The Science of Selling Green

Amicus Green Building Center builds a growing Washington, D.C., customer base through its emphasis on education and detailed project management.

What do Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, and Jason Holstine have in common? In each case, their work is on display at the Smithsonian. Each man expanded the reach of science… in Mr. Holstine’s case, that would be building science and his display consists of the goodly-sized sale of American Pride paint that he guided through the very green buying process established by the museum’s curators.

Holstine’s company, Amicus Green Building Center, opened its doors five years ago, but Jason had established his green credentials in the nation’s capitol well before that. “I had done a lot of consulting,” he recalled. “I worked on developing and growing the Energy Star label. I worked on a program called PATH (Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing), with HUD; we did a lot of training, EEBA work.” He had also done training with other policy programs for the State Department, for the EPA, for Marriott, for a variety of entities big and small.

In the decade before opening Amicus GBC, Holstine had also applied his eco-expertise at helping individual clients green their new construction plans, or kitchen redesign and renovation, or other building project. That experience as a consultant and project manager has also defined his approach as a dealer. Amicus GBC doesn’t simply sell products, they supply the installed projects that customers are really looking for.

“We can offer clients simple design services or basic architectural services,” said Jason. Amicus will manage projects that typically fall under the purview of a designer or architect, such as bath remodels or room additions, but they’ve worked on new construction jobs as well. In taking on an assignment, Amicus will integrate advanced building science principles to the architectural design. “And then we try to incorporate other things such as universal design, modular design, and passive survivability,” he said. “If you go to a regular architectural firm, even a green firm, they usually don’t understand the engineering specs.”

You’d need an incredibly qualified staff to provide those services. The 10-person team at Amicus includes two LEED-APs, a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) rater and a BPI (Building Performance Institute) rater. Two staff members happen to be architects.

Much of that expertise is applied to helping homeowners select a new living room floor, remodel their kitchen, or paint the basement floor. But they can also advise a developer with a 500 million dollar portfolio on a sustainability strategy that includes design, training, marketing, financial payback analysis, and other components.

Key members of the Amicus team include (left to right): architect Sam Young,
Toni Bailey, Michelle Holstine, Jason Holstine, and Ellie the Australian Shephard.

Under the guidance of staffer Brian Uher, Amicus has developed a rather advanced consulting advisory practice. For instance, Uher has developed procedures to project return-on-investment figures from energy audits, analyzing both the sustainability and financial paybacks from a recommended set of design actions… and that analysis process can be performed rather quickly in the field. Uher has a background that includes two masters degrees. “He proves the whole advantage of hiring people smarter than your self,” Holstine quipped.

For homeowners and residential projects, Amicus can provide a full spec package including the products, and direct the end-user to one or more of their favored contractors. But that doesn’t always end their involvement. “We may go in and do an inspection before closing, so if there’s a leak in the insulation or we see a badly installed drain pipe, we can catch it and say ‘That needs to be tightened, that needs to be re-routed,’ or whatever,” said Holstine.

Amicus has developed a network of general contractors, flooring and carpet installers, and cabinet and countertop specialists. Now they’re looking to build relationships with specialists on the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing side.

While much of the marketing effort at Amicus is directed to homeowners and contractors, their client list includes the Smithsonian Institution, the U.S. Coast Guard headquarters, the Federal Reserve Board, Case Design – the largest remodeling contractor in the U.S. – and a number of regional builders.

The inventory mix at Amicus’ 4,000 square foot retail space leans towards energy efficient electrical components, water conserving plumbing options, non-toxic insulation, and low-emission decorative finishing materials such as paints, plasters and stains.

The clientele at Amicus tends to be early adopters who are open to new technology that promises to lower their energy or water usage, make their children safer, and not pollute the planet. And it doesn’t hurt if those products also happen to look terrific.

On the carpet side, they supply 3 types of product: natural wool carpeting, low-cost recycled PET, and carpet tiles from Interface Flor. Much of their wood flooring is FSC certified product from EcoTimber. but they also sell a regionally sourced FSC hardwood product. Marmoleum Click is a DIY oriented product that Holstine describes as a core product for Amicus.

Cork is enjoying a revival here. “People have used it for 100 years, and it’s gone through big ebbs and flows in popularity,” said Jason. “It’s definitely getting more traction now.”

As for lighting, Amicus was selling LEDs from the start. “We sell the Cree line, what used to be LLF. They’re extremely popular because you can’t really tell that the light is LED,” he said. “We supply an MR16 LED for track lighting, which is a fantastic replacement for the halogen, and we also sell a line of under cabinet strip lights from Albeo. They’re very sleek and high end, and they’ve been very popular with the design-oriented customer.”

The long life cycle has been a major part of the LED’s appeal. “I once had a guy call us about LED lighting from Phoenix,” said Holstine. “At the time they were about $139 for a unit. As I started explaining the price, he interrupted and told me that he was a retiree and didn’t want to change another light bulb for the rest of his life. He ordered 20.” With that in mind, Amicus started a program with real estate agents to help them green up sellers’ homes with the idea of improving the saleability and ‘You’ll never change another lightbulb again’ has some genuine sales appeal.

In the last few months, Holstine has seen more and more mainstream consumers coming in. “You can tell them by their rudimentary questions and the deer in the headlights look in their eyes,” he chuckled. “Those folks are starting from scratch, and programs like ENERGY STAR and WaterSense really help.”

All Amicus bathroom products are WaterSense eligible, and that includes an assortment of dual flush toilets and low flow shower heads.

With their location in the Maryland portion of the historic Washington, D.C. area, traditional styles remain understandably popular. Holstine would like customers to favor another traditional value as well. “We’ve always pushed the American-made products when possible. The economy is part and parcel of sustainability,” he stated. “Now we’re really talking up American made products as a way to help maintain American jobs in the midst of a recession, and it’s starting to ring a bell.”

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