TreeHouse Takes Root in Texas

A green building material dealer opens its doors in Austin,
Texas with a uniquely experienced ownership group and an
equally unique perspective on serving their customers.

    What Apple has done for the computing world, TreeHouse intends to accomplish in the building materials marketplace. That's the intention of Jason Ballard, who definitely thinks different about selling sustainable building products. Ballard is one of the founding partners of this Austin based business, and he carries the title of VP/Product Stewardship & Sustainability.
TreeHouse Building Suppy

“Computers are just machines, but Apple's stores emphasize the human element, and also an aesthetic element,” Ballard explained. “It's not simply about the utilitarian qualities of the machinery.” Ballard believes Apple's success stems from a more sophisticated commitment to education and customer service. “That's what we're striving for at TreeHouse: to bring the human element, the aesthetic element, the education element, and the commitment to customer service to green building.”

One prominently situated signal of that commitment is their information desk. “We have what we call the Idea Center in our store, which is our answer to the Apple Genius Bar,” said Ballard. “It's directed by a woman who has a masters degree in architecture and is very familiar with all the requirements for getting products green certified.”


That's one element of their approach that's designed to serve the architect/design market, the building professionals, and end-users alike. “We expect a pretty even balance in income from do-it-yourselfers and the professional community,” says Jason. “Towards that end we have a well-educated staff and all the sorts of products that a do-it-yourselfer would expect at a home improvement center.” 

But Ballard wants customer service that far exceeds the typical big-box experience. “We are capable of doing full-on project consulting,” he stated. “We have people who can read blueprints. We have 3 certified interior designers and we have a solar electrical engineer here.”

Consulting know-how is a key part of the TreeHouse strategy. “We've tried to hire people who are capable of learning and thinking at a very high level,” Ballard asserted. “We made a very, very heavy investment into the education of our employees and their ongoing training. It has made the experience for our customers a lot different than it would be at a more traditional outlet.”

Customers have been quick to take advantage. “Almost every day you'll see a couple of our employees leaning over someone's blueprints talking with a client about what we can do for them,” Ballard notices. 

To hold onto its staff of 25, TreeHouse pays everyone “not just a living wage, but a dignified wage. And they have a benefits package that would beat REI, Whole Foods, or Apple,” Ballard insists. “We practice what we preach in terms of treating people well. It gives us the kind of people who value their job, believe in what they do, and are excited to come to work every day. And that contributes to a better experience for the customer.”

Building Community

Education isn't just for the staff. From the time of its  fall, 2011 Grand Opening, TreeHouse has emphasized free training sessions for the public. For do-it-yourselfers, that takes the form of hands-on seminars on subjects such as clay plaster wall finishes, wood flooring installation, and backyard composting. Consumer education largely takes place in-store on Saturdays.

In addition, TreeHouse has hosted a series of professional seminars with continuing education units targeted to architects, to interior designers, and to USGBC members. “We've also hosted a number of professional mixers with food catered by our farmer's market,” said Ballard. “People will come in and architects and interior designers can meet and mingle a little bit. We want to provide the place where the sustainable building community can meet and interact.”

To further that idea, TreeHouse features an in-store gourmet coffee house managed by a local company, Progress Coffee, featuring fair-trade coffee served with compostable cups and utensils. Progress Coffee was recently named by Atlantic magazine as one of the coolest coffeeshops in America. “They're a great fit, both in terms of their being local and their focus on sustainability,” Ballard declared. “It's another place for people to settle in and feel at home in our store. It's convenient for contractors, because they can hang out here for a while and have some coffee while we go over their plan, or just fill up their to-go cup of coffee and head out for the jobsite.”

Curating the Inventory

Before they ordered any initial inventory, the team at TreeHouse assembled a careful list of criteria, and decided that the company would only bring in products that met high standards for performance, health, and sustainability. “We take a lot of care in how we select our products; the word we use internally is curate,” Ballard explains. “It implies a level of involvement and concern and intention that you usually associate with the arts.”

Early in the company's planning stages, a decision was made to not be a “dark green” company but a “shades of green” company, which allowed TreeHouse to supply a more comprehensive collection of products. For instance, there's nothing particularly sustainable about hammers, but the store does supply hammers. “We wanted to give people access to green products in a way that's not intimidating. You don't have to be a card-carrying environmentalist to shop here.”

As part of their curating process, TreeHouse favors products made close to home: not simply U.S. made, but Texas made when possible. 

The emphasis on health has already produced benefits. Some of the store's most well-attended workshops and classes have been related to Healthy Home and related topics, and the store is uniquely stocked to satisfy that customer interest. “All our flooring meets specific air quality specifications,” said Ballard. “All of our insulation meets specific air quality specifications. All our paints are low-VOC or no-VOC. The cleaning products we sell are all healthy and have little or no emissions.” In addition, TreeHouse sells a variety of air purifiers from a company named Austin Air that produce a level of air purity comparable to a hospital clean room. 

The store boasts exceptional air quality because the non-emitting, not-toxic products it stocks are also the materials that were used in building the store itself. When the paperwork is complete, TreeHouse will probably be certified LEED-Gold.

TreeHouse Idea Center

Shades of Green

Those shades of green extend into blue as well. The company's best selling insulation is the recycled denim line from Ultra-Touch. They also offer recycled blow-in cellulose from SmartShredz, a recycled fiberglass insulation line called Jet Stream, and a recycled fiberglass insulation called EcoBatt. If that isn't enough, TreeHouse has added wool insulation from Oregon Shepherd and Black Mountain. Every one of those products is free of added formaldehyde and other toxins.

The flooring section is equally emission free. TreeHouse supplies a wide assortment of solid, engineered, and reclaimed wood floors. In addition, the store offers cork, natural linoleum, recycled content tile and backsplashes, bamboo – both engineered and solid – and a cork-rubber composite. Their carpeting selection includes cradle-to-cradle certified synthetic carpet, wool carpet and rugs. “So far, our primary flooring customers have been homeowners,” said Ballard. “But they aren't necessarily do-it-yourselfers. Most of our flooring customers so far have wanted us to provide the installation, and we do installations on a number of products we sell. You actually pay for the install here at Treehouse, and then we line up the contractor. We set up the whole install for you and we take responsibility for it if things go anyway other than the way you want it to.”

Flooring isn't the only reclaimed product here; there's a whole section devoted to reclaimed doors, and customers enjoy checking out their unique look. TreeHouse uses a merchant team that goes to salvage yards in a radius that's several hours away from Austin, looking for doors that have a special quality or value. They then take those vintage doors and clean them up, repair anything that needs fixing, and put them on display for customers. “People come and have a good time just looking at some of the things we offer here, whether they buy anything or not,” said Ballard. “It's very different from a traditional big box or mass merchandiser experience.”

Of course, that's not the only type of door available here. Customers can also select one of the Jeld-Wen line of Energy Star doors. They sell windows from Serious Energy, which Ballard refers to as “the Aston Martin of windows.” For people who would like to upgrade their windows are on a budget, the company offers a less expensive line of insulated aluminum windows. For the seriously budget minded, there's also an interior insert that upgrades a single pane window to double pane performance.

Spreading the Light

TreeHouse features the most “well-curated” lighting section in Austin, in terms of sustainability and energy efficiency, in a wide range of designs from traditional to avant garde. “Before we carry it, it has to be Energy Star certified,” said Ballard. “In addition we have the most comprehensive collection of energy efficient light bulbs around.

Lighting also comes from the sun, and TreeHouse supplies daylighting systems from both Velux and Solatube. The sun can also supply energy, and TreeHouse can engineer and install photovoltaic as well as solar water heating systems, plus other alternative energy components such as wind and geothermal.

Their paint and coatings coatings section draws a lot of traffic. “We have both low- and zero-VOC coatings,” Ballard reported. “VOCs are not the whole story, but it's what people often ask about, and we can certainly help them learn what else they should consider.” Their primary paint brands are Dunn-Edwards and Mythic Paint. They also offer the American Clay natural earth-based finishes, as well as milk-paint for furniture finishing and antiquing. 

In addition, TreeHouse supplies wood finishes from Sansin  and Vermont Natural Coatings. Concrete finishes are a recent introduction. “We were really excited to add EcoProCote recently,” said Jason. “We had looked into concrete stains and finishes for a while and hadn't found anything that lived up to our health standards and performance needs, and many of them are very difficult to work with. EcoProCote really resolved all those issues for us.”

Kitchen & Bath also generates plenty of sizzle here. TreeHouse displays a variety of emission-free cabinets they can can design and install for customers. That's complemented by a dozen or so countertop lines made from engineered stone or quartz, concrete, wood, bamboo, ceramic tile, laminates, and paper composites. Those choices are topped off by a selection of WaterSense faucets and bath fixtures from Kohler, Waterless, and Caroma. “The design consultation here is entirely free of charge to customers, although they might pay an interior design firm a sizable consulting fee for that service,” Ballard points out.

Learning Curve

TreeHouse supplies every product category that a traditional building material dealer would offer, with the exception of lumber, drywall, and appliances. When the store first opened, there were some products they decided to offer simply to offer a price point or because they seemed popular at the big box stores. “And you know what? The people who walked through our doors were not interested in that kind of stuff,” Ballard discovered. “We learned that the people who come to do business at TreeHouse want healthy, sustainable, thoughtful, well curated options. That was a mistake we were happy to learn from because it gave us permission to do what we really wanted to anyway. We could proudly say, ‘We have a price matching policy, and we can help you can do this affordably, but we are not the low-price leader. We are the quality leader.'

“If what you want is a quality home and a healthy home, then we're the place you want to come,” he added. “People who go to the Apple store aren't saying, ‘I want the cheapest computer in the world; they're saying, I want the best computer in the world.' So in January of this year we got rid of a lot of the inventory we weren't very proud of. We aren't trying to out-Home Depot Home Depot. We're trying to out-TreeHouse TreeHouse.

The team at TreeHouse definitely plans to expand and grow this business – in Texas and perhaps beyond. “We want to be part of making healthy, sustainable building become the norm,” said Ballard. “That's why we don't have the words ‘green building' in our name. We hope that it won't always be called green building; that it just becomes everyday building.” •  888-799-5779

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