Talking about Green Opportunities with Eric Corey Freed, Organic Architect

Eric Corey Freed

Eric Corey Freed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They say that every cloud has a silver lining.  In the case of the cloud hanging over the building industry it seems to have a green one.  The building industry has been at the epicenter of the housing crisis, the credit crunch, and the recession, all rolled into one.  Housing starts have plummeted to record lows, but through all of this, the green building movement has kept on growing.

 

 

As principal of organicARCHITECT in San Francisco, Eric Corey Freed is a well known and highly-regarded green architect, helping the green building movement in its quest to change our buildings to be part of a more sustainable world.  Through his speaking, design work, consulting, and educational work he reaches out to the broad and growing green building community.  He is the author of Green Building and Remodeling for Dummies, and working on two books, Sustainable Schools, and Green Home Green Pockets, both coming out at the end of 2009.  I recently spoke with Eric about the opportunities in green building and the rest of the green economy.

 

While nobody is immune from our economic turmoil, green building seems to be doing relatively well.  “There have been statistics that while building was down in 2008 green building was up 30%, although this does not include the fourth quarter,” said Freed.  “Everything is slow lately, but specific, different areas have picked up.  For example, building owners who are looking to stand out in the market are turning to greening buildings.  There’s a pick up in the business for large commercial projects where green building is a good differentiator to stand out in a tough market.”

 

While green building is holding up well, the economic situation has had an impact, changing the features people look for in buildings.  “The downturn forces people to rethink priorities,” said Freed.  “I’ve seen a definite transition from green finishes which might be seen as a luxury to saving energy and saving water.”  The continued strength in green building can be attributed to the value it provides as a long term trend and not a fad. “We estimate that on average it costs about $4 per square foot to get LEED certified, but it pays for itself at a rate of $67 per square foot including energy saved, according to the US Green Building Council,” said Freed. “In times like these people bear down, turning to options like solar panels where there is an economic benefit.  We’ll see a boom in companies like Sustainable Spaces that address energy efficiency in buildings, and we’ll see businesses like this around the country.  Any contractor or home inspector could make this transition to the green collar economy.”

 

The green building movement creates opportunities for a variety of workers and businesses.  “I would say that there are opportunities for any trade that is loosely connected to energy or utilities (including water or sewer), whether manual, blue collar work, companies that are leasing solar equipment, or Joe the green plumber,” Freed said.  “The more that green building grows, the more pressure and opportunity there is for these business, but they have to change.  They have to change what they do, change their marketing, and change their priorities.”

 

Economics have a big impact on decisions and priorities, as we have seen in the wild swing in the price of gas.  “When gas was $4 a gallon, businesses had to change, and people were choosing smaller cars and smarter driving habits,” said Freed.  “The same goes for electricity.  When we have a carbon tax, when the cost of electricity goes up from 12 cents to 24 cents a kilowatt-hours, everyone will have to address energy efficiency.  The important thing is that it’s not from an abstract carbon footprint perspective, but from showing a tangible impact on the bottom line.”

 

There is a huge opportunity for businesses that improve the energy efficiency in millions of existing buildings in the US, helping to save money now and save resources.  To start a business improving the energy efficiency of buildings, some specific certifications are needed but they can be readily achieved.  “The main certification is Energy Star HERS rating,” said Freed.  “HERS raters are trained and certified in energy efficiency and building.  You have to take a class and take a test, very similar to home inspectors.”

 

These new business opportunities are part of the rising green collar economy, providing good jobs and businesses for those displaced from older, greyer, industries.  In addition to those who work on buildings, there are a wealth of opportunities for related businesses such as marketing, billing, web design firms, education, and other essential services.  “Along with the surge in companies that are part of the green economy there will be an equal surge in companies like these that are fluent in the language of sustainability, such as marketing companies that know how to speak to consumers about these things,” said Freed.

 

Beyond the first and second wave of green businesses, there will be a third wave, the teachers, Freed predicts.  “The first wave is the people doing the hands on work in the field with green collar jobs in renewable energy or green building,” said Freed.  “The second is the people doing the marketing, websites, accounting, hiring, and whatever else businesses need behind the scenes.  The third wave is teaching, at all levels.  We need people that take all of this information and make it available in an easy way for all sorts of green building topics, and other sustainable business areas.  We need good teachers.”

 

If you are thinking about getting involved by starting a green business, what should you keep in mind?  Freed advices green entrepreneurs to be humble.   “There is nothing wrong with saying we know we’re not perfect.  You can say ‘These are the things we’re doing, and here’s what we want to do that we haven’t figured out yet,” but not making broad claims about being green.  Look at the most admired companies working on sustainability, like Interface.  Ray Anderson will tell you all the things he’s doing wrong, things he is still figuring out.  Be humble and honest.”

 

“When somebody comes out and says we’re a green company, and its one green product, then they can really get in trouble with consumers.  They would be better to lay it out, to be honest, and open, to say, ‘Well, we’ve only got one green shoe today, but here is where the problems are, and we’ll keep working on it.’  Businesses don’t like it a lot of times, but there’s nothing wrong with saying ‘We don’t know how to do that yet.’”

 

Building a green business is not just a destination, but an ongoing journey.  “These things take time,” said Freed.  “It doesn’t happen overnight, but plant these seeds now and it will happen.  The more seeds you plant, the better, as long as they are the right seeds to help create the change.”  It sounds like there is plenty of room still for entrepreneurs to plant seeds today for the green businesses of tomorrow. 

 

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