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How Green Building Can Increase Profit and Lessen Impact

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How Green Building Can Increase Profit and Lessen Impact

In this Taking Care of Business segment, green builder and designer Steve Pallrand joins our host Duane Johns to talk about the benefits of offering green services, plus how to incorporate green practices into your design process

 


July 10, 2024
custom builder podcast
Taking Care of Business Host Duane Johns sits down with Builder Steve Pallrand, president of CarbonShack and Home Front Build

Green builder Steve Pallrand doesn't care if you believe in climate change. 

Green building is changing, and so is its client base, says Pallrand, president of Los Angeles-based design-build firms Home Front Build and CarbonShack. The client base for carbon-reducing projects is increasing, and Pallrand emphasizes the value of education to capture these clients.

"If you want to get all those potential clients out there, you need to know what the sustainable options are so that you can offer them to your client," says Pallrand. "Let's keep our politics out of it. Just widen your client base." 

In this Taking Care of Business segment, Host Duane Johns sits down with Pallrand to talk all things green building, including the shifts in buyer demand, budget considerations, and material selection.

"I always tell designers, just be the smartest person in the room," says Pallrand. "Know more about induction cooktops than the next person, and you'll get more jobs."

 

Watch more Taking Care of Business at Custom Builder's YouTube channel  


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Q+A: Integrating Sustainability and Architecture



Transcript:

Duane Johns: Today's guest founded Home Front Build approximately 20 years ago as a design-build company that specializes in renovating and restoring homes. He and his team have long encouraged clients to incorporate sustainability as part of the renovation process. He also launched his sustainable-only design-build and interior design products company, CarbonShack, a few years ago to dive heavily into his eco-focus and where he feels design-build needs to go. His background in construction, architecture, architectural history, painting, and set design has aided him in pulling together a diverse group of artists, craftsmen, architects, and designers who work on the CarbonShack projects. It's my pleasure to welcome Steve Pallrand to this edition of Taking Care of Business. Welcome, Steve.

Steve Pallrand: Thank you, glad to be here.

Johns: So Steve, according to your website, Los Angeles is undervalued as an architectural landscape. I'd love for you to tell us a little more about that. 

 

Working With Los Angeles Architecture (0:49)

Pallrand: Well, Los Angeles is obviously the butt of many jokes and stuff. You know, it is wonderful driving around Southern California because it's an immigrant community post-Mexican American War, and what you see is that all these different waves of immigrants brought their domestic vernacular style to Los Angeles. 

So you have Tudor Revival, a wide range of homes, and also we are the place where Craftsman originated in California, particularly because of Greene and Greene. And of course, the emblematic or iconic style of the Spanish Colonial Revival that comes from the mission. So we have these wonderful styles that originated here, primarily the mid-century modern, the Craftsman, and the Spanish and Mission revivals. But then we have all these other styles. 

So as you drive around Los Angeles, it's like driving through a dictionary of American domestic architecture. It's really very rich. When I'm in other areas of the country, and I'm from the East Coast, you know, it's very rigorously Colonial Revival or Shingle Style. Out here, I think because of the, in some sense, lack of history, there was just a lot more freedom to invent, which is sort of our classic vision of California. But it's really true in the architectural style. The only historic style we would argue is this invented style of the Spanish Colonial Revival.

Johns: It seems as what you see in LA is what's starting to happen in other cities just much later, like Charlotte. I mean, I'm originally from the Northeast but moved to Charlotte close to 25 years ago, and it was very traditional. Neighborhood after neighborhood, Charlotte looked very much the same. But over the last 25 years, it's become very diverse due to the influx of people from all around different areas. So yeah, it seems like Los Angeles probably had that influx just a lot sooner than other places.

Pallrand: When you have that diversity of styles out there, then it's not so unnatural to choose something new because there is such a wide diversity. New things fit in because there's such a wide range of styles.

 

Pallrand's Background (3:30)

Johns: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where are you from, and how did you even get into the industry?

Pallrand: Well, I actually got into it when I was in high school and college. I worked for an architect and also a contractor, so I had the design-build built into me when I was very young. I would work on the architectural plans and then go pound some nails and hang some drywall.

I also had an interest in film, which led me astray for a little while. I built sets, using my design and construction background, and that brought me to California. The entertainment business out here goes through these cyclical constrictions of strikes and all sorts of things, and you just get a little sick of that. So I returned to my roots. I bought a Craftsman house that was boarded up. I took my mom by it and said, "Look what I'm buying—my first house!" She burst into tears, saying, "How could my son buy such a wreck?" But I saw it as a gem, and it really was. That was my first residential restoration project.

I have an architectural history background too. In college, I was a studio art major and an architectural history major. I was very interested in the history of the home itself. I found that the house originally had gas electric lighting, so I restored all the gas electric lighting. I found the traces of the original stencil murals and restored all that. It was a wonderful restoration project. People in the neighborhood would stop by and ask if I could work on their houses. At the time, I was working in the film business, but gradually, I transitioned out of that with my crew and started doing residential work in the vernacular styles.

Working in the historic traditional market, I realized we were the greenest people around. When USC or a developer was taking a house apart—a Craftsman house or something—to make way for multi-family housing to increase density, we would go in and take the house apart. We had all the parts: real 2x4s, redwood siding with the mill marks that matched the Craftsman homes, the flooring, and all the component parts. We had them piled in our yard so that we could use them on our Craftsman additions, making the additions look very compatible with the original house.

I realized one day, walking through my yard with three Craftsman houses piled over here, two Victorians, and one Spanish, that we were the greenest people around. We were encouraging people to take their existing homes, not tear them down, but modify and adapt them for the way we live today, insulating them and changing their energy systems.

 

CarbonShack and Home Front Build (6:41)

Pallrand: That's what started the CarbonShack project. I really wanted to focus that company on sustainability, working with people who really wanted their homes to align with their values. The project is really about optimizing the client's relationship with the natural world. We focus on how to reduce the carbon footprint in that company.

Johns: I mean, as you said, it's maybe the first real foray into sustainability. Why not just save what's there and rebuild it, revitalize it? Tell us more about the business side. Is it two separate businesses, Home Front and CarbonShack? Tell us what each is and what you do.

Pallrand: I mean, you know, they're really one business, but the reason why I separated them was to appeal to different clients. Often, people who are interested in a Tesla would get scared off coming to a website with Model T's and Corvettes on it. It was really about trying to appeal to a contemporary design market. Knowing that, having those people go to a site where they saw grandma and grandpa's house was going to turn them off.

So, really, the two companies are completely synonymous. When we do our traditional home remodels, we integrate solar into clay roof tiles, add rigid insulation, and change out the windows to dual-pane. We're keeping it looking traditional, but those homes are some of our most advanced sustainable projects.

We realized if we wanted to reach a wider, contemporary market, we had to create a different website that didn't look so traditional. It's really just a slight sleight of hand, but our company does exactly the same thing in both markets.

Johns: And it's truly design-build?

 

Benefits of Working in a Design-Build Model (8:51)

Pallrand: Yes. We're not paper contractors. The beauty of what we do is we also create products for the home, like light fixtures, tiles, and furniture. Designers have great ideas, but it's the impact with the craftspeople that really brings those designs to life. Frank Lloyd Wright had great ideas, but when you look at his projects, you realize the craftsperson made many choices that Frank didn't necessarily think of.

So, the craftsperson is crucial, and bringing that into our company has been wonderful. For example, on one sustainability project, our environmental analyst was chatting with the head of our plaster and stucco department, Alonso. Alonso mentioned an old technique he learned from his grandfather, using old leather shoes to apply stucco and mixing straw into plaster to reduce costs and carbon footprint. We incorporated this beautiful technique—integral color plaster mixed with straw—into our homes, enhancing both aesthetics and sustainability.

For us, it's a team approach of designers and craftspeople. When we build furniture, I might have a plan for a sideboard, but it's the craftsman who decides where the grain goes and makes those micro-choices. That teamwork is integral to our approach.

 

How Green/Sustainable Building is Changing (11:14)

Johns: What were you really focused on from a sustainability standpoint, and what has changed over the last 10 to 15 years with changes in technologies, high performance, and energy codes? Has your focus changed at all?

Pallrand: I think one of our roles as designers or contractors, professionals, whatever position we're in, is to educate. I always say to people, I don't really care if you believe in climate change or your political leanings—it doesn't matter. The client base is changing; they're interested in reducing their carbon footprints. If you want to reach all those potential clients, you need to know sustainable options to offer them.

Let's keep our politics out of it. The more you know about induction cooktops, solar, and other sustainable technologies, the wider your client base will be. I always tell designers, be the smartest person in the room about these options, and you'll attract more clients. Clients often don't know what options are available, so as design professionals, we need to bring these solutions to the table, even if they don't ask for them. It's essential to discuss choices early in the conversation, not just how many bedrooms and bathrooms someone wants. Bring those into the conversation early.

Johns: How early is too early?

 

When and How to Talk Sustainability in a Project with Trade Partners and Clients (12:55)

Pallrand: It's not. It's not just traditional design versus sustainability. The issue arises when an architecture or design firm decides to make a project sustainable but leaves the execution to subcontractors, especially in residential and commercial settings. This approach often leads to failures because if sustainability considerations are left until the end, subcontractors may face challenges like inadequate chases for HVAC systems, improper door and window jam sizes for adding rigid insulation, and other coordination issues.

The problem with leaving sustainability to the end is that it relies on uncoordinated subcontractors who may not have been integrated into the design process effectively. They end up trying to make it work without the necessary design foresight, leading to potential inefficiencies and compromises in sustainability goals.

Johns: How do you manage that conversation and get the clients involved again? You could talk to 10 different clients and get 10 different reasons why they want to do something. Some may be focused on healthy living, others on reducing their carbon footprint, and others on using green building materials. How do you get clients engaged early?

Pallrand: You know, it is about figuring out where their interests lie—whether it's home health, reducing their carbon footprint, or cutting utility bills. Again, it's about education, offering options, and knowing those options well. For example, a heat pump water heater costs about the same to install as a tankless gas water heater. If you present this to the client and explain that with a heat pump water heater and solar panels, they could eliminate utility bills within five years, it can get them excited about the possibilities.

Building someone's house is a deeply personal and emotional experience. It's about creating a home, meeting expectations in life, and staying within budget. It's like a short-term, intense marriage where trust is crucial. By collaborating early, educating, and guiding clients, you build a relationship of trust. They'll stick with you, refer you to others, and that's how we've grown our business—through referrals.

Johns: There's so much to absorb as a client, and things change rapidly. A perfect example is here in Charlotte. Twenty years ago, the case could be made that a gas furnace was simply better than a heat pump. It was cheaper, people found it more comfortable—it was the preferred option. Now, with proper design and insulation, a heat pump far outperforms a gas system. But people need to be educated on that. They often go by what they heard years ago, and even some contractors stick to what they grew up with. Education is crucial for understanding these changes.

Pallrand: If you just focus on tile colors and finishes, it can feel like a sterile and detached process. But once clients start discussing how their house functions as an organism and understand the options available—for instance, how they can choose to heat their water and the impact it has—people do get excited. They begin to engage more deeply with their home because they're learning about its workings and possibilities.

 

Green Building Isn't About Being Perfect—Don't Scare Your Clients (17:15)

Johns: When we talked earlier and discussed some ideas for a topic, one of the bullet points you sent me was about "allowing the clients not to be perfect." What do you mean by that?

Pallrand: I think that's very important. For example, in Los Angeles, there are very few LEED-certified homes and even fewer passive houses. The bar is set so high that not everyone can achieve it. Maybe you're just doing a remodel and you can't achieve LEED or passive house perfection, but you can make thoughtful choices along the way.

Orthodox standards can turn people off conceptually and practically. If we insist on only building perfect, orthodox passive houses, many people will be deterred by the cost and complexity. But if we make sustainable choices that are feasible within someone's budget and needs—like installing a heat pump water heater or improving insulation—we can still make significant progress. For instance, I recently worked on a traditional Spanish Colonial Revival home that achieved high sustainability with solar panels, a heat pump water heater, insulation, and dual-pane windows, but the client insisted on having a gas range. That's okay—it's about getting them most of the way there.

We should encourage progress, whether it's 40%, 50%, or 60% towards sustainability goals. Chasing certifications can be straightforward, but true sustainability means making choices that fit the client's context and needs.

 

Not Using Green Certifications in Projects (19:12)

Johns: With that being said, do you follow any specific certifications, or do you prefer to take a more holistic approach in your design?

Pallrand: We don't prioritize certifications in our work. While certifications like LEED are important and provide credibility, especially in commercial projects, we take a more flexible approach in residential design. We draw from various options and guidelines without strictly adhering to a single certification.

To help homeowners understand the impact of their choices, we developed a useful tool called SustainableBuild.org. This website allows users to input their ZIP code and make micro choices, like switching to a heat pump water heater or adding solar panels, to see how it affects their carbon footprint compared to other homes in their area. It's a free tool that provides comparative insights, helping people make informed decisions aligned with their budget and sustainability goals.

 

Sticking to Budgets and Dialing in Material Choices (21:08)

Johns: How do you look at any particular project and kind of come up with a strategy around, "Okay here's how we're going to attack?" 

Pallrand: I's goals but it really comes down to budget I guess. You know it is what the client can afford, so that's where you have to be very mindful and and aware of what these costs are and help them choose the best path.

Johns: Well to your point, I mean LEED's great but if you can't afford it, it's not doing you any good but if you're doing the best you can with your budget that's a great approach.

Pallrand: Yeah if you can get 50%, and everybody does 50%, wow well, we've solved the problem.

Johns: How full boar do you go with design? I mean you're getting into HVAC design and crazy with insulation? Are you bringing in a third parties for that? How are you approaching?

Pallrand: Well you know residential we have to, in California, for commercial projects, you have to bring in a mechanical engineer to handle the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing aspects. However, in residential projects, it's typically designed and built by subcontractors. We tend to work with subcontractors whose work we know well, and they can offer creative solutions for us.

So yeah, we do get into it. When dealing with sustainability, we try not to lower what we're aiming to achieve. It's almost as if sustainability—I kind of don't even want to use that word anymore. I might switch to biophilia because sustainability is about the love of nature, whereas sustainability itself can sometimes feel like just buying hemp sheets on Amazon. Biophilia is more about lifestyle—it's wanting more natural light, more access to nature. It's about sitting in a room and seeing the trees, the river, or the marsh. So biophilia is about bringing nature and natural light into the home. But we have to look at biophilia holistically. It's not just about using nature; it's also about what we're doing to nature, our impact.

So when you look at biophilia, it's about enjoying nature and also stewardship, making sure we understand the impact of our actions because that's important. It's important to understand the impact of what we're doing. For example, when selecting finishes, there are easy ways to lower your carbon footprint. If you buy local and opt for durable materials, like tile, which is often shipped from overseas on container ships and contributes significantly to pollution, buying locally reduces that carbon footprint. Tile, despite being a fired new material, can be argued for because of its durability compared to other products.

So, you really have to think through your options. Often, I admit I have this problem: do you want a solar array or an extra bathroom? In most cases, people choose the extra bathroom. It's a tough conversation to have to get people to be sustainable. Traditionally, there's an architecture or design firm and a contractor, and between them, the client ends up bearing most of the cost. In rental construction, plans are not as detailed as NASA's space shuttles; they don't identify every thread on every bolt. There are always loose ends. However, with design-build, we take care of the client throughout. We have to choose the right tile body and tile trim with the same depth so that it fits together seamlessly in the field. If it doesn't, it's our responsibility for the implementation. We really consider all these aspects because we're responsible throughout the entire project. I think people appreciate the seamlessness of the final product.

 

 

 

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