July Green-Biz Interview: Brian Higgins of Green Home, LLC
“I started this company when I became convinced that green building was simply 21st Century building technology,” says Brian Higgins of Green Home, LLC. “When I look around and see what is happening to our planet, I am constantly reminded that we human beings, as an animal species, as intelligent beings, as a spiritual force, need to do better.”
We asked Brian to tell us more about Green Home LLC, energy efficiency, reusable materials, and the evolution of the green economy.
Green America: What does your business do?
Brian Higgins: Green Home is a Maryland-based home-improvement company located in Hyattsville, MD. We began as Union Renovators in 2001, and this is our 11th year. We provide energy-saving, healthy, earth-friendly home additions, renovations, and solar heating. Lately we have been re-doing quite a few bathrooms and kitchens.
What makes Green Home, LLC a sustainable, green business?
Brian: We put into practice the principle of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” by working in existing houses, and renovating the spaces already there. We encourage ENERGY STAR appliances and put into place necessary and/or optimum levels of air sealing and insulation. We return salvageable materials to the Community Forklift, one of the nation’s first building-materials thrift stores, for reuse by others; and we sort and recycle metals and paper-based waste whenever possible. All customer requests are first filtered by me through a green building sieve, to find the greenest, most affordable way to handle any project, no matter how small. For larger jobs such as additions and major renovations, we work with LEED- and green-credentialed architects.
Regarding green technology, we sell and install SolarSheat 1500 series Solar Hot Air Collectors, which can save customers 20 percent on their heating bills. Also, there is a solar hot water tie-in, which allows year round-use of the same collectors, giving hot water in summer, and hot air in winter.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Brian: I was a union carpenter, working on commercial and governmental projects around the Washington, DC metro area. I was a farmworker and a hobo before that.
My first experience with the beauty of carpentry came when I was very young, while my family’s home was being built. I liked the patterns and shapes created by the wood framing. This is why carpentry is one of the practical arts. I sometimes kid with my workers saying: “We are creating ART here, people!”
I strayed from that during most of my youth, but I finally circled back around to an entry-level job with a residential remodeler. From there I joined the Carpenters Union, seeking better wages and working conditions. I have always been independent-minded, and I wanted to work on houses, and the only way to do that was go out on my own. I had plenty of experience at independence, since my “college” education was spent thumbing rides along the nation’s highways. So I found I had transferable skills.
In 2005, the green, healthy, and earth-friendly building market was untapped or even unheard of. Green Home became official in March of 2006, and we have seen the green marketplace explode since then, where now even totally ungreen corporations like Chevron feel compelled to paint themselves green. It is obvious that a social, even epochal, change is occurring here, across the entire human spectrum. I would say it’s about time.(interview continues below photo)
|Green Home LLC installed a SolarSheat 1500G, a black aluminum flat plate solar hot air collector, on this home in West Virginia. Sunshine provides radiant energy, which absorbed by the collector. A photovoltaic DC fan blows sun-heated air into the house, providing renewable solar heating.|
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Brian: Choices can become even harder when work is slow, because then it becomes a question of survival. There is also a balancing which must be done with a customer’s finances.
For example, recently we completed a bath project, which mostly consisted of leveling a severely racked floor, and installing new flooring and fixtures. The customer was just moving into his first house, and could not afford a nice flooring like ceramic tile, or one of the Marmoluems. So he bought and we installed sheet vinyl, which wouldn’t have been our first choice. We used Armstrong Releasable adhesive, which, if he can switch to a nicer floor in a few years, at least will come up without too much damage to the subfloor, and fortunately, the adhesive was low-VOC. I tried to direct him to the Community Forklift, for secondhand flooring, or to a similar resource in Baltimore. Those would have been greener choices.
Had I told him “We don’t install sheet vinyl, period,” my customer would have found someone else to do that work. When faced with a bad choice, we mitigate as much as possible. If the selection had been better at the time, he might have bought re-used vinyl from the Forklift. Here, we at least used an intelligent adhesive, which probably would not have been chosen by another contractor.
My marketing is all around green building, and my customers mostly come to me already on board, and wanting to build green. That’s not always the case, so then we look for opportunities to educate homeowners about the benefits of energy-efficient, healthy, and Earth-friendly construction.
What is the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Brian: Well, I am actually rather busy right now, and I have work scheduled ahead for a little while. That does give me a feeling of relief. And these are all green building projects. So the hopeful and inspiring part of that is that all of the calls that have come in are referrals, and folks are asking for, and open to, green, earth-friendly solutions.
What is still missing though, is something beyond the scope of the polite debate: That “economy” exists within “ecology” or the “Earth House Hold” as Poet Gary Snyder wrote about way back in the 1960’s, and a sustainable economy must exist for all the worlds peoples to have “enough”. Which is to say: certain economic sectors such as energy production and agricultural production , are controlled by capitalists who really do have their foot on the throat of humankinds’ hope for the future. Witness
the failure of Rio (+/-)20 , and it is clear, the people are way out in front on whether or not we should have a sustainable planet.
Huge, seemingly insurmountable, political and economic forces still control the debate, and thus the somewhat miserable outcomes of the last 20 years. So what is missing is a new kind of economy, one in which the people decide, and the grasses, and dolphins, and the air and earth herself, all have a real say in the outcome. As David Suzuki put it, on Pacifica Radio Democracy Now!, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as Americans, or French, or Catholic, or Jewish, et. al., and begin we realizing we are human beings, and we still have this only planet, and the snowcaps are melting, we have to correct this for everyone.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Brian: Write a business plan, get help from your local Small Business Development Council, know your product, and really ascertain if what you have to provide is green, always look for ways to do it better, have a partner, know and understand your market. You are probably going to have to
educate folks about green. You are going to have to price your product fairly, which means, you have to eat, your company must survive, and your customer has to be able to afford it.
What do you know “now” that you wish you knew “then”?
Brian: I wish I had my accounts set up properly from the beginning, and that I had always had a bookkeeper. I started this business knowing little about business organization, and even less about bookkeeping.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Brian: It seems kind of meager, but I am beginning to see FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified lumber showing up in local lumberyards more and more. Way back in the 1990’s, I went around to local lumberyards with official FSC folders and information, and spoke with material suppliers about the
importance of sustainable lumber. It has taken more than 12 years to see that come to fruition.
What are you most excited about going forward?
Brian: Completing the projects on hand, and I am looking forward to new ones coming down the pike. I would like to find ways to improve sales of SolarSheat, since they have lagged since the economy took it’s
What green business can you not live without?
Brian: Community Forklift, the thrift store for building materials, where I share office and storage space currently, in Hyattsville, MD.