-hanging fruit, right? Because we can get there now today in a cost-effective way, through things like high-performance windows and insulation and building envelope systems, through heat pump technology, through all the different things that enhance the performance of our homes and buildings. We can then, move beyond that to full-scale electrification with things like induction cooktops, and certainly, solar power and renewable energy, and all those things are actually cost-effective.
When you look at the full cost of, let’s just talk about houses. When you look at the full of home ownership, not just the upfront cost, because when we look at upfront cost alone and price per square foot, that is an invalid metric to use anymore, because it does not include sustainability performance, monthly utility bills. It does not include the healthy home considerations or resiliency. Does that home actually burn down in a wildfire or flood, or get impacted or blow down in a hurricane? So there’s a lot of metrics we need to start, including in the valuation of our homes that are not included in that price per square foot, beyond energy performance.
And when we think about net zero, that really talks about operations, right? It does not include the full spectrum of carbon emissions. So where we really need to get to, is net zero energy, water, and carbon.
So let me, let me linger on water for a minute and then I’ll get to carbon. In terms of net zero water, we’re actually seeing first because of the impending crisis, and if people don’t realize that we are actually in a crisis, I don’t even want say impending, we’re in a water crisis, right? Quality and quantity, right? So, and we’re already starting to see water tap fees in some places like here, where I am in Colorado along the front range, water tap fees have exploded in the last couple of years by 400% in some municipalities. And we’re already starting to see requirements for a net zero water impact. When developers go to municipalities to kind of get their entitlements and their permits, where they have to show a net zero water impact. So we’re starting to see a lot more regulation and frankly, appropriate pricing for the water resource.
And what I like to say is, if you’re not paying attention to water right now, then you’re not paying attention, because I really believe that if you’re in the building industry, if you live in a house or pretty much, if you breathe, you have to be paying attention to water right now. Because if there’s no water, there’s no permits, right? There is no building industry, if there’s no water. So, we’ve got to get to net zero water. And so that plays obviously a big role in solving for our climate crisis.
Finally, we have to start thinking now about embodied carbon and the full cycle of carbon. So what that means is, carbon involved in extraction, and materials and transportation of those materials, to manufacturing plants. Carbon’s emitted during the manufacturing process. Again, more transportation once those building products are transported to job sites.
And then we can start looking at things like the operational carbon that comes from the use of the homes and buildings. But then we also have to look at end of life carbon and what happens to all of our products at their end of their useful life. Can they get recycled? Can they go back into the techno sphere or the biosphere?
And I think we’re starting to see some companies really looking at that full cycle that are advanced in their thinking that are either doing take-back programs to recycle their own products or they’re creating composite materials. I think the decking industry is one example, that’s doing a great job of recycling plastic. That’s pretty easy one and a very necessary one. So, we’re starting to see more and more companies taking initiative to address the full cycle of embodied carbon. But it’s the next stage. And again, if companies aren’t thinking about that right now, they should start. They should be.
Why are there so few women in the construction industry and what can we do to change this now and looking forward?
That is another great question. I think that the industry historically, it has had a certain culture that has been hard for women to break into, frankly. I remember even for myself, I’m not a builder per se, but I remember going to builder shows 17 years ago when we started Green Builder Media, and there were folks there that didn’t quite take me seriously. I’ll put it that way. And whether that was because I was younger or female, I don’t know. I can’t say for sure, and I don’t want to place judgment, but, I think it’s had a culture that has been more conducive to a male, I want to say fraternity culture, not in any negative sense, but something where it’s been a very comfortable place for men to be, and hasn’t always been open to females for whatever reason.
I think that is changing though, for a couple of reasons. One, I see more and more women at all levels of the building industry, certainly in manufacturing companies and agencies, and some of the service industries in the design and the architecture field, for sure. But even now, more and more in the builder sector, because I just feel like there’s a lot of opportunity now, more than ever, frankly, in the high performance, healthy home, sustainable building category. And I think that those builders inherently are a little more mission driven and values based. And I think that that culture is a little bit more open, in general to all walks of life and different types of people, and certainly to both genders. And so, I think that’s providing more opportunity.
I also think that as the labor force and the building industry is getting older, let’s be honest, there’s a lot of folks aging out and retiring, that’s opening up opportunities. I think product manufacturers in certain builders, have been really good at emphasizing, for example, cool sexy technology. Whether that’s heat pumps and, okay, granted, I’m in the industry, but heat pumps are sexy, right? They’re cool if you really know about them and you know about what they do. And you know, whether that’s interesting products and technologies, whether that’s in the field, AI based virtual reality training, whether it’s just the opportunity to leverage-enabling technologies to make homes more sustainable and healthier, I think that’s also attracting a broader spectrum of people into the building sector.
And I think that’s really what we need to continue to do, is to find ways that will make younger people, again, regardless of gender or ethnicity or any of the other kind of personal elements, attractive and get them passionate about building better homes and buildings, and ones that are actually to be part of the climate solution, as opposed to having a negative impact.
How are Green Builder Media and you making a difference?
So, 17 years ago, when we started Green Builder Media, we put our stake in the ground to say that we are going to be the leading edge of innovation, and we are going to be in business to make sure that we collectively work to enhance the sustainability of the built environment. And we have not wavered from that mission for one minute of one day, in our 17 years. You know it has been a wild and circuitous ride. We have put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into not just this company, but into our mission, because we are nothing, if we don’t have that mission.
And so, everything from planting trees to offset the fact that we do have a print publication that we distribute. And so we feel like we have to be carbon neutral in that effort, all the way through to making sure that we are engaging and training the young, bright minds in the building industry, home buyers and homeowners who are, maybe, buying their first-time home and know that they want what I said earlier, those compact, efficient, smart, healthy, resilient homes, but don’t really know how to get there.
And so, I think that we really believe that the way we can best make a difference, is to hold the line, in terms of constantly raising the bar on ourselves, and therefore on all of our friends and colleagues on the building industry, on our consumer audience to say where we are is great, but it’s not good enough. Let’s always keep moving forward. And the day that I, or that my team rests on our laurels and says that we’ve done enough, that’s the day we should shut down the business because it’s never going to be good enough.
It’s never going to be sustainable enough, at least probably, while I’m running the company, because we still have so much work to do. And I’m proud of the work that our team has done. I’m proud of the work that you have done, and that our whole network has done and that the industry has done, because we have made a lot of progress and it is the tip of the iceberg.
The good news is that I feel like a lot of the debate is over. A lot of the heavy lifting is over. Now, we’re just tweaking at the margins, right? Now, we just get to say, Okay, how do we, we know where we have to go, how do we get there? And how quickly can we move? And how motivated are people going to be? How much political will do we have, to really turn the battleship. Can we do a sharp pivot or are we going to have to do a longer turn with a curved arc?
Of course, everything that we do pushes for that sharp pivot so that we can move fast, so that we can hit our goals immediately so that we don’t have to wait until 2050, or even 2030, but we can get to net neutral, or we’re now a net climate positive is the thing by 2025, so how do we get there? So that’s really, I think, how we are making a difference, is constantly asking that question of, what’s next, what’s the next phase? What’s the next commitment that we have to collectively make? What is the next way that we can change people’s minds? What is the next way that we can really motivate people to care and to take action? So, that’s really how I feel like we’re making a difference.
Thank you, Sara.
We encourage you to watch the full interview on the Draper DNA YouTube channel – https://youtu.be/Bs1RnkvCyVc
Taking a path less traveled is exciting, scary, and not for everyone. Those that chose this path are exceptional people and we enjoy sharing their thought and insights. Please let us know if you know of someone we should talk to as a part of the “There is a Difference” series. Send a note to Shawn@DraperDNA.com and we will be in touch.