Nestled in northwest Connecticut's Berkshire Mountains, Washington Supply has always been surrounded by green. Three years ago, the dealer began returning the favor by deciding to become a regional leader in green building. Not long after that and nearly 3,000 miles way, executives at another dealer took similar action: Parr Lumber launched its GET REAL! program of environmentally friendly and sustainable products. It has since followed that up with its High Performance turnkey system, promising energy efficiency and green benefits to builders and homeowners.
The two dealers differ drastically in size and market; Washington Supply is a one-unit operation in a largely rural area, while Parr's 39 stores serve customers in five states, particularly urbanites in Portland, Ore., and Seattle. But the two operations share a bond. Having immersed themselves in the green movement, the dealers are increasingly finding they are not just dealers but also product and information outlets for green construction, as well as examples of how to become better practitioners of green standards within their communities. Their stories exemplify what happens as a building material company turns green.
"People think green is about offering green products," says Nate Bond, director of sales at Parr, based in the Portland suburb of Hillsboro, Ore. "But green is an entire system."
"We are trying to change the construction paradigm in the states of Oregon and Washington," Bond adds. "Green is not just about offering products but raising the awareness of everyone building a house." For example, Parr's turnkey system goes far beyond the products alone: its building techniques prevent air and moisture infiltration into a home while using fewer materials and shortening the time frame in which the home is put together.
Green House. In Connecticut, the demographics of Washington Depot and Litchfield County have been conducive to spreading the green word, says Valerie Sedelnick, president and CEO of Washington Supply. Area residents include members of Manhattan's entertainment, finance and publishing industries. Additionally, there are plenty of high-end second homes occupied by the likes of Conan O'Brien and Dustin Hoffman. Wealthy types and the entertainment crowd are generally regarded as being among the biggest proponents of green building, and Washington Supply has found that's their situation.
"We've seen a shift as homeowners begin to tell their contractors what they are looking for," Sedelnick says.
Sedelnick was an 18-year veteran of Washington Supply when she, Bob Whelan and three other partners bought the company in 2006. That's when the company repositioned itself as the region's pre-eminent supplier of green building products, says Whelan, the company's CFO and a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Accredited Professional.
Some of that shift has paid off for Washington Supply's sales. In 2007 the dealer saw a 22% increase in sales, and it rose another 7% last year to $7.8 million. Although green products represent only about 5% of Washington Supply's overall sales, it's on the upswing, with the dealer continuing to introduce not only new green building materials but eco-friendly paints and lawn and garden goods. Perhaps more important, the dealer is now regarded locally as "the" destination for green advice.
"In these times, we feel our strategic focus and the initiatives we've taken on have allowed us to prosper," Whelan says.
A member of the U.S. Green Building Council, last year Washington Supply unveiled its "Green House." Situated within the dealer's main entrance, and visible to the outside world through its front windows, the house was built to demonstrate a bevy of products deemed green.
All of the home's products are derived from mills that support sustainable forest practices, or are made from recycled materials, or reduce dependence on fossil fuels.
The front and two sides of the 10-by-16-foot structure show siding products in a variety of stages: primed, painted, and unfinished, using a variety of products, including CertainTeed Cement Board Siding, Blue Star Red Meranti Wood, Maibec Cedar Shakes, and shiplap pine milled in Maine and purchased through Hood Distribution.
Other products within the house include countertops created from recycled materials, zero-formaldehyde cabinets, bamboo flooring, locally produced hardware, and recycled concrete. The roof of the home features photovoltaic panels that, powered by floodlights in place of the sun, feed to a ceiling fan.
Literature on each of the more than 100 products used in the house is readily available for customers. Essentially, the house is not just a large product display unit but also an educator.
"There's a reason why we placed it in the front entrance of the store," Whelan says. "It's a comfortable spot. There's not pressure, and the contractor can use the house to differentiate themselves to the customer."
The house cost $20,000 to construct, primarily for labor. Vendors donated many of the products.
Washington Supply also hosts ongoing education seminars at the local American Legion Hall. Two recent seminars focused on the LEED for Homes rating system and the installation of photovoltaic panels. The latter discussed how the panels can work with Solar Domestic Hot Water Systems along with the advantages, pitfalls, and costs of the panels, plus potential cost reduction programs from the state and federal governments.
New Sun Spots. Washington Supply is no stranger to the topic since it will install photovoltaic panels on the roof of its main storage facility this summer, capable of producing 15.1 kilowatts The panels will be used to provide approximately 33% of the store's total energy usage while heating the dealer's outdoor living center via a solar domestic hot water system. The Connecticut Clean Energy Fund is helping to fund the project, having awarded a $45,000 grant to Washington Supply in May.
Additionally, Washington Supply sells photovoltaic panels. Because the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund's grant process requires a solar site analysis report, Whelan himself typically conducts the study using a Solar Pathfinder and other tools.
Washington Supply also previously reduced electrical usage through partial grant funding from the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund (CEEF) and a site study conducted by New England Energy Management. The project cost the dealer about $12,000, but one-third was paid by CEEF and the remainder is being funded through a zero-interest loan from CEEF. Washington Supply expects the entire project to pay for itself within three years.
Whelan says his business is already paying $200 less per month than what the company was paying prior to the switch.
Out West, Parr's High Performance System tackles a bevy of homebuilding inadequacies using advance framing techniques, a weatherization program, and reduced waste and cycle times. Parr also claims it has improved a number of efficiency issues with the use of an improved HVAC process and an improved garage-to-house air seal to promote better indoor air quality. Overall, Parr promises the system will reduce energy costs as much as 40%.
"We are not doing this because we are scared of global warning," Bond notes. "We are trying to be good stewards. We are trying to find a practical solution.
"It doesn't make sense to pump a billion dollars a day over to the Middle East either," he adds.
Getting Real Green. Since its launch, Parr has identified hundreds of products that meet the criteria and then promoted them with the GET REAL! label.
At the same time, Parr set about conducting an internal review of all organizational practices to determine how "green" it was as a company.
The review resulted in Parr converting up to 80% of its vehicle fleet to bio-diesel fuel. Extensive recycling efforts were also initiated: today Parr recycles 92% of all cardboard, 60% of all glass and metal containers, 76% of all office paper, 88% of pallets and 40% of all plastic materials.
About two-thirds of Parr's stores have energy-saving T-5 lighting installed, and all of its locations are enrolling in the Northwest Natural Gas "Green" program. Parr will be updated each year on how many tons of greenhouse gas emissions are being prevented by Smart Energy investments.
Parr has also worked with Portland General Electric to have 40% of its stores converted to PGE Windpower. One Parr location in northwest Portland, which installed solar panels, features a scoreboard with a running tally showing customers how much energy the structure has saved.
Parr may be ahead of its peers, but it's not alone. A ProSales survey conducted online in March showed that roughly 61% of dealers have started turning off computers at night to save on electricity costs, 49% have installed energy-efficient lights, 19% have put in motion sensors, 33% added insulation to reduce fuel bills, and 18% installed low-flow toilets.
Last year, Parr attempted to recycle 100% of its materials with the exception of plastics; it recycles about 60% of those. Other changes include requiring all new fleet cars meet a 20 miles-per-gallon minimum and all lubricants using a synthetic base stock, reducing the company's dependence on fossil fuels. Environmentally friendly chemicals are used to wash all company vehicles as well.
Bond estimates that more than 15% of the total products sold at Parr are green. "It's growing," he says. "We sell a tremendous amount of recycled decking, along with installation and financing. It makes it easier for us to sell the product."
Wood products that earn a GET REAL! label must be harvested in a sustainable manner and certified by either the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Products must also be manufactured using green-certified materials, be at least partly constructed of recycled materials, and contribute toward clean air or energy efficiency.
"It has changed the whole division and the purpose of our company," Bond says. "Dropping a pile of wood on somebody's job site used to be the best thing that happened to us."
Giving Advice. That's far from the case these days, however. Now Parr is trying to help builders construct a home that is safe, environmentally friendly, energy efficient, durable and aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps most important, the dealer is assisting the dealer in building a home that is also profitable.
ProSales' recent green survey also revealed that among customer types, custom builders rank first among those asking about green, with nearly 70% of dealers reporting getting questions from that group and 67% saying consumers were asking about it.
"That means cost reduction has to enter the mix," Bond says. "It means that in the kind of market we are in now, we have to find ways to build that end-product for less."
Fulfilling that goal has meant turning "somersaults" for Parr, according to Bond, while leveraging lower costs in green products and services.
Parr draws a reverse kind of inspiration from Oregon's first LEED Platinum house, a 1,700-square-foot structure in Salem, the state capital. The home remains unsold and unoccupied, largely because of its $400,000 price.
"The price is astronomically high given the market. That's not going to fly," Bond says of the price. "We are trying to reach a practical solution."
Parr finds itself pushing back on the supply chain to lower costs and make things more affordable to the builder. "We review products all the time," Bond says.
When ProSales spoke with Bond, Parr Lumber was in the process of reviewing liquid applied housewrap that does not emit gases. The product also seals the house from air and moisture as opposed to traditional wrap, which is punctured every time a nail or staple is driven into it.
Bond believes the product represents an evolution in the control of air and moisture. But the product is very expensive, he notes.
From Whelan's perspective, green is not yet at a stage where it's for everyone. "It's mostly been folks of substantial means that push for green building products today," he says.
It's not always an easy game, either. When Washington Supply provided FSC lumber for the Horace Mann School's nature laboratory, Whelan had to get the lumber shipped from F.D. Sterritt in the Boston suburb of Watertown, Mass., so the chain of custody wouldn't be broken.
Sterritt (featured in "My Yardsticks," page 23) plunged into the green movement in 2006 when it became FSC chain of custody certified to distribute, remanufacture, pressure and fire treat FSC-certified wood products.
Gary Mackin, president of F.D. Sterritt, says green products can be so tough to find that sourcing them resembles an Easter Egg hunt. Whelan agrees, saying the Internet and personal research are his sharpest tools.
But the hunt for green products, while difficult at times, has translated into good business practices.
"Anyone with a brain is using sustainable forest products these days," Whelan says. "The downside is too steep."
Taking the Lead. What led Whelan down the green path was his past experience working with a masonry company in the Bronx. After 9/11, he witnessed projects around New York City come to a standstill as the city building officials pushed for code changes following the collapse of the World Trade Center. Changes to local municipal codes in Connecticut require builders to follow LEED minimums in the construction of any school, town hall, library or municipal recreation center.
"Everything came to a complete stop in New York City, every project went into a hard lockdown," Whelan says. "So I decided to position myself as a LEED expert for homes or commercial construction. Now I am a resource to our builders. Since the NAHB and [American National Standards Institute] have developed new building codes standards that incorporate aspects of LEED, we need to prepare our builders for these requirements."
Washington Supply provided materials to Picton Brothers LLC, which built the first Five Stars+ house in the Department of Energy's Energy Star Homes Program and received LEED Platinum status. Located in New Milford, Conn., the home is said to be the first of its kind in the state.
Several months ago and a coastline away, Bond visited Choice Construction in Gig Harbor, Wash. The builder was not a Parr customer.
Bond's goal was solely to advise the builder on how to reduce his bill and gain better control of his budget through online invoicing. But Parr never forced the issue of having the builder buy his materials from Parr.
While Choice Construction had promised Parr a 45-minute conversation, the meeting lasted more than two hours. The builder at first refused to convert to a new system or discontinue its purchasing pattern from a smaller dealer, but once the topics of air infiltration and poor wall connections were broached, the builder liked what it heard from Parr and placed an order.
"They are going to be a customer for life," Bond says. "And at some point I think we will be producing a package for them." Parr's green knowledge and expertise have forged a leadership position in the market, according to Bond.
"When the market comes back around, I think we will be building a home for [Choice]," he says.