The Green Design Center Sets
The Pace For Healthy Building
In The New Normal

This Waukesha, Wisconsin dealer/distributor has provided
two decades of innovative leadership to the green building movement.

Everyone talks about adapting
to face challenging times, but Andy Pace could write a book on the subject. Over the past five years, Andy's business has expanded, changed its name and identity, moved into a new showroom with a larger distribution center, and increased his company's product offerings. The company, now known as The Green Design Center, has also opened franchise-style outlets in other nearby cities.

This may not sound like the norm for the building industry these days, but Andy's thinking has always been a step ahead. He opened his first business, Safe Building Solutions (SBS), back in 1992 – pre-dating the U.S. Green Building Council, Greenbuild, and LEED.

The “Safe” within the earlier company's name was a promise to supply building materials that were non-toxic so residents could count on healthy indoor air quality – a big concern for individuals with allergies, asthma, and other chemical sensitivities. Twenty years ago, non-toxic paints, flooring, and other interior finish materials were quite hard for end-users to find.

Despite a growing emphasis on IAQ, finding building materials that don't outgas toxins into the air can still be a tricky proposition. The Green Design Center continues to help clients see through some confusing product claims so they can select building materials that are safe for their home, school, or business. But as the name suggests, there is also a heightened focus on other aspects of green building, as well as greater attention to design and decor.

For example, Green Design Center has specialized in supplying safer choices in kitchen cabinets, featuring plywood or particleboard manufactured with no added urea formaldehyde (NUAF) and finished with emission free coatings. “When I say that our cabinet companies use safer finishes, what I'm talking about are coatings that do not contain toxins to begin with and do not outgas,” Pace explains.

That's a little more complicated than many end-users realize. “Every production cabinet company offers a water-based coating, but that doesn't mean that it's safe; water-based does not mean human-safe,” he points out. “All that water-based really means is that the greater percentage of the liquid in the material is water. Unfortunately, there may also be a variety of chemicals and toxins in these products that will continue to out-gas for 2 to 4 years beyond reaching a full cure.”

Over the years, Pace has noticed that customers for green products – building professionals and consumers alike – don't always have a clear idea of what green criteria they're most interested in. “Whether they phrase it this way or not, most consumers who are pre-disposed to buying green are actually asking their retailers if a product is safe for their family, if it will save them energy, or if it improves their quality of life in some way,” Andy stated.

“There are over 45 different reasons
why a product or service can be called green, and the human health issue – personally, the most important to me – is not the most important to everyone,” Pace has noticed. “Some of our customers today are looking for the most energy efficient products. Others are actively looking for recycled, reclaimed, or re-purposed materials.”

That led Pace to create the Degree of Green rating system, which assigns each product an environmental, health, and sustainability score from one to four. Degree of Green provides clients with a variety of detailed reviews to help them make their decisions, and merchandising aids include easy to follow point-of-purchase cards. The company also licenses DOG materials to other dealers for use in-store or online.

Ideally, it's a tool consumers can use when they're making decisions, for instance, on a whole-house remodeling project. Reading the printed evaluations can help customers make their product choices based on their budget, their design options, and their green priorities – without feeling like they've been pressured by a salesperson.

To illustrate how that works in real life, Pace describes a typical in-store experience with a homeowner looking for countertops. “When we talk about the Degree of Green with that customer, it helps us both see what direction we should go. Somebody may come in and tell us they really like the look of granite but they don't want to have to seal it. If that's the case, we'll show them some of the quartz products. If a customer doesn't like that the quartz countertop contains plastic, then we'll move to something like the Richlite. We want people to have options.”

Richlite has become GDC's most popular residential counter surface. It's the original recycled paper countertop, and offers some key kitchen advantages: it's very moisture resistant, quite durable, and yet flexible in thin applications. “People like it because it's a very low-maintenance material, completely inert, provides a really stylish honed granite look.

More often than not, of course, customers come in
with a specific product in mind. Green Design Center is having a lot of success with countertops fabricated from cork and bamboo. “People really like bringing a more natural element into their kitchens,” Pace observed. “Our customer base for healthier kitchen materials includes folks who go to Whole Foods and buy an $80 bag of organic produce. They don't want to prepare that food in a toxic kitchen. They're looking to us for help in creating a healthier home.”

But sustainability isn't always exotic. GDC offers traditional surface materials such as Corian, Zodiac and Silestone. When commercial clients fancy a more industrial look, the Torzo line has been a good fit.

The Waukesha store is heavily finished in the materials it sells. In the main business office, you'll see Interface Flor squares, and and cork flooring from Wicanders. You'll step across recycled rubber flooring from Amorim. and Marmoleum in the checkout area… selected, in part, because it's easier for the staff to stand on for long periods of time. There's more Marmoleum in the bathroom, because it is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-static.

The majority of the showroom floor is a chemical acid stain. “We did that to show off a healthy, long-lasting and inexpensive way to treat a concrete floor,” said Pace. “We're not only supplying this for garages and patios, we've done whole houses in acid stain.”

Wall coverings include the IpoCork brand from Portugal, some natural sisal seagrass wallpaper, as well as a natural bark wallcovering called Caba. “They are very decorative, extremely stylish materials. You won't get the durability you might want for commercial projects, but for higher-end residential and offices and whatnot, it's absolutely gorgeous,” Pace insists.

You'll see plenty of staff-applied American Clay plaster on the walls here. “American Clay continues to be one of our better selling materials,” Andy told us. “It's sold as a do-it-yourself clay plaster treatment for residential and commercial application. Like a lot of do-it-yourself products, you can actually do it yourself, but if you want it done quicker and better, we can direct customers to a pro.”

Other displays serve as guaranteed conversation starters. For instance, visitors will be intrigued by the stylish Rais wood stove that heats the entire showroom on one log every two to three hours. It's surrounded by Fiandre Active tile, which contains high level of titanium dioxide; that naturally available mineral acts as an anti-microbial air purifier to help maintain healthier indoor air quality.

In that same spirit, the store supplies energy efficient decorative lighting and some water-conserving plumbing products that attractively bridge the consumer/commercial divide. And GDC supplies the eco-friendly Baltix line of office furniture, which includes desks, tables, and some foldable tables popular for use in school cafeterias. .

Customers can't miss the Serious Windows display which consists of a couple of working models, plus some informative cut-away displays. Green Design Center is the exclusive supplier of the energy-efficient brand within their community. To complement the product, customers can deal with Hunter Douglas and Smith & Noble window treatments.

With the focus on IAQ, the signature product lines here may be the low-emissions paint and coatings. AFM Safecoat Paint is specifically formulated without environmental toxins or other materials that might create health problems for individuals with asthma, allergies, or other chemical sensitivities. There's a traditional water-based formula and a Naturals Collection, which is the only plant-oil based paint made in North America. Both of those are premium grade paints suitable for use in schools, commercial, health-care, hospitality, and residential applications. Green Design Center supplies AFM's entire line-up of paints, sealants, caulks, and cleaning supplies, together with complementary sundries for the pro-painter and do-it-yourselfer.

Naturally, GDC also offers interior design assistance for both consumer and light commercial clients. That can include everything from kitchen and bath remodels to new home construction, and may also involve GDC staffers in office and retail design consultations.

The Waukesha showroom and warehouse takes up about 12,000 square feet. On any given day, their client mix may be a mix of contractors, consumers, and architect/designers, all searching for the right degree of green for their projects.

Green Design Center extends its reach
across North America in some innovative ways:

Green Design Center's ‘Franchised' Clones
Investors can open their own Green Design Center through signing up for a buying-group that gives them high-volume purchasing power, merchandising and marketing materials, an internet presence, ongoing education, and more. According to Pace, a Green Design Center ‘franchise' can work as a turn-key green business. Rather than serving as a free-standing outlet, a Green Design Center can fit within an existing building material, home center, or hardware store. There are currently two such branch locations, and additional outlets are in progress.

Advanced Degrees of Green
DOG is an educational marketing tool to help retailers and consumers make practical comparisons of the green attributes of green building materials. Dealers can sign up to receive a variety point of purchase displays, informational data sheets, and other marketing materials. “It works as well for the seller as it does for the buyer,” says Pace. Participating dealers are linked to the Degree of Green website.

The 2-Step Shuffle
Green Design Center supplies dealers across the U.S. with a variety of green product lines. Most notably, it serves as the primary U.S. shipping source for the AFM Safecoat line, which includes extremely low-emission paints, sealers, caulks and cleaning products.

Amazin' on Amazon

Degree of Green maintains an storefront that offers an online mix of over 50 different green products such as cleaning products and low-emission stains and sealants that cater to the needs of chemically sensitive individuals.

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