Mainstream "green"

Smarter building, better living: Treehouse changes building supply stores from orange to green

Smarter building, better living: Treehouse changes building supply stores from orange to green

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TreeHouse in the Westgate Shopping Center. Photo by Kevin Benz
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CEO Greg King hangs a sign in preparation for the store's Grand Opening. Photo by Kevin Benz
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Marshall Pottery made in Marshall, Texas. "It's the only American made terra cotta pottery we could find." Photo by Kevin Benz
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American Clay wall coverings, made in New Mexico. Photo by Kevin Benz
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Green Water rainwater collection systems, made here in Austin. Photo by Kevin Benz
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The TreeHouse Idea Center. "Our version of the Apple Genius Bar," says Ballard. Photo by Kevin Benz
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Co-founders Kevin Graham (l) and Jason Ballard (r) at one the TreeHouse education pods. Photo by Kevin Benz
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Ballard points out the R rating on recycled denim (blue jeans) attic insulation. Photo by Kevin Benz
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100% sustainable cabinetry. Photo by Kevin Benz
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Zero VOC paint. Photo by Kevin Benz
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Modular housing sold by Sett Studio, an Austin company run by Austin Community College teachers. Photo by Kevin Benz
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No one will mistake me for an environmentalist... ever. I eat meat, wear boots (not birkenstocks) and love to work on big, manly construction projects like building decks and fences and putting in walls, doors and plumbing. It's fun and therapeutic for me—almost as much fun as writing. In other words, I've spent a significant percentage of my adult life in Home Depot (just ask my wife).

So when I first walked into TreeHouse, the skeptic in me rose up immediately. A "green" building supply store? Well sure, if your budget is unlimited and you don't mind everything coming in beige, right?

I was wrong. It's just that simple.

"We get [customers] in the store and make it comfortable. We get them educated and they spend about the same [as anywhere else]," explained TreeHouse CEO Greg King, the former President of Valero Energy. (Yes, that Valero Energy. More on that in a moment.)

TreeHouse feels like Home Depot—a cleaner, more modern Home Depot that is.

It's a little smaller and much easier to navigate, and it is packed full of stuff—the kind of stuff that makes a do-it-yourselfer get just a little giddy, because the stuff isn't just fun DIY kind of stuff, it's also different and it's new.

There is stuff here I have never seen before, like low and zero VOC (volatile organic compounds—not good for you) paints and stains, and 100% sustainable cabinetry—U.S. made and certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council. And there's stuff here I have never even thought of before, like American Clay wall coverings (from New Mexico) and recycled denim—yes, blue jeans—attic insulation. Oh, it gets better.

My tour, just days before the store opened for business, taught me a lot about how far green building has come, and it left me wanting to pull out the credit card and start working on my house. 

My guides were co-founders Kevin Graham and Jason Ballard, who don't appear to be my age when added together, although they assure me they are older than they look. Ballard is a biologist by education and knows just a little bit more than he needs to about saving the planet. Graham is the marketing guru. Both are Texas Aggies who say this vision started out on a napkin back in 2007. They're trying to make green building sexy to the unwashed DIY masses. 

"Some people could give a flip about sustainability," Graham acknowledges, "they just want to save some money on their air conditioning. We can help with that." Meaning they sell super-high efficiency A/C units.

 "We’re a generation away from green energy, but the time for green building is now." 

Back to that recycled blue jean insulation with an R30 rating. "It's cotton," explains Ballard the biologist. "You can blow it in without wearing a mask and bio suit." Which is what one normally needs to do when installing fiberglass insulation. "If you have to wear a bio suit to install something in your home, some part of you should stop and say, ‘hey, I and my family live in this.'" And by the way it costs the same. So, my blue jeans don't go to the land fill, they go in my attic. I can live with that, and that's exactly the point.

"We feature not just sustainable, healthy, efficient products, but we’re bringing that concept into the mainstream," says CEO Greg King.

Remember that juxtaposition of jobs? King was President of Valero Energy for a long time. He retired a few years ago. TreeHouse brought him out of retirement—a businessman to run the business. "This is much more aligned with who I am as a person," he says with a conviction that's quite believable. I spoke to him as he stood on a ladder with a drill in his hand, hanging a sign.

King has a tall order. The building supply business is cut-throat. Home Depot and Lowes are Goliaths battling tooth and nail in every neighborhood in America. TreeHouse needs to stand out with quality merchandise at a competitive price. They do that by first selling local. For example, they sell an Austin-made rainwater collection system called Green Water, and they sell the only American made terra cotta pottery they could find—Marshall pottery happens to be made in Marshall, Texas; and they're recognized by the Texas Historical Commission.

The plants at TreeHouse are all native species, and frankly everything has some variation of environmental good attached to it... like the paint.

TreeHouse sells three grades of paint; low VOC, Ultra-low VOC, and Zero VOC. The low VOC sells for about the same as any high grade paint, $30 / gallon. Zero VOC paint costs a hefty $60 / gallon. Of course if you have allergies or asthma that might be worth it. Stains are the same. TreeHouse sells a wood stain made from cheese waste. That's right, recycled whey, a trashed byproduct from cheese manufacturing. 

Regular paints and stains use petroleum products. That new paint smell, or new carpet smell? Those are Volatile Organic Compounds given off by the stuff you just put in your house." The biggest contributor to poor indoor air quality are the products we bring into our homes," explained Graham.

That's what makes TreeHouse so unique. They sell the stuff you need, and they sell the stuff you want and they sell the stuff you should want. Some things, like the American Clay wall covering are simply amazing from both a green building and design standpoint.

American Clay is made in New Mexico. It is a wall covering applied like a very thick paint, but it's clay. It's hard, durable, and it actually cleans the air in your home. That's right, clay absorbs humidity and toxins in the air, and it looks spectacular on the wall.

Or how about carpet? TreeHouse carries 100% wool carpet. Wool is as sustainable it gets because sheep keep growing it. But that's not all, Bloomsberg makes this carpet. Bloomsberg is the last carpet weaver in America still using looms. Expensive right? Wrong. Bloomsberg carpet costs about the same as wood flooring. More expensive than regular carpet yes, but not more expensive than any other good flooring.

Want more? Bloomsberg uses a jute backing on their carpet. Jute comes from plants. Think about this for moment: the carpet is all organic and biodegradable. You can throw into a compost pile when you're done with it.

They also have tile made of recycled glass and countertops made out of recycled paper—I know, ridiculous.

If all of that is still not enough to get a boot and torn blue jean wearing DIY guy in, then try this—TreeHouse also carries all the brands you've heard of (Kohler fixtures, Shaw carpets, Monrovia plants) with lines that feature low-flow, cradle-to-cradle certification (fully recyclable) and native.

"You’ve gotta get people in the door and then they see it—in the long run you save money and you get a healthier environment for your family," said King. The former gas and oil company executive should know a little something about the state of "green."

"We’re a generation away from green energy, but the time for green building is now."

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TreeHouse opens it's doors at the Westgate Shooping Center at 7:00 am Saturday morning.