Michael Strong of Houston-based Brothers Strong says, “We got huge resistance in our company when we made the turn to green. Sales managers and project managers said, ‘This is not a good idea. Consumers aren't asking for it; it will demand too much in the way of resources; it's too expensive.'”
Change is never easy, especially when employees feel they're suddenly being asked to turn away from familiar practices.
Strong addressed the resistance by explaining that they'd been doing green remodeling all along, although they'd never called it that before. “I said, ‘We may not have done photovoltaic cells or geothermal, but that's just the sexy stuff. We've always been efficient with our resources on site, and we've installed tankless water heaters and PEX plumbing.'” He told them to think of “green” as “high-performance.”
CARROT AND STICK When Dennis Allen, of Allen Associates in Santa Barbara, Calif., rolled out the green mission to his employees, he found it effective to use both the carrot and the stick.
“When we were first starting our green work [12 years ago], it was really my passion,” Allen says. So he tried to build enthusiasm among his employees by starting a twice-a-year competition with a $500 kitty. “It was all about what they had added to a project to make it greener, not what the client asked for or the architect did. They had to isolate what their contribution was. And they voted on who deserved it.
“It completely changed the game for us,” Allen says. Suddenly, his employees were doing more than simply waste-recycling on site. Now they were introducing solar design, efficient windows, and better heating equipment to projects, and paying more attention to paints and adhesives.
Years later, he still gives a prize to the field person who has done the most to bring green to the company's clients and projects. But he has also introduced the stick to ensure that his company makes good on its promise to clients.
Because Allen says he's “put himself out there” as a green business, he wants to ensure that certain green practices are worked into every project. So his company's boilerplate specs include things like window flashing systems and vapor barriers, as well as LEED-approved caulks and adhesives.
“The point is to make sure the building lasts longer, which conserves resources,” he says. “These are things that are good building practices, but most companies aren't paying attention to them. We set out to do these things in every project; beyond whatever gets specified by the architects.”
Once a required green measure is taken on a project, project leaders must photograph it or ask someone from management to do a site inspection, in order to document the procedure.
Every quarter, Allen reviews all projects against his green checklist. “If they're not [following the specs] on every one of their projects, they don't get their bonus,” he says. Some of his associates are up for bonuses of $80,000 to $100,000 annually. So “it really drives performance,” Allen says.
SEEKING GREEN TRADES It can be just as challenging to get roofers, plumbers, electricians, painters, tilers, and other trade contractors to incorporate more environmentally friendly practices into their long-established business routines.
“It's tough,” Strong says “There's a lot of resistance on the trade side.” The trick, he says, is finding a trade partner who sees the business potential in changing their ways. For example, Strong often specifies PEX plumbing, which takes a fraction of the time to install, compared with traditional copper pipes, since PEX simply rolls out like a garden hose.
“We have to find a plumber who thinks, ‘Hey, I can do more jobs for more builders if I do it this way, and I can use a smaller crew size.' We're looking for enlightened people who won't groan when we ask them to look into PEX. We want to hear, ‘I'll check that out, and I love working with you because you always find new, funky stuff to do.'”
Strong estimates that 20% of his trade contractors are willing to work with him this way. To find the 20%, he says he's always interviewing and asking for referrals from his peers.
When he finds an outstanding green trade contractor, Allen rewards him. “We have an award luncheon to hold them up in front of their peers,” Allen says. “We say, ‘You're our A team. Thank you for helping our mission and our planet.'”
Some trades are trickier to green than others, says Gary Grobeck of Grobeck Construction in Omaha, Neb. He's found it most challenging to locate painters who are willing to use biodegradable paints. “These green paint products aren't mainstream, and the painters aren't in tune with them,” he says. “They just don't want to spend five days doing what's usually a three-day job.”
Making things easier for remodelers like Grobeck is a new Web site, GreenBuildingBlocks.com, which claims to have the largest national directory for green services, including trade workers. It's like a Match.com for green professionals.
Even after remodelers and trade workers have found each other, building the relationship is a gradual process. Remodelers say they ask a lot of their preferred subcontractors, including green certification, in some cases. The payoff for the trades? More business from the growing number of green remodeling companies. And, of course, green remodelers benefit from having true partners to whom they can direct more business.
“If it's a trade partner we want to work with, we're going to drag them to the water and make them drink,” Strong says.
Trouble is, sometimes it's a bit more dragging than he'd like.
Alice Bumgarner is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C. When she's not covering the remodeling industry, she writes about food, travel, and parenting. Her work has been published in Salon, Sky, and Town & Country magazines, among others.