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Byline: Stefan Verbano The Register-Guard

For many of Eugene's environmentally minded builders, being green has rarely been easy.

What began as a loosely knit gang of idealistic carpenters, designers and architects working in relative obscurity has become a multi million dollar niche market. But despite growing support from the city of Eugene and builders groups, the local green construction market is still seeing mixed success.

Some green builders have been left reeling by the recent economic downtown, forced to adapt to a market where customers are less likely to splurge on materials such as solar panels, high performance insulation and renewable lumber. But others are seeing unchecked success.

James McDonald is the owner of Ecobuilding Collaborative of Oregon, a Eugene-based green construction company with nine employees working on projects across Lane County. He has seen steady profits in recent years, he said, as well as a growing interest in green building from his customer base - mostly local homeowners.

"Nowadays, the clients are coming, and I don't have to sell it at all. They want it," he said. "I continue to find an interested clientele."

In the face of a recession and dismal construction market, Mc Donald said his business has never theless seen steady revenues of roughly $1.5 million per year - and four of the busiest years in its history.

"These bad years for others have been the best work years that I have ever had," he said. "I'm just fortunate at the moment. We are in the right place at the right time and focusing on the right things."

But it hasn't always been easy, he said.

McDonald, who co-founded the Eugene branch of the Northwest Ecobuilding Guild in the early 1990s, said he was shunned early on for pursuing environmentally friendly building practices.

"Back then, you were looked down upon," McDonald said. "It was just kind of weird and alternative and side-lined."

Two decades ago, when the contractor wanted to build a group of houses using sustainable materials, he would gather information by calling producers directly and asking about product content, toxicity, origins, processing and transportation. Often, his questions went un answered.

Without the Internet or substantial public interest, there were few green materials databases, which forced builders to assume the role of analyst.

"We had to do all the research ourselves," McDonald said. "I had to call and call and call and write down everything people were telling me."

And after the homes were built, McDonald said, they barely turned a profit.

"It wasn't a money-maker," he said. "The people who bought (the homes) did not buy them because they were green. It was just icing on the cake for them."

Even one of the local stalwarts in green building, 40-year-old Rainbow Valley Design and Construction, was once wary about marketing itself as green.

"It had a certain stigma attached to it," Rainbow Valley designer Alec Dakers said. "In the early years, it wasn't something that you bragged about."

With 40 employees in offices based in Portland and Eugene, Rainbow Valley has grown significantly since 1971, winning awards and making a name for itself as one of Oregon's leaders in sustainable design and construction.

Today, "People know that we do green building," Dakers said. "Now we get a lot of people that walk in the door asking for specific products. We don't really have to pitch it at all."

Even with the economic downturn, "We get as many phone calls and do as many projects as we ever have," Dakers said. But, in Rainbow Valley's case, "projects have gotten smaller," he said. The result is that the company's annual revenues have fallen from close to $6 million five years ago to roughly $4 million today, which led the company to diversify into more small renovation and construction projects.

For Rainbow Valley, new construction now accounts for about 15 percent of its business - half of what it was a few years ago - while renovations and additions account for the other 85 percent.

This scaling back of new projects, Dakers said, is "by far the most popular thing that a lot of builders are doing right now."

As the interest in green building practices has grown, Eugene has increasingly smoothed the way for these projects, including offering incentives for sustainable building practices.

"In the early days of pushing the green envelope, it was always a fight at the city building department," McDonald said.

In September 2009, the city implemented its Green Building Incentive Program, which provides priority plan reviews and inspections, one-day permits, fee reductions and publicity to projects seeking certification under the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design or Earth Advantage programs.

These incentives serve as a tip of the hat to local green builders such as McDonald and Dakers.

"We're lucky to have folks like that in Eugene," said Jenna Garmon, a green building analyst with the city.

According to the city program's website, permit fee rebates can range from $1,000 to $5,000 per project depending on the type of building.

McDonald described the city's current take on green building as "a very friendly, open and helpful process."

"I do feel like the city is now more of a partner rather than an adversary and that's very helpful," McDonald said.

Ed McMahon, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Lane County, said the association's recent Tour of Homes reflects the group's interest in green building.

Nine of the 16 homes featured in the tour were certified by either Earth Advantage - a nonprofit organization pushing for high performance residential construction - or Northwest ENERGY STAR Homes, an Environmental Protection Agency program promoting the construction of energy-efficient houses.

However, McMahon said some construction companies and customers have less capital to spend in light of the flagging economy, which has put the more cost-intensive green building practices and materials out of their price range.

"The market force is kind of holding it up a little bit," McMahon said. "Customers are coming back and saying 'maybe I don't need this shade of green'. A few thousand dollars can make a big difference."
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Title Annotation:Local News
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 7, 2011
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