The Future of Green Remodeling

Green remodeling is an ever-changing process with innovations in building science and technology affecting it constantly. To do it successfully, one needs to educate crews, subcontractors and consumers.

September 30, 2006

Jud Motsenbocker
Contributing Editor

Green remodeling is an ever-changing process with innovations in building science and technology affecting it constantly. To do it successfully, one needs to educate crews, subcontractors and consumers.

Jud: Chris, would you define "green" for me as you see it?

Chris: I was part of the NARI task force where we defined it. The way we defined it was: a remodeling professional who considers sustainability and maximizing nature's resources and energy in an efficient, responsible manner in the conduct of their business. That covers sustainability, nature's resources and energy conservation. For me, that pretty much defines it.

Jud: That's a nice little package, if you take each one of those words and go through them. Steve, give me your idea.

Steve: It would be very hard to expand upon what Chris said. That was a very well-thought-out statement. We call it an almost "holistic" way of looking at remodeling and building. In other words, it has a "whole-house" systems approach to taking and using as many recycled products, renewables and sustainable products that we can to make the house as sustainable as possible in the process. It increases the efficiency of the home, which is a passion for us.

Jud: So realistically, what we're saying here is that it's not only to be more energy efficient but it's also to use our resources to the best of their ability. Is that a good way to put it?

Steve: I think so — and to use resources in the home that have a minimal impact on the environment in a number of different ways, whether it's the shipping distance, whether they're recycled products or whether it's a product that's just environmentally-friendly — bamboo floors, for example because it grows so fast and we need it so quickly.

Jud: Good point. Chris, anything to add to that?

Chris Donatelli, Co-owner
Donatelli Castillo Builders

Chris: I think Steve's point is well taken. Too often in our industry, we're guilty of just "tear it down, throw it away and start over." I think the mentality of what Steve's talking about needs to begin to permeate all that we do.

Jud: We talked about green and I've heard about it, read about it and discussed it in some areas, even down to transportation. And Steve, I believe you brought this up. Let's not buy a product that we have to transport clear across the United States if, in fact, we can do that. That affects the environment not only from fuel use but also from pollution in the air and that type of thing. I thought that was interesting, when they take the "whole" concept.

Let's move on to the next one. Chris, how has the market changed regarding green in recent years?

Chris: There are a couple things. In one sense it's all the buzz; you see it in Newsweek and other national journals. From our standpoint here, my consumers and my customers are more aware of it largely in part because of some of this national exposure. I think the other place where we're being exposed to it is the simple fact that we're paying more for stuff that we used to get pretty cheaply. It brought about, because of the dollars in some sense, a consciousness about how much we're paying for energy and gas. I see it as a shift. There's still a whole component of people that just think, "If I have to pay $4 a gallon for gas, I'll just do it," fill up their Hummer and ride off into the sunset. I see that as changing slowly but surely.

Jud: Steve, how has the market changed in recent years?

Stephen Robinson, Owner
RE Construction & Maintenance Services

Steve: I think we've got about three or four things that are right at the forefront. One is media attention; it's become kind of chic. Another is we've got a group of people that have a great deal of discretionary cash: the boomers. They are in their 50s and approaching 60 and, quite frankly, grew up in the '60s, who at one point in time, really wanted to be more environmentally friendly. Up until recently, some of that was beyond their financial reach and to a lot of people it didn't really make any sense. We've got $60 a barrel crude oil, a 25 percent increase in the cost of natural gas on a per annum basis. Quite frankly, when it becomes more expensive to heat and cool, all of a sudden they say "Hey, we'll take a look at this." In the 1970s everyone was interested in this. We saw a bunch of "solar energy" coming out of the woodwork. We saw roof-top solar going on and people were talking about energy efficiency. Now you've got really viable compact fluorescent lights in a variety of sizes and styles and wattages that actually look nice, don't buzz and are styled well. So, you've got the products coming on line at the same time as this immense increase in the cost of energy with a generation of people who have the most money. The market is there and the buzz is starting.

Jud: It's taken a period of time to get this to come to the forefront. Is that what you would say?

Steve: All the right things are happening at the right time. And because people have been asking for it more and more, the technology is evolving at the exact same time as the market is asking for it. It couldn't be a better scenario.

Jud: Chris, Steve indicated that the manufacturers have kind of stepped up to the plate. Have you also seen that?

Chris: Yes, I have seen some of the products that he's mentioned in terms of lighting and those kinds of things. The paint companies with low-VOC paint, caulking with low-VOC, I would agree. There's a lot of stuff out there. It's still to the point where you still need to do your homework. One gentleman that I was talking to in Santa Barbara as part of the green remodeling program that we're doing with NARI said that some companies are "green-washing;" they are taking one product and marketing it as green. We as contractors need to not just accept something at face value but need to read the ingredients — see where it's made, how it's made and just be a lot more aware than we used to be.

Jud: Steve, what percentage of your jobs now would you consider green?

Steve: It depends if you go by a strict pointing system like the National Association of Home Builders Green Building Guidelines with a score of 70 to be considered perfect, to be "green." I would be kind of layered. In everything we build we try and bring the efficiency level. Every new build and remodel. The stuff we put into the walls is a recycled cellulose product. We encourage people to try and use things like "Tough Rock" from Georgia Pacific that is a totally recycled gypsum product made in Indiana and on the west coast as well. Mainly, we try to put some component into as many projects as we can. To put an actual percentile basis on it, I would say that half of what we do has some incorporation of green into everything we do. If it's an addition, we have some component in it 100 percent of the time.

Jud: How about you, Chris? Can you give me some kind of idea of what percentage you're doing in green?

Chris: My answer would be much the same as his. On a strict point basis, we're not at that level yet. We do try to incorporate as many green products as we can. We as a company have to continue to focus on that. My partner and I took a small class out here. One idea that we've started doing with every project partly because, many of the disposal places are sort of forcing it and partly because we knew it was the right thing to do, is we're pulling out of our wall jobs, segregating it and taking it to a disposal site that grinds it up and sells it back as mulching. We're pulling all our cardboard and separating it here at the shop. We have a person that comes in and picks that up so that doesn't go into the landfill. More and more we're getting classes for our crews on the way they build to give them some solid teaching in terms of how you can naturally do this in the course of how you build things just so they're aware of it. Our insulation is formaldehyde-free, and those kinds of aspects we've been doing for quite a while.

Jud: Chris, you've indicated that we've kind of "stepped outside the building" a little bit. We talked about building green and we think of that as going into the structure itself in one way or another, or the products we buy. You doing the separation and the recycling of the material taken off of these jobs is also part of the green-built concept. Do you agree with that?

Chris: Yes, I think that is very much a part of it. We have a couple of sources up here that actually take doors, plumbing fixtures and light fixtures to resell them. One business up here actually packages some of this and ships it down to Mexico to be reused. Very much a component of green building, in my standpoint, is diverting whatever we can from landfill.

Jud: Steve, does the selling green concept require additional education for you?

Steve: I think the entire "green" remodeling or building process requires almost constant education because there is so much emerging technology, almost on a daily basis if not a daily basis. I've got customers giving me information and new Web sites that I didn't know were out there. For example, we were going to do a kitchen for a young lady in Indianapolis, Indiana. She asked if I have heard of sorghum cabinets or wheat grass panels. I said "No." She showed me a Web site and showed me this stuff. There's an amazing vast array of recyclable, renewable products that are coming out, quite frankly, almost daily. From my standpoint, if you buy into those, you've got to educate yourself on them so you can make sure they are properly used and viable — going back to what Chris said, making sure where they came from and how they are made. Just because something is labeled "green" may not necessarily make it so.

Jud: Chris, you kind of answered that because you said you had taken some classes. Does selling green take additional education?

Chris: Yes, I totally agree with what Steve said. Sometimes Google is your friend! The Internet is a huge resource. It is a continuing education process. Part of that component as I eluded to before was I'm excited and passionate about this and willing to invest in classes and understand everything I can about it. I need to then educate my employees and, sometimes, my customers as well. It is a continual process that takes a constant renewing of what you're learning.

Jud: Do you think that we need to train subs and crews in the same way? Obviously, Chris, you think that very strongly.

Chris: Absolutely. Because some of the stuff is not necessarily intuitive; it isn't the way we've done things for the last 30 years. I've been in the trade since 1970 and I'm trying to relearn portions and pieces of how I was taught to put buildings together. It's got to be done differently. It's very much a part of teaching our crews and our subs. I still get a lot of push back from our HVAC guys. Yes they're still kicking and screaming about stuff like that; so it is a continual education process.

Jud: Steve, are you doing much on education for your crews and subs?

Steve: Yes, we do. I tell our HVAC contractors going in that I'm going to de-pressurize or pressurize the duct system and I'm going to test it, and if it's not right, you're going to go back and fix it. I've lost some HVAC contractors because of the fact that they felt that they were the authority on HVAC equipment, and not myself, and I ex-plained to them that they were definitely the authority on HVAC equipment but not on the duct work. You have a whole generation or three generations of guys who are working who are used to the American economy, which is a throw-away society. You have got to totally rethink and say, "We know somebody who could use those doors. That is a perfectly good commode; let's take it down to Habitat and have them use it. This steel door we're pulling off of a house we're doing now and a brand new overhead door and opener, we're doing to find a place for it, someone who can use it because it is insane to throw that into a dumpster." Yes, there is a huge learning curve.

Jud: The question was in regard to crews and subs as far as education is concerned. I certainly appreciate both of you bringing up the subject that it's not just building green on the building itself. It includes all of these things and reuse of some of the products, fixtures, etc.

Now, does your customer embrace green, or is it a tough sell? Steve?

Steve: If it's inside their budget, they always embrace it. Particularly if you can convince them it is the right thing to do and, quite frankly, if you can convince them it will save them money and it's an OK thing. Yes, most people are OK with it. As long as there's not a huge financial impact and it's inside their budgetary considerations, it's OK.

Jud: And, it's also the education part of it. Chris, what about you? Is it an easy sell out there on the coast or is it something you really have to work at?

Chris: Nothing in this life is an easy sell. I think there is a fair amount of awareness here felt from the general public. It's easy to incorporate green components, green layers. Some people will pay a little more for that. But Steve's point is well taken; they're not going to pay 50–100 percent more, but they will probably pay 10–20 percent more depending on their passion for it. It's definitely something people are becoming more aware of and willing to pay more for.

Jud: Chris, do you try, in your selling process to sell green, to give them a payback on the additional cost?

Chris: No, I have not done that. It's probably more about me having to sit down and do the dirty math. No one has ever asked for it to this point. It's a good thing to have in your arsenal.

Jud: Steve, have you tried to use payback on that?

Steve: In our Resnet software, we'll show it on energy upgrades; it is primarily focused on energy consumption basis, and on emissions basis. You can show energy efficient upgrades, whether that's the HVAC system, duct-seal and reduction of air filtration. And show actual payback. I've never used it.

Jud: I'm going to ask you to look into the future. Do either of you see something in building green that might come back in the long run and bite us? I refer back to, as an example, when we went to electric heat, we sealed those houses up so tight that realistically we ended up rotting them away. Do you see anything you might be a little hesitant about because you're afraid it might come back and do something that we just don't have the research on yet?

Chris: Well, we always have the potential for an Edsel. I think the thing we should be aware of and not so much that it might bite us, but that the potential for harm is greater in the building science area. We really need to pay attention to that and to be more careful. We are all aware of the fact that new products are coming out all the time. When they switched all the paints and took the lead out. There was a period of adjustment where there was struggling with application. The paint formulas weren't quite right and they didn't last like they should have. I think as this starts to flesh out, there are going to be things that we will have to go back and take a second look at like we did 20-30 years ago. But, I don't have a crystal ball to tell me what those are.

Jud: Steve, is there anything that comes to mind that you might get shaky about?

Steve: A couple of things. By the way, the Edsel was a great car! Some of the biggest problems I see could be that of a person not doing their homework. We do some diagnostics work as part of the energy side of things. Almost always, it comes down to either the customer was not informed well enough about how to take care of their house or the green building standards guidelines weren't being posted. How they need to monitor and mitigate their own internal impact on the sealed environment which is their home. If they are generating X-amount of water through aspiration or cooking, lifestyle choices, a hot-tub or jacuzzi tub or if they're big pasta eaters or have a big aquarium. If they develop moisture in a house that's well sealed, they need to make sure they monitor and mitigate that. I think we, as builders and remodelers, need to do a better job of educating the consumer on how they need to live in the house — whether they need to monitor where the moisture level's at and what to do if it exceeds that point. At the same time, we need to educate our installers, whether that be subcontractors or employees, on the proper way to put things in. Most of the problems I see in moisture developments are directly related to either the person had no idea he was supposed to keep an eye on things or the guy who put it in wrong created a thermal bypass by improperly installing a product.

Jud: Chris, try to give me a list, starting with the one you always do and working your way down to the one you very seldom do, as to the common green concepts that you incorporate into projects in your area.

Chris: At the beginning would be the recycle-reuse pieces in the demolition whether it's lumber, concrete, asphalt or wood. That would definitely be there. The building science aspect of it in terms of air sealing. We're not at the point yet where Steve is at in terms testing, although I have the capability of doing that. We're going to incorporate that but we're still on that path. The insulation in terms of being formaldehyde-free. That also goes for product choices inside the home as well. In terms of finishes, selecting paints and components of the home, low-VOC, that don't poison the environment inside the house. One area we don't control but definitely needs to be part of the planning cycle: we don't do landscape work, but just how that integrates into the control of the home. Just being aware of it and making suggestions to our clients all the way through their roof choices and trying to get down to a select color to be more reflective and not absorb so much heat into the home. That's a very broad laundry list of stuff.


The discussion continues:

Jud: It lets us know where you start and come down from; that's the point. Steve, what do you try to always put into there, and give us a list from top to bottom.

Steve: Our use of insulation is cellulose insulation. The efficiency of any product we can sell them: we're big on fiberglass doors because of their sustainability and the fact that they will be there a really long time and it didn't take a tree to make them. We're looking at energy- efficient ways to key up, not necessarily upgrades but just the basic components of what they're doing. Convince them of alternative methods to construction that cost virtually nothing extra that they may question, and we can ease those fears. For example, in our area there's a lot of crawl spaces, so condition crawls. We're using as much material as we can on-site. We have a client friend of ours who has woodburning capabilities for his house. We take a lot of our cutoffs over to his place and he uses it for kindling all through the winter. We have three customers like that we can take stuff to. We try and recycle aluminum off our sites. We don't have the wonderful facilities that Chris has on the west coast. They're a little more aware of the recycling issues. We try to give away many things. We try to take a look at what we can incorporate in the house and from a "whole-house" standpoint. If we change a door, we want to encourage them to get an en-ergy efficient door and try to convince them they should go with fiberglass, which will last forever as opposed to a steel door, which will last ten years. We try to look at roofing. Chris brought that up — it's great. A more reflective color roof will be a much cooler roof and much better for the environment. If we're planning a room addition, we try to find ways where we are not diminishing the landscaping. If we can take the water from the rooftop and divert it to a flower bed or something we try and do that. They use less water themselves. We recently did that on a project that was on a hillside. It's working out well for them. It's not eroding the soil, it's going into the garden, it's great. We try to find as many products like lilly glass. The only glass we put in there will be lilly glass. We try to look at shading and try to use as much passive solar as we can.

Jud: Do you pay attention to where the product is coming from and where it's manufactured and how you get it? Do you take that into consideration?

Steve: On some products we do, yes. We do specifically on drywall and insulation. We're in a unique position where we have a plant that's about 300 miles from us that makes recycled products. It's a short transport time. In our business sometimes it's going to be about the money and what you can or cannot get at a reasonable price point. Yes, we do take a look at that.

Jud: Chris, do you pay attention to that?

Chris: As Steve mentioned in terms of a price point, it is a way that we look at it more at this point in a kind of true green sense. I'll always try to buy something locally rather than have it shipped in. Having been here my whole life, I haven't tried to build in other places. We're fortunate in that we have a lot of resources to choose from that are local. It makes it easier for us to use stuff that's from around here versus shipping it in from another source. We have less of an issue here just because of where we are.

Jud: Chris, where do you see green marketing going in the near future? Will it expand or has it peaked out and this will be about it?

Chris: Honestly, I don't think it's peaked. In the future, we're going to see that more and more will be into our process. That's what I hope to see. It won't take arm twisting or an education process to take care of the house correctly; that's just going to be the way it's done. As a matter of fact. I really do see it as much more of an integration process than having peaked or on the downhill side. I think we're still on an uphill learning curve and there are still a whole lot of areas that are still ripe for working on in terms of products and house designs. I think we're still climbing the hill; we haven't gotten to the top yet.

Jud: Steve, are we at the top, has it peaked out, or are we still learning?

Steve: Gosh, I sure hope not. I share some of Chris's sentiments. I think it's going to explode in the short term basis. I think it's going to be geometric on people marketing it, manufacturers and vendors marketing it, the media picking it up because it's a hot topic. You can see that in some of the publications. Also on interviews like this one! The interest is overwhelming. What I hope is the same that Chris hopes, that some of this stuff becomes "that's just the way you do things, why would you ever consider doing it another way?" You look back 35 or 40 years when no one insulated a house. Then they started insulating, and no one thought about air sealing a house. Now air sealing a house has become a more commonplace event that's still not where it should be yet with duct systems. I think you're going to see in five or 10 years when no one will ever consider not doing that. Particularly in the western and southern states where water conservation, which is a part of green, has come a long way in the last five years, mainly because it's a limited resource.

Jud: So realistically, in your opinions, you really see this as just getting started. We've got a long way to go. Technology, as Steve indicated a while ago, is continuing to change all the time. Everyone's trying to help on this subject. Remember our gallon and a half flushing stools that were supposed to help the environment. One of those things that may have backfired in the long run. It didn't work quite as well until they redeveloped it. And some of them are working pretty well now. Do both of you have enough paperwork and resources to go in and sell green? Do you need more resources, need more help, or do you have enough?

Chris: Are you offering?

Jud: No! I just want to see if it's out there. Chris, what about you?

Chris: There's a ton of information on the internet. The one thing that I've been really grateful for and has been a huge resource as it is. We've got people who are really interested in it and I've got three or four people I can call up today and get answers to questions that I need. The short answer is "yes". For the most part, the information is out there, you just have to go and dig it up. There's a ton of books. I've got a half dozen I carry with me. There's a wealth of information from universities that are doing studies on homes. NAHB has a ton of information. There's a lot of stuff out there; it's just a matter of compressing it and using it.

Jud: It almost goes back to education, doesn't it?

Chris: Absolutely.

Jud: Steve, do you want more stuff or can you go out like he does and find it?

Steve: Well, once again, are you offering?

Jud: OK, guys, quit picking on me.

Steve: When I read the NAHB green building guidelines, that was another piece of that puzzle. I think the resources are there. What would be wonderful is if there could be a clearing house of information for remodelers or builders that they could go to and get, number one, what you're talking about: education. Get technical data, and good information and contacts for key green com-ponents that they could use to enhance themselves and perhaps their business and their customers.

Jud: To some degree, it would almost have to be defined by areas because what Chris could use in California we might be able to use here without a problem; but we've still got to ship it clear across the United States to get it here.

Steve: I think you could have a general overview and then go down into regions.

Jud: Steve, do you find a lot of builders in your area building green, or do you think they haven't caught on to it yet?

Steve: I think they are picking up pieces. Right now, I think most of their focus is probably on energy efficiency because it's a buzz word. Some of the builders are focused on it because of the tax credit that came out last year. But I have had, strangely enough, a call from a previous Indiana State president who wants to market himself green. We sat down with the guidelines and talked; he wanted to know how to become a green builder. We discussed the guidelines that NAHB has to become certified within the next two years, which is a good template. They are actually going to market themselves as a green builder. I was very encouraged by that. I see it happening in Chicago and Texas as well. I'm sure it's in California where Chris is.

Jud: Chris? Are a lot of builders [green] in your area?

Chris: Yes, in this area there's a ton of them! It might be more of who I've associated with because I'm interested in it. There are probably at least a dozen builders that I know of who are marketing themselves as green for the design/build process. In the Berkeley area, San Francisco and the southern Bay area, there's a lot of them.

Jud: One more question. Sometimes when we find new ways to build and new products out there, it certainly helps our business as far a being able to make a better profit in doing this. Chris, do you see this as "a better profit center"? Maybe because of what you're selling or because of what it sets you aside from or because the project has really cost a little bit more money. Give me some idea of how you see this as a profit center or how it affects your profit one way or the other.

Chris: Well, I think we'd be lying to each other if we said we weren't in this to make a dollar. It is a way to sort of set ourselves apart and define ourselves on how we approach our products. At least for the time being, because of our knowledge-base and what we can offer in terms of product selection and just a simple knowledge base, we can probably charge more. I know we've gotten jobs because we have that knowledge-base. From that standpoint, it has helped our bottom line. As more and more people get into it and develop it, we'll probably need to rethink that because everyone's going to be doing it as we talked about earlier. There're remodelers all across the country and they pick and choose different ways to define themselves and differentiate themselves. I think at that point, we'll be able to figure that out and still be able to make money. We're not making millions and millions more because we chose to go down this road. My choice to be interested in this is more driven because I think it's the right thing to do from that standpoint, versus thinking I can make more money at this. It's very much more from that standpoint.

Jud: That could almost lead to being dangerous from the standpoint that you don't charge enough because of the increased cost that it has to have because you feel like it ought to be done properly. That could happen, couldn't it, Chris?

Chris: Yes, it could with anyone who takes their work seriously. If one of my guys does something wrong, I'm going to fix it no matter what. It's just the way I am. Whether it's a green product or not, I'm going to do that anyway. You always have to temper your passion with making a living and supporting our families the way we should. I mean, it is a business!

Jud: Steve, go back to the original question. Can you sell more? Does it help your business to make a profit at the end?

Steve: I think that presenting yourself truthfully, not misrepresenting yourself, as a person who's interested in either being completely green or layers of green is a good thing. I'm passionate about energy-efficiency and about this world we live in, because it's the only one I've got. I'm sure that my heart condition and my weight will not let me get on a spaceship and get out of here! This is where my children and my grandchildren are going to live. I'm a caretaker; I love trees. That's why I use them and build with them because the best renewable resource in the universe is trees. Properly managed, we'll never run out of them. Yes, you have to balance your passion. Yes, you can make more money if you're honest about it and do your homework well, because you're the guy who knows and obviously cares a little bit more. For a lot of people, that's a very compelling reason, especially the consumer with more discretionary cash, for them to use you because you care about what you do on a number of levels, not just your finished product but everything. It shows you as being the guy who's a couple of notches taller. Quite frankly, I do have customers who will pay a little bit more because of our education, experience, knowledge and the fact that we really care.

Jud: It may get back to the point, gentlemen, that yes we get passionate about this and want everybody to help us build green and for folks to run their home properly. Also, we have to sell, be good sales people and not just an order taker trying to sell a higher product.

 

Chris Donatelli, Co-owner
Donatelli Castillo Builders

Based in San Jose, Calif., the firm has been in the construction industry since 1970. A member of NARI, Donatelli Castillo Builders is a general contracting company specializing in everything from kitchen remodels, bathrooms, specialty rooms, additions, and whole-house remodels. The firm has 15 employees with five in the office and the rest in the field.


Stephen Robinson, Owner
RE Construction & Maintenance Services

Located in New Castle, Indiana, the firm is an Energy-Star builder that uses the latest technology, environmentally-friendly materials and recycled products whenever possible. Staffed with 14 employees; four in the office and the balance in the field, they're a full-service remodeling, renovation and general construction company.

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