Massachusetts is hoping to change that image by encouraging the development of "high performance" schools, hospitals, businesses and homes. The state is offering $15 million in federal stimulus dollars for proposals for super-energy efficient buildings.
The state says it wants projects that dramatically reduce energy consumption and substitute renewable energy sources for fossil fuels.
The state is also looking for breakthrough technologies that can be used in buildings throughout Massachusetts with its snowy winters and muggy summers and that go far beyond existing state and utility energy efficiency programs.
Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles said high performance buildings represent the next stage in energy efficiency after strategies such as better insulation and tighter windows have achieved more modest 5 to 15 percent reductions in energy use.
"We've figured out some of the basics," he said.
"What we haven't figured out is how to standardize an approach that gets us to a 50 percent reduction."
That's particularly true for the state's aging, drafty housing stock including its iconic tripledeckers.
One hope from the grant program is to develop ways to make entire neighborhoods of older homes dramatically more energy efficient at an affordable cost, Bowles said.
"How do you do large-scale community conversions?" He said. "These are the really difficult questions we haven't been able to figure out."
The ultimate goal? The "zero net" building.
Zero net buildings rely on everything from super-efficient insulation to solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal power to be energy neutral, producing as much energy as they consume.
That's easier said than done and easier for new buildings where designers can factor in efficiencies from scratch.
The administration has already formed a Zero Net Energy Task Force and recommended two state building projects that strive to get close to the zero net energy goal. Gov. Deval Patrick wants to make zero net energy buildings the construction industry standard in the state by 2030.
The grant program, run by the state Department of Energy Resources, is a step in that direction, according to Bowles.
"Green buildings" once seen as pricey, boutique undertakings are rapidly going mainstream, according to Greg Beeman, president of the Massachusetts Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.
"Within the commercial construction market, the broader focus on green and sustainable construction which places a high value on energy efficiency... has really taken hold," he said.
That can mean anything from solar installations to increased use of natural light, he said.
Beeman said the shift toward sustainability is practical as well as environmental. Customers are demanding it and many builders assume that over time sustainability standards will be incorporated into most existing building codes.
"Earlier on there was more focus on costs, does it make sense?" He said. "That is really now being replaced with the notion that it's really become where the industry is at."
As part of the grant program, the state is looking for projects that tackle a series of challenges including retrofits that cut energy consumption in half for existing buildings and conservation measures in buildings heated with fuel oil, propane and other unregulated fuels.
The program is also looking for projects that demonstrate new technologies like ultra low emissions biomass-fired boilers and furnaces, solar thermal space heating and cooling systems, passive, thermal energy storage and high efficiency cold-climate heat pumps.
Finally, the state is seeking proposals to mobilize entire communities to cut energy use and boost efficiency.
Awards will range from $500,000 to $5 million. The deadline is Oct. 28 and the state hopes to announce winners in December.