Allen Associates, a $14 million full-service remodeling company in Santa Barbara, CA, has made green construction a key part of its business. Company president Dennis Allen has been involved in sustainable building for more than 20 years and has taught courses on the subject at several California universities. QR talked to Allen about how his company’s focus on green has helped his business.

How did you get interested in green construction?
I got into construction 28 years ago with an interest in solar power, so it’s sort of been hand-in-hand my entire career. I love building and wanted to be as energy efficient as possible. I built some of the first solar homes in Santa Barbara. I was personally trying to get things as green as possible.

When we started the company in 1983, it wasn’t something that was a major goal. For most of the ’80s to 1993, the opportunities weren’t really there because most of the tax credits had disappeared. Then, Santa Barbara was going through a really tough drought, and we started doing a lot of things with water conservation.

The decision to really go green happened about six years ago, when I was meeting with our associates and we were talking about our mission statement and what we wanted our core values to be. The associates said, “We want this to be a central part of our company.”

How has this helped you get more business?
We spent six months coming up with our first publicity campaign about this, and we sent out postcards that basically said we were willing to go as far as the client or architect would have us go with them to make a project green.

That little piece had a major impact. That really grabbed people and we got a lot of positive feedback from it.

I would estimate that 40 to 45 percent of our clients come to us because of our greenness. We are doing some green construction on every project. It usually won’t be the single deciding factor. You still have to be a quality builder, but it is another edge that really helps.

Before this, we had not been doing work in the commercial market. We’re now getting about $2 million a year in commercial work that is coming to us because of our focus on green.

We also get an enormous amount of free publicity because of our projects. The local newspapers come to me for quotes on anything to do with remodeling because we’ve gotten so much coverage from green building. I’ve become the local expert.

In what other ways has this helped?
It’s really changed the internal dynamics of the company. We started an in-house training and competition program where the associates would compete amongst themselves to see who had the greenest project. The associates could nominate a project for the green factors that they brought to it, and then all the associates would decide which project was greenest and that associate would get a $500 bonus. It was a real incentive for them to step up the greenness of projects.

This has also helped us to get employees. We have people from all over the country that want to come work for us. We recently hired a person from New York with an MBA. Another employee just came down from Portland to work for us. Top people are finding us because of this. Almost every employee comes to us because they are excited about this.

What types of things can you do as a remodeler to make a project green?
There are a lot of straightforward things you can do. You can improve the indoor air quality. We tell our clients to put as much money as possible into the windows because they play so many important roles in a home. In our area, we try to use natural ventilation and avoid using air conditioning. We work to capture natural daylight for passive solar heating. We are doing a lot of work with on- demand water heaters.

We help the client and architect select more durable materials. For example, we use composites instead of wood for decking whenever possible. If someone wants wood siding, we encourage him or her to use a fiber cement product instead. They are lower maintenance, water- and termite-resistant and half the cost of wood. That’s something most clients don’t think about. A lot of times clients don’t know about things and we just need to educate them.

We have established a lowest common denominator of the things we can do that won’t cost any more, but can make a difference. Most people are interested in doing that, especially if it will save them money.

What features have been most popular with clients?
They love the on-demand water heaters.

Anything we can do to help indoor air quality is good. Nobody’s against better health. The fact that you’re caring about the health of the client makes a good impression.

People are more interested in indoor air quality than energy efficiency. Most of our energy efficiency work is done for people who really are committed to green. They’re doing it for philosophical reasons more than the dollar gain. Usually the dollars are not major in energy savings, although that might not be true in areas with more severe climates and harsher weather.

What would be your advice to someone who wants to get into green construction?
The important point about all this is that you have to be knowledgeable about the technology and the costs. You need to be able to explain to a client the long-term benefits of a technology that may cost more in the short term.

There’s a learning curve, so you shouldn’t just jump in and take on a whole project all at once. Start out by focusing on making two or three elements green and master those. Then, focus on a few more. Just start building up your experience and knowledge.

Credibility is very important when selling to a client. People pick up on it pretty quickly if you are just using the green for marketing. You have to really commit to it. Don’t promise more than you can deliver.

How do you keep on the latest in green construction?
I use the publications a lot. There’s starting to be more and more about green products and materials in the trade magazines. There are conferences all over the country. I try to go to one every year. There are always books coming out.

The National Association of Home Builders Research Center is very helpful. They have done a lot of research into green building. If there’s something I haven’t used before that I want to get more information about, I’ll call them and they’ll help me out. [Editor’s note: The NAHB Research Center’s Web site is www.nahbrc.org. The center’s ToolBase hotline is (800) 898-2842.]

What’s on the horizon for green construction?
One of the things that’s happening around the country is that more state and local builders associations are setting up green programs. This is going to help builders and remodelers quantify what they’re doing.

We’re going to continue to see a steady flow of products and materials. At one point this was a fringe movement, but that’s not the case anymore. This is really taking off. The greenest projects we do today are probably 25 percent of what we’re going to be doing in the next 10 or 20 years.

We are learning more and more every year about how to be sustainable on this planet.

I find it exciting. We’re always learning new things in this field. Green construction is happening. You can either be on the leading edge or get dragged behind.

QUALIFIED REMODELER

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Allen Associates
1427 Tunnel Road, Santa Barbara, Ca 93105
Phone (805) 682-4305

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