Saturday, June 29, 2013

Homebuilding Outside the Big Orange Box

Published in the Sun June 29, 2013

Jason Ballard demonstrates a Nest self-programming thermostat

“Smart Building, Better Living,” is the motto of the Treehouse store on South Lamar.  I arrived without an appointment to see Jason Ballard, the force of nature behind this unique home improvement center.  I don’t know what Jason looks like, but this huge store seems like an ambitious business venture, so I inquire of the most distinguished looking man on the floor.  He is not Jason, but goes to look for him.  When he comes back he tells me that Jason is in a meeting but will be with me shortly and invites me to look around.

 

Wandering past the bulk chicken feed and the home canning supplies, I find myself in flooring.  A big sign lists the pros and cons of various kinds of flooring materials.  Carpet can be made of recycled materials, but harbors dust and allergens.  The wood floors sold here are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.  Cork is more comfortable on your feet than hardwood and uses waste from the wine industry, so no trees have to be cut down.

 

The paint department sells wood finishes and paints which are free of volatile organic compounds.  A kitchen design center displays custom countertops made from recycled glass, concrete, sustainable Mexican teak, or even a recycled paper product that feels like any other solid surface countertop.  And this is the really amazing thing, actual salesmen are available to help you plan your new kitchen or bathroom and make sure it’s built and installed correctly.

 

While I am lusting after countertops, the distinguished looking man tells me that Jason is available, and points to a fresh-faced, skinny lad wearing a blue t-shirt.  What?  That kid looks more like the leader of a church youth group than the president of a multi-million dollar corporation.  Actually Jason is 31 years old and married with children.  He admits, however, that ministry was one of his possible career paths.

 

Jason grew up hunting and fishing with his grandfather, who taught him respect for the natural world.  They never killed anything they weren’t planning to eat.  After studying ecology at Texas A & M, Jason worked for a while in Colorado with a sustainable building company.  He learned that most buildings are tremendously inefficient and waste vast amounts of energy, but consumers are in the dark about how to improve the situation.   He also realized that no home improvement store would promise its customers, “We will not sell you something that is poison.”  A consumer who wants safe, environmentally responsible products is on his own.  Jason saw a niche in the business world that needed to be filled.

 

So Jason Ballard, ecologist, decided to go head to head with Home Depot and Lowe’s and create an oasis of non-toxic, sustainable, and energy efficient products.  There was just one tiny little problem:  he knew nothing about running a business.  Well, almost nothing.  He knew that if you take care of people and sell them good things, they will be loyal customers.

 

He assembled a team of experts to create his brainchild:  lawyers, marketers, merchandisers.  Jason concentrated on vetting his potential products, spending hours on the phone and internet researching ingredients and environmental implications.  Treehouse doesn’t sell anything that Jason hasn’t scrutinized.

 

I asked Jason to show me something he is really excited about.  Without hesitation he led me to a display of Nest Learning Thermostats.  Everybody knows that programming the thermostat saves electricity, but normal people just never get around to it.  The Nest Thermostat, invented by the same guy who invented the iPod, learns your personal habits and programs itself.  Jason is emphatic, “People always want to put solar panels on the roof.  This $250 thermostat will save more energy than a $10,000 solar system.  Solar panels should be the last thing you do when you are trying to save energy, not the first.”  When the Nest first came onto the market, the makers wanted to sell exclusively to the big box chains.  Every Tuesday for months, Jason called them, begging for the right to carry the Nest, until they finally said, “OK, OK, you can sell it.  Stop calling us.”

 

Jason used the same hounding technique to get the Switch LED light bulbs.  “This is the Aston Martin of light bulbs,” he brags, “and Treehouse is the first place in the world to sell it.”  The store is phasing out compact fluorescent bulbs, because LEDs save more energy, and don’t contain mercury.

 

We continue around the store, Jason enthusiastically pointing out a plant-based alternative to WD-40, insulation made from recycled blue jean denim, tankless water heaters.  I ask when he will be expanding into Williamson County.  He admits he would like to open a branch in Round Rock, as soon as he can swing it financially.

 

On the Treehouse website, Jason has written “Dreams matter:  We believe we all have a say in what tomorrow looks like, so let’s make it even better.”  Hooray for young people like Jason, thinking outside the box.
 

 

 

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