Maine dealer builds a contractor
oriented approach to sales of
energy saving products




Some people’s hands turn blue in the cold, but about ten years ago, working on construction sites in chilly Portland, Maine, made Steve Konstantino turn to green. “I was never particularly good at dealing with the cold in construction and I hated working outside in the winter,” he recalled. “It’s too darn cold up here.” So Steve decided it was time to move his years of experience in the building community indoors, from the application to the supply side.
 
As a building materials dealer, Konstantino could offer builders some unique jobsite knowledge. “I had studied passive solar design for years,” he said, “and I’ve designed and built some passive solar homes.” As a result, Maine Green Building Supply’s startup was a bit different than other green specialty dealers. “Our focus at the start was more about energy and less about finish materials,” he stated. “The core of our business has always been energy efficiency. We’ve done some things with heat pumps, and then we expanded more into building science materials – insulation systems, for example.”
 
By definition, that means his customers are contractors rather than consumers. “We don’t sell solar components to homeowners; we only sell to installers,” Konstantino explained. “We offer them a lot of design support and technical support. When we hear from homeowners who are interested in solar, we refer them to our installer network.”
 
Thanks to Portland’s long, cold winters, Maine Green has seen a lot of interest in solar water heating as well as a few hydronic solar heating systems. Photovoltaic… not so much. Despite the recession, Konstanino saw steady growth in sales of renewable energy products in 2010 and expects a bigger boost in 2011 as fuel costs continue to rise.
 
In preparation, Maine Green has added to their product mix, and Steve has taken pains to see that his pricing remains competitive. There’s definitely more competition than there used to be. “Every plumbing wholesaler I know is carrying solar now,” said Steve. “We’ve really had to fight to hold onto our position in this market. Back when we started out, no one was wholesaling solar here.”
 
Still, Maine Green Building brings some important advantages to bear. “A lot of plumbing wholesalers don’t really want to deal with solar,” said Steve. “They don’t want to invest in the inventory and they don’t really have the capacity for design support. Solar is a bit different. I know what it can do and I know what it can’t do, and I can show someone how to get it the most from it.”
 
Most of Maine Green’s solar installations go into retrofits rather than new construction. “It’s a lot easier to start with a super-insulated house designed for low demand heating that you can supplement with solar,” Konstantino observed. “Our most common job is a one or two collector domestic hot water system meant to produce about 80 percent of a household’s hot water.”
 
Some Like It Hot: Of course, it takes more than hot water to get through the winter. Maine Green also does a lot with energy efficient Rais Wood Stoves. “It’s the hybrid approach to have a central heating system that you keep at low settings during the workday, and then warm up with a fire when you get home,” said Konstantino. “What I like about the Rais stoves – other than how nice they look and how they make really beautiful flames that are enjoyable to look at – is that they heat up fast. It’s not a high-mass stove where you need to keep it burning all the time. It’s what we use in our showroom. It was 15 degrees outside last night, and we had no heat on here all night. The first one here lights the fire and everything warms right up.”
 
Another energy efficient solution at Maine Green is the SolarSheat system. It’s a seemingly low-tech hot air collector that requires no electricity and can be installed by any carpenter. “You can get up to 5,000 BTUs an hour,” Konstantino contends. “It’s like having a good south facing window, but you don’t get the heat loss at night.”
 
Electric radiant has its place, too – primarily in the bathroom. “Everyone in Maine who has tile in their bathroom knows how cold the tile becomes in wintertime. It’s terrible,” Steve laments. That makes the SmartRoom radiant system a popular choice. “It makes a big difference,” he notes. “And if you just take the chill out of the tile in the morning, you end up keeping your central heat lower.”
 
Contractor Friendly. Steve and key staffer Jason Peacock have extensive experience in residential construction. Another valued team member, Jennifer Thomasson, contributes her background in kitchen design. “We have pretty deep construction knowledge here, and we sell mostly to contractors… about 80 percent of our business,” said Konstantino.
 
In working with their pro clients, Maine Green emphasizes easy adjustments. “We always look for things that are easy substitutes and aren’t technically complicated for the guys in the field,” Steve points out. Most contractors would prefer to avoid products that require a long learning curve that might lead to mistakes on the job or throw off their timeline.
 
That philosophy is what makes products like Bonded Logic’s UltraTouch Insulation a good fit. The recycled cotton batts are an easy substitute for fiberglass. “It’s no harder to handle or install, and it’s actually quicker and easier in a lot of ways,” Konstantino declared. Maine Green actually advertised the product with a picture of Steve’s young daughter hugging the product while wearing a pink dress. “We liked the idea of showing the pink dress with the blue insulation. The ad said, ‘Pink is for dresses, Blue is for Insulation.’”
 
While Maine Green Building Supply is best known for its energy efficiency products – such as solar heating, lighting and daylighting, insulation, heat pumps and other HVAC systems – they’re also well equipped to supply a variety of additional building materials from their 5,500 square foot space. Today’s product mix includes emission free kitchen cabinets, sustainable countertops, reclaimed wood flooring, and paints and finishes. They also distribute lumber, architectural plywood, wood and fiberglass windows, wall systems and roof systems, moisture barriers, and other builder materials.
 
When practical, Maine Green Building Supply looks for products made in New England, both to contain shipping costs and to minimize a product’s carbon footprint.
 
Konstantino is quite excited about DeadHead Lumber, a locally sourced line of flooring. The supplier recovers logs that have been sunk for 150 to 200 years – old growth logs lost during log drives from way back when, preserved because they’ve been under water all that time. “The wood is all beautiful old-growth material that you can’t find any more,” said Konstantino. “But their butcher block counters are really amazing, too, and they can ship those anywhere.”
 
Another east coast supplier is Executive Cabinets, which manufactures the Eco Friendly Cabinet line from formaldehyde free wood, coated with odorless VOC-free finishes. They also had to go a little out of state for Vermont Natural Coatings, which has proven popular with flooring clients.
 
But after 10 years in business, Konstantino has learned to temper his product enthusiasm a bit. “I can do all the research and decide ‘Wow, this is a great green product and people should use it,’ but that doesn’t mean that people will use it,” he admits.
 
That’s experience that Steve would like to drop into some additional locations. He was deep into opening a satellite store in 2008, but pulled back at what turned out to be the start of the recession. “If I look forward 5 years, I still see us opening more locations,” he said. “My model for that is a turn-key location with an owner/manager/investor in that location. It’s completely different from a franchise, with no up-front fee. The other location would share our website, inventory, technical expertise, volume buying, with us handling the inventory from here and shoveling it to that location. All the showroom design, set-up, and fixtures would be constructed here.”
 
As Konstantino sees it, an ideal ‘partner’ would be a knowledgeable construction industry veteran who is willing to work at marketing and sales to contractors and builders.

Sound Familiar?


Energetic Discussions
 
Maine Green Building Supply doesn’t offer classes, lunch & learns, or other education events. But they do host a building science discussion group that meets monthly. All of the group participants work in the building trades: architects, engineers, energy auditors, and contractors. Homeowners are not invited. A typical session might draw 35-40 people.
 
Before the meetings, Konstantino tries to pick a topic that will stimulate some lively debate, and the group moderator keeps the discussion friendly. “Everyone tries to be open minded so that a contractor can talk about things that they’ve done on the job without repercussion, other than a little ribbing,” he said. “Someone might say, ‘Oh I did this and it was a disaster!’ Well, it’s a bit safer to admit something like that in front of this group than in a room full of customers. After all, everyone in the contruction industry has probably done something on the job that they’ve had questions about afterwards.
 
“These people are here because they are very interested in doing things better,” Steve continued, “and very concerned about energy usage and durability in building, and in environmental quality. These are the guys who study because they want to be good at what they do.
 
“It’s free, people have fun… and we loosen them up with a couple of beers, too,” he joked.



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