Navigating today's uncertain economic waters demands strong planning, sharp instincts and steady nerves. Fortunately, remodeling provides some ballast during construction downturns. Green remodeling could be an attractive addition to a recessionary survival kit. Green remodeling is perhaps more familiar to electrical contractors (ECs) who have worked on commercial renovation projects that seek green certification or must meet mandated green building practices. Now, the concept is moving to residential work as well.

Answering the call for both commercial and residential green remodeling is the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), in Washington, D.C. Its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) professional accreditation features an exam track in commercial interiors, which includes remodeling work. The voluntary LEED green building rating system recognizes sustainable efforts in new construction and existing buildings, using a progressive four-tier rating system (certified, silver, gold and platinum). USGBC’s recently launched REGREEN program is in partnership with the American Society of Interior Designers to assist residential contractors and homeowners with sustainable design remodeling.

USGBC is not alone. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating program acknowledges remodeling efforts in commercial and residential structures. Also, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) launched its own National Green Building Certification program, using a four-level rating to recognize sustainable practices in new and remodeled home projects. Like REGREEN, the NAHB Remodelers program offers green information and other resources, including Certified Green Professional accreditation.

Approaching the mainstream

Stefan Lopata, vice president for Kelso-Burnett Co., Rolling Meadows, Ill., finds the focus on sustainability remaining strong despite the economic downturn.

“Our green projects are on the front burner,” he said. “We’ve seen green initiatives from the smallest jobs that might specify LED lighting fixtures to major initiatives such as the remodeling of Chicago’s historic Palmer House hotel.”

Lopata sees sustainable remodeling largely driven by general contractors, project engineers and architects.

“Energy efficiency is the impetus,” he said. “I see sustainable build as an evolution in what our trade and others do.”

Jason Pore is a project manager for Kelso-Burnett. He too predicts green becoming the general standard for all construction.

“Almost every project that comes our way has an energy--savings objective, whether it’s LEED or otherwise,” he said.

Pore managed Kelso-Burnett’s share of the Palmer House Hilton restoration. Called a “masterpiece remodel,” the challenge was making a late 1800s building energy efficient.

“I would bet that any contractor working in a green remodeling project will leave smarter with new experience and expertise. It gives you a completely new set of credentials. That certainly was the case for us and the entire team involved in the Palmer House remodel,” Pore said.

The project grew to such a degree that two additional electrical contracting firms came in to handle the broadening scope. Teamwork was essential as the entire project team met once a week for more than a year and a half.

“I hadn’t worked on a building this old before,” Pore said. “The idea of trying to remodel a 133-year-old building was a test of acting on our feet that no amount of preplanning could help us prepare. We could not survey the entire work scope until we got to work and made discoveries. The project required some 1,300 RFIs [requests for information] and reissues. Most of the trades had a permit office on-site.”

Kelso-Burnett’s work involved retrofitting in energy-efficient lighting and systems within the hotel ballroom, lobby, restaurant and lounge.

“We worked with lighting designers to create lighting scenes for the restaurant, bar and ballroom,” Pore said. “We rewired fixtures including crystal chandeliers from the 1800s originally imported from France. Some fixtures were adapted for dimmers, others for compact fluorescents, and some with cold cathode, a type of neon that needs replacement maybe every 30 years and has a minimal draw.”

Preparing for green remodeling

Steven Witz, vice president of Continental Electrical Construction Co., Skokie, Ill., said every new sustainable project adds fresh abilities and credentials to a business. LEED commercial projects have introduced his company to many green power choices. A sustainability demo building for PepsiCo headquarters in Chicago needed photovoltaic (PV) arrays and wind turbine power. A green remodeling project for a high school involved distributed power generation featuring power stations that use microturbines powered by converted methane gas. Such projects required due diligence as Continental faced new horizons.

“Delving into green initiatives requires homework on your part,” Witz said. “In a remodeling effort, you might be faced with light-harvesting systems, lighting control panels or occupancy sensors. Not only do you need to learn how to install and run new technologies, you will need to know various requirements if the client is pursuing green certification. Be aware of state, federal and local green incentive programs that could help your client with costs.”

In both commercial and green residential projects, one of the first things a customer is likely to want is the payback time frame of said technologies or installations.

“First, we survey what’s out there,” Witz said. “Then, we do a payback analysis that is verifiable. In a retrofit situation, the analysis could involve a single technology or extend to an entire efficient lighting effort incorporating dimmers, fluorescents and sensors.”

“Every customer is different with new ideas on how to introduce sustainability into their buildings,” he said. “Be an adviser and be able to pinpoint the right equipment and materials to meet a client’s green needs. Be able to explain their operation and the dollar payback. It is a learning exercise in sustainability for both you and the customer.”

Even as green projects have slowed due to tightening capital for his company, Witz said they are still crucial.

“They remain an important and strategic way we broaden our services,” he said.

Grabbing residential work

A 2007 National Association of Realtors’ “Profile of Buyers Home Features Preferences” found more than 90 percent of homebuyers consider energy efficiency important when buying a home. Perhaps that comes as no surprise in today’s green-conscious climate. The NAHB offered some additional insight. It found 64 percent of consumers would pursue green homes or remodeling to reduce energy costs. Furthermore, Remodeling magazine surveyed 500 remodelers in its “Professional Remodeler’s 2008 Green Survey.” It reported that 80 percent of remodelers said green building techniques are important to them when choosing what products to use.

To meet the challenge, the Chicago-based National Association of the Remodeling Industry has developed green remodeling training, allowing residential builders and contractors to earn its Green Certified Professional accreditation. NARI’s director of education, Dan Taddei, said some NARI members are transitioning their business focus exclusively to sustainable redesign.

“We’re at the beginning of this market,” Taddei said. “But its practices will just be the way we do remodeling in the future.”

Taddei attributed a softer business in remodeling today to tight discretionary spending, and builders and the people they laid off overcrowding the remodeling market. He does, however, see green remodelers doing better than other remodelers, based on his conversations with contractors from across the country.

Knowing what constitutes green remodeling is vital for remodelers and their subcontractors (see sidebar).

“While we lay out what practices constitute green remodeling [...] we also stress it’s an integrated process,” Taddei said. “It’s not just improving air quality or selecting green materials. You need to listen to the needs of the client. You look at the existing home and figure out how to make the house work as a system.”

Chris Donatelli, former chair for NARI’s Green Education committee and president of the organization’s Silicon Valley chapter, runs Chris Donatelli Builders in San Jose, Calif. He finds green remodeling a real market where he lives, not only because of his state’s green mandates.

“Homeowners have a higher consciousness of green living and energy efficiency,” Donatelli said. “Add to that the simple fact that existing homes are, by their very nature, a remodeling opportunity.”

Donatelli calls his services home performance contracting. He also prefers the term trade contractors to subcontractors, seeing tradesmen as the key to succeeding in this niche business.

“I can’t do this business alone,” Donatelli said. “I need a team that pulls everything together. I rely on trade contractors to provide good service, be timely and offer competitive prices. I also need tradesmen to be confident beyond their comfort zone because they may need to know how to install an alternative energy source such as solar or be familiar with controls and home integration. While I can accommodate a learning curve, a trade contractor needs to be three-quarters of the way there for the project to proceed smoothly and stay on schedule.”

Taddei has some advice for ECs trying to break into the green market.

“I suggest to electrical contractors that they understand PV power, intelligent homes systems, which might feature integrated wiring, high-efficiency lighting, and/or security,” he said. “They should be able to authoritatively steer the home-owner to the right choices.”

GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction,landscaping and related design industries.He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.