Educating the Green-It-Yourselfers

Anna Lee and Hector Osorio weren't planning to become green building material dealers. Equipped with environmental science training from nearby Humboldt State College, the pair had started a residential construction firm, but quickly discovered there were no nearby sources for environmentally friendly construction and remodeling products. They were forced to drive hours just to get basic supplies such as non-emitting insulation and finishing materials. “So we felt there was a need,” said Hector. “Eureka is a rather progressive community, and it's pretty environmentally aware. After talking with our friends and neighbors we thought there'd be an opportunity for this kind of business here.”

They were looking for products that would go into a cabin they were building for themselves, but there again we were traveling outside our area. Well, we can find everything now, and hopefully we'll be able to get back to that project and finish it.

Equipped with an environmental science education from nearby Humboldt State University, Hector got into construction and wanted to incorporate green building and green building products into our projects but it was difficult to find things here locally. So we often found ourselves travelling out of the area, either down to the bay area or up to Portland. Or even just ordering things online.

Then in January of 2007, a lucky break forced their hand. “We weren't quite ready to get a space when we did, but Hector was driving home one day and saw a ‘for lease' sign on the building that was right next to the new co-op grocery store,” Anna Lee recalls. The 8,000 square foot space was on a heavily trafficked corner on Eureka's main artery. “It was hard to let go of that,” she chuckled.

When Alternative Building Center first opened its doors two years ago, the partners expected their new showroom would be embraced by local builders and remodelers. After all, the pair had worked with contractors and subcontractors in their previous business. “We really thought they would come running in the door,” said Lee.

Yet their real clientele turned out to be homeowners, and the first exposure many contractors had to ABC came when their customers dragged them in to see the products they wanted them to install. “Now that there's been some down-time in the building industry, we're seeing more contractors come in on their own and show some interest in the products we offer, and that has been a plus-side of the economy for us,” she stated.

“Contractors started coming in because they needed to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and capture the business that's still out there,” Hector believes. “We've seen a few contractors start to incorporate the products we supply into how they manage their business.”

As a result, ABC has become a hotspot for Green-It-Yourselfers and the showroom often serves as a classroom. “A lot of the time we spend with customers – and that includes the contractors – is spent explaining how to apply or install the products. They're not like the traditional stuff people are used to. Most people we see are pretty receptive to that and are willing to learn about working with a new product,” said Lee. “But some contractors would rather keep using their old stuff, and if you give them something new, they don't want to change how they go about using it.”

And that can lead to problems. “Some people don't want to listen or read the instructions, and they'll just do things the way they assume it should be done,” Hector laments. “So we really have to educate our customers, even the pros, on a lot of these products so they won't be disappointed.

While most of that training takes place during routine customer interactions, ABC has also hosted in-store workshops on materials such as American Clay Plaster. “American Clay has been one of our best selling products. It is very, very user friendly and the workshops that we hold here definitely give people the confidence to do it themselves,” said Hector.

First time visitors can check out two stages of an American Clay Marittimo installation on the showroom wall. While the product is DIY-friendly, this is one project that many customers would rather delegate to a pro. ABC often calls on an area applicator who was trained by American Clay at the company's Albuquerque headquarters. Lee describes him as a true artist who prefers the softer look of a hands-on finish to a spray-applied system.

While most people in Eureka live in rather conventional housing, surrounding Humboldt County has a somewhat different flavor of small homes and cabins that genuinely aim for independence from the grid and petrochemical based materials. These folks have serious interest in alternative building technologies. That's why ABC started carrying St. Astier lime plaster. “We first brought it in for a customer doing a straw bale house. Now we're hoping to bring in a plaster master to teach a class,” said Osorio.

ABC also believes that countertop fabrication is teachable. “We had two PaperStone fabrication workshops in our first year,” said Anna. “A morning session was for contractors, and the afternoon was for homeowners.”

The product mix here also features colorful designer-look countertops from Squak Mountain, Vetrazzo, and IceStone. All rely heavily on recycled content, both for their sustainability claims and their actual beauty. “Vetrazzo is in Richmond, California, and Anna and I had the opportunity to go down there and see the whole process, which is amazing,” said Osorio. “But PaperStone has been our most popular countertop.” That, too, may be the product of careful customer interaction. In working with homeowners, the staff will ask customers detailed questions about their lifestyle and how they use their kitchen. “If someone is likely to be really hard on their countertops, we tend to steer them towards PaperStone,” said Hector.

Flooring has been a big part of their business from the beginning. “The first flooring company we brought in was EcoTimber, and we've had amazing success with them; they have a great support staff,” said Lee. “And I just heard that EcoTimber's woven bamboo flooring got a Consumer's Report Best Buy rating.”

Sadly, not all bamboo floors rate a blue ribbon. “There are a lot of different qualities of bamboo. A customer came in last week who has a yoga studio in Arcada, which is just north of Eureka, and their bamboo flooring had failed,” Hector related. “I think they got it for under $2 per square foot at Costco, but they've only had it down 2 years.”

ABC also carries Marmoleum, InterfaceFlor, and Vida Cork – all of which lend themselves to DIY installation. To emphasize that point, half of the showroom floor is covered with Interface carpet tiles, and the Marmoleum Click is installed on the office floor.

The other half of the showroom's concrete floor is coated with SoyCrete concrete stains. “It looks great in our showroom, but people who've used it have had mixed results,” said Osorio. “We've only had a couple of times where the customer wasn't totally satisfied with it; we've learned that for it to work properly the concrete absolutely has to be porous. It is definitely not a topical finish. If the concrete is porous, then it's easy to work with.”

Other flooring has a west coast flavor, such as Teragren Bamboo and Green Mountain Hardwoods, a company based right across the border in Oregon. All these products are ideal for customers with chemical sensitivities, as is the Merida natural fiber floor covering line and Nature's Carpet, a wool product from New Zealand.

Chemical sensitivities have always been a major consideration in ABC's product mix. “Asthma is a big issue for a lot of people here, I think, because we live in such a moldy area that people's indoor air quality is pretty low. That can stir a lot of allergies and asthma,” said Lee.

One recent client required some extra attention. “We have a couple where the wife is so sensitive she can't even leave the home,” said Osorio. “They just built a new home and did the whole house with our paperless sheet rock, used Merco M-100 joint compound for all their taping and mudding, non-emitting flooring, and zero-VOC paint throughout.” Hector has noticed that, to a slightly lesser level, new parents share that concern. “Our customers are well educated, so if they're going paint a new nursery room they'll want to use the American Clay or a zero-VOC paint, and they'll go for non emitting flooring.”

Air quality is one reason ABC supplies multiple lines of mildewcides, mildewproofers, and zero-emission coatings. Another reason, of course, is more decorative. “People here really seem to like Yolo Paint because all their colors are so nature based that you can't really go wrong,” said Lee.

“Their poster sized color samples are great,” Osorio added. “They're done with real paint, and people can take them home and put them up on their walls and get a feel for what it will really look like. That's been a great idea.”

Customer demand has led ABC to add water and energy conserving products to the mix. “A lot of people live outside the city and they aren't supplied by municipal water. Those folks have to conserve as much water as they can,” said Hector. “So now we offer Caroma Dual Flush toilets, we're bringing in low-flow shower heads, aerators, and things of that sort. We should have Caroma's Profile Suite here within the next 2 weeks; that's the toilet that flushes with gray water from its built-in sink,” he explained. “We feel we'll have lots of customers for that sort of product.”

Those customers are also a good fit for ABC's solar water heaters and solar PV systems. “There's a pretty good market here because people who live out in rural areas value their independence and want a self-sustaining home,” said Osorio. “So getting your hot water through solar and getting the electricity through solar is pretty popular.”

The energy efficient lighting products include such high-tech wonders as the Velux Sun Tunnel Skylights, and LED lighting from C. Crane. “I really like how the GeoBulb looks,” Hector told us. “And the company that makes it is just 20 minutes south of us.”

And demand will also play a continuing role in the company's choice of pro building materials. “We are leaning more towards having more building materials because we are an alternative ‘building center,'” said Hector. “We want to continue to expand those offerings and we want to supply more contractors. But builders will eventually figure out who we are, whether they like it or not,” he joked.

Lee praises her staff for their role in building this growing business. “Sarah Walker has been with us since before the beginning. She helped us put paint on the walls before we were even open,” she said. “Our other person is Joshua Ponce, who started out as a customer. He has a lot of experience in using the products, so he can help people learn how to do things.”

Word of mouth testimonials have been this two-year-old company's best advertising so far. “I always hear from our customers how much they appreciate the level of service they get here,” Lee declared. “We really get to know our customers as we get to know their projects. We even get to know their families, and a lot of times, at the end of their projects, we all get invited to their home for the housewarming party or just to come by and see the finished project.”


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