‘Green’ home businesses see interest growing again

The recession changed the market for high-quality, energy-efficient, "green" homes.

The recession changed the market for high-quality, energy-efficient, “green” homes.

“Things have changed dramatically,” said Frank Laskey, president of Capital Construction in Ballston Spa. “The only buyers are people looking for bargains.”

Laskey’s company is the developer of the Louden Ridge subdivision in Wilton, which includes homes starting at $600,000.

Prior to 2008 there was considerable interest in these upscale homes on environmentally sensitive lots that offer a “full house” approach to energy savings and healthy surroundings.

Laskey’s homes, many of which are designed by the Phinney Design Group of Saratoga Springs, have been the focus of local and national newspaper and magazine stories about environmentally sound construction, often using recycled materials.

The interest in this “green” approach vanished during the recession because of some of the higher costs involved. This has been tough on Capital Construction’s business.

“We are doing a lot more green renovations and restorations,” Laskey said. He has built five homes in Louden Ridge but none recently.

Laskey said he has reduced his staff to eight people from a high of 38 people in 2002. He said he has kept the people “who have been with me forever.”

“We are just trying to stay in business,” Laskey said.

One of the problems is that many banks have made it much more difficult to get financing for new construction. He said Adirondack Trust in Saratoga Springs is one of the few banks that have been “reasonable” about such financing.

Interest growing

But Laskey and others in “green” businesses have been seeing an improvement and a renewed interest in recent months.

“Things are starting to loosen up, more people are looking,” Laskey said. “We are not there yet.”

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority also notes an uptick in people seeking energy-efficient residential construction.

NYSERDA coordinates grants and financial incentives for people who incorporate green design practices and energy-efficient and alternative energy technologies into their projects.

“The demand for the services offered by contractors in the Home Performance with Energy Star program continues along an impressive curve, despite the down economy,” said Colleen Ryan, a NYSERDA spokeswoman.

The number of projects completed through this incentive program was up 27 percent in the first 11 months of 2009 as compared with the same period in 2008, Ryan said.

“The dollar value of the work performed in the program between January and November of 2009 was up more than 15 percent from the same period in 2008,” she said.

Through November, some 5,627 Home Performance projects had been completed in 2009, as compared with 5,217 projects in all of 2008.

Michael Phinney, the founding principal in the Phinney Design Group in Saratoga Springs, said his firm is starting to see a renewed interest in green design in new homes.

The Phinney Design Group includes six architects, two interior designers and two support staff employees.

“Green is a big part of what we do in every project,” Phinney said. He said people like the payback based on energy savings and lower long-term maintenance costs.

Phinney said his company also saw a slowdown in business in the summer of 2009. He said custom residential design projects “dried up” in 2008 through the fall of 2009.

“That has started to break,” Phinney said. He said his firm had three homes in the design stage in late 2009.

Instead of residential design, the Phinney group kept busy during the recession in multiuse commercial and resort and spa work.

For example, his people designed the interior of the new Aveda salon in the Crossgates Mall in Guilderland and designed the renovation and expansion of the Sagamore resort on Lake George in Bolton Landing.

Smaller projects

He said the past year has featured “steady, smaller work, [such as] interior space for new tenants.”

“We are fortunate enough to stay steady,” Phinney said. He said some architectural firms have had hard times over the past year.

Phinney said there has been a great deal of competition for work, especially public projects.

For example, he said a request for proposals for the design of a good-sized project will have 30 to 40 firms submitting proposals when in the past there would be 10 or 12 firms submitting.

“We have lost projects to huge firms, worldwide firms,” Phinney said.

Karen Totino, the owner of Green Conscience Home and Garden store at 33 Church St. in Saratoga Springs, started her business during the recession.

“Considering that we opened at the worst time, at the peak of the recession, we are doing OK,” Totino said.

Green Conscience sells toxic-free “green” flooring and carpeting and Eco-timber products made with hardwoods and exotic woods that have been “sustainably harvested.”

The store also features locally made materials and products such as pottery and other ceramics.

She said business isn’t what she had originally projected but “we are certainly holding our own.”

“Business is picking up,” Totino said. “It started in November.”

She said more people are looking for green home products and recycled and high-quality building materials. “It’s not the cheapest but it’s something nice, high quality, that will last,” Totino said.

She said people are becoming more interested in environmentally sound, quality products. “These are good investments, non-toxic, sustainable and good quality,” she said.

She said Green Conscience has survived the recession because her expectations were not for an immediate booming enterprise.

“I was still in the growth stage,” Totino said. “The business is growing.”

David Delozier, the publisher of the new, free Upper Hudson Valley Eco-Local Living magazine, also started his publication during the recession.

Delozier, who publishes the magazine in Saratoga Springs, said he had been laid off from his job in sales for a home improvement company.

“On a leap of faith, I jumped into publishing this magazine,” Delozier said.

Spreading the word

The magazine gathers and shares information about local sustainable businesses in the Capital Region.

The Eco-Local mission is to “provide benefit to all those who seek a vibrant, living local economy by promoting neighborhood businesses that are committed to whole ecology thinking and practices and the health food options available by supporting our local farming community.”

“I saw a niche that was not being served,” he said. He said the magazine, which is filled with ads, discusses healthy lifestyles and alternative energy, things like eating organically grown food and using recycled products.

He said he saw magazines like his in Boulder, Colo., Portland, Ore., and Burlington, Vt., but not in the Saratoga-Albany area.

The magazine includes full-page ads for solar energy companies, such as Adirondack Solar.

“The solar guys tapped into [government] incentives and have made solar [energy] more affordable,” he said.

Delozier said the demand for solar energy in homes and businesses has increased over the past year. “There are generous incentives,” he said.

He said his green “mantra” is: “Buy less, buy local.”

“You change your diet somewhat,” he said. “You don’t eat as much meat but buy higher quality [vegetables] from local farms.”

He said an example of the popularity of the sustainable buy local concept is the Greenmarket in Schenectady that is held outdoors near City Hall in the warmer months and in the Proctor’s arcade during the winter.

Delozier writes many of the articles in his magazine himself and contracts out for graphic design, printing and distribution.

He sees the economy turning the corner not with the return of big, national companies but at the local level.

“Mom and pop now is an opportunity,” Delozier said. “Start that business you always wanted to.”

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