When Idaho builders Scott and Barbara Schriber first explored high-performance home building a few years ago, they realized that in their small, conservative town, they would first have to inform their customers about what green building is—and what it’s not.

“We learned that when you say the word ‘green’ up here, people think it’s about being a tree hugger,” says Barbara, co-owner of Selle Valley Construction. So when she met with local architects, realtors, and potential customers, she focused her message on the financial incentives of energy-efficient homes.

“We wanted to show that with some simple planning, construction techniques, and material choices, any home can be water, energy, and resource efficient without breaking the bank,” she says.

The recession and housing slump of 2009 had led the couple to look for ways to bring in more business. “We realized we had to do something different that would separate us from the rest of the builders in town,” Barbara says.

They built their first NGBS-certified home, dubbed the Red Cottage, on spec and hoped for the best, figuring they could move in if no one wanted to buy it. It features a long list of sustainable products including a heat recovery ventilator, bamboo flooring, wool carpeting, an on-demand hot water, a drip-irrigation system, dual-flush toilets, and WaterSense fixtures.

With a HERS rating of 57, the home is exceptionally well insulated and tightly built using advanced framing techniques. Heat is provided via a mini-split ductless heat pump with a gas fireplace for backup. Winter heating bills average about $45 a month.

The Red Cottage sold six months after completion for $200,000 and—more importantly—helped catch the eye of other like-minded buyers. “It was the first step in our efforts to hopefully broaden this market in our area,” Barbara says.

Selle Valley Construction has since built another NGBS-certified home next door—the Gray Cottage—and six more are either in the works or already completed. By adhering to third-party standards, the company has made a name for itself as a high-quality home builder. In a state with no building department and little local oversight of builders, Selle Valley construction competes against “anyone with a truck and a hammer,” Barbara says.

The Red Cottage helps to prove that a well-built, well-insulated, sustainable home can be cost-efficient. Barbara tells customers to expect a 1% to 3% markup (about $3,000 to $4,000, including the cost of Energy Star and NGBS certifications) compared to a traditionally built home of the same size. (For information about Selle Valley Construction's green appraisal process, click here.)

“Our homes may cost a bit more, but with a 30-year mortgage amortized, the monthly mortgage increase may be less than the water, sewer, and electricity savings made possible by the efficient features,” she says. “Plus, on average, electricity and utility rates increase at a rate greater than the rate of salary increases, so utility savings are compounded over time.”

The company is now working on other sustainable projects, but the Red Cottage has had the most impact, Barbara says.

“The best part of putting the house out there is now we have proof; we can show the electricity bill and explain the HERS score,” she says. “We can show that these are better-built houses and the weirder this economy gets, the more that’s going to help.”

Jennifer Goodman is Senior Editor for EcoHome.