The Washington Public Utility Districts Association’s office building in Olympia, Wash., was the first platinum-certified LEED building in the state.  Picture courtesy of Sunset Air.

It’s not a sure-fire way to prevent layoffs in a down economy, but being “green” does have some advantages in tough times, many contractors say.

If you can position your company as a go-to expert for sustainable projects, you may have better luck staying busy - and profitable.

If there’s one segment where the recession seems to have had less of an effect, it may be in the construction of buildings certified by the U.S. Green Building Council. Its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating program, which awards projects based on their use of sustainable materials and highly efficient equipment, continues to be embraced - and sometimes mandated - by states, local governments, and major corporations.

Here’s a look at five contractors who are finding that being green is a sustainable path to success.

Sunset Air Inc.’s Lacy, Wash., headquarters was one of the first privately owned buildings in the state to be certified gold under the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating program. Picture courtesy of Sunset Air.

Sunset Air

Marketing itself as a longtime green contractor has been a winning strategy for Sunset Air Inc. Company President Brian Fluetsch said specializing in sustainable work has opened doors for the Lacy, Wash.-based contractor.

“That’s been a core of our business,” he said. “It’s becoming more and more mainstream.”

While Washington state’s economy has been battered like most of the country - and Fluetsch acknowledges his company is not immune to the recession - being one of the region’s best-known sustainable contractors has helped Sunset land some high-profile projects.

Sunset Air recently completed work on the Washington Public Utility Districts Association’s office building in Olympia, Wash. - the first platinum-certified LEED building in the state.

The structure uses a collection of 159 solar panels on the roof to generate 50 percent of its power. Its HVAC system has very high-efficiency air filtration with no ozone-depleting refrigerants. The windows reflect solar heat and light and the building’s plaza fountain uses rainwater.

Sunset worked as LEED manager on the $4.2 million project, ensuring the requirements for earning the program’s sustainable credits were met. The project won several awards from sustainable-building publications and construction associations.

The publicity from the project was a boon for the company.

“A lot of folks recognize us for that project,” Fluetsch said.

Sunset Air has also earned recognition for its headquarters, which it says was the first privately owned LEED-gold building in the state. It features high-efficiency air filtration, a zoned HVAC system and insulation and windows that help it use 35 percent less energy than a building that meets state code minimums.

Making its headquarters sustainable was “a great classroom for our own people,” Fluetsch said. “It gave us an opportunity to really show what we’re doing.”

Inside its headquarters, Fluetsch said Sunset maintains a “vigorous” recycling program and uses “lean” manufacturing techniques, which he considers to be very green.

Dave Kruse, president of L.J. Kruse Co., talks about green building with students. L.J. Kruse opens its doors to schools to tour the facility’s sustainable features. Image courtesy of L.J. Kruse Co.

L.J. Kruse Co.

About 750 miles away in Berkeley, Calif., L.J. Kruse Co. has been installing residential heating and cooling systems since 1916. But the company is hardly stuck in the past. Since 2006, the company has been focusing heavily on green technology and sustainability. This includes hybrid heat/dual-fuel systems, high-efficiency air and water systems, and energy-efficient heating and cooling units.

The family-owned business was started by Louis Joseph Kruse, and is now owned and operated by grandsons Dave and Andy Kruse. The brothers have put a great deal of time and effort into green, and not just in their business.

Dave Kruse, the company president, is also chairman for the Mechanical Contractors Association of America’s green coordinating committee. Kruse said that MCAA realized some time ago that green building was a vital aspect of the mechanical contracting industry, and by creating a committee, it could ensure members would all be part of the trend.

“Our industry really could and should be at the forefront of the green movement,” he said.

The committee offers educational opportunities on green building to MCAA members. It also offers preparatory courses on passing the LEED accredited professional test. More than 2,000 MCAA members have taken the exam, Kruse said.

In the case of L.J. Kruse Co., its location played a large part in the company’s expansion in to green service. A well-known college town, Berkeley is a “forward-thinking community,” Kruse said, and businesses and homeowners in the area are always looking for ways to be more energy efficient and environmentally friendly.

The company recently helped two commercial projects reach Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. The company performed plumbing and piping work on the Richmond (Calif.) Memorial Civic Center in Richmond, Calif., which reached LEED-gold status, and the YMCA of Berkeley, which was awarded a LEED-silver designation for its building.

According to Kruse, most of the company’s green HVAC work is in the residential market.

“On the HVAC side, we’re doing a lot of replacement work,” he said.

Kruse and his technicians have had success replacing outdated heating and cooling systems and installing energy-efficient units. However, it wasn’t always that way.

“When the economy first started to falter, there was a little downturn,” he said. “As confidence comes back, you can see it tick up.”

He credits some of this to the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that was passed by Congress in 2009. Kruse explained that stimulus money is starting to funnel out to nonprofit agencies, and many of these agencies are in charge of upgrading the facilities and mechanical systems in low-income buildings and neighborhoods. Kruse said that he expects some of those projects to come his way, which will give him and his company more opportunities to install energy-efficient HVAC systems.

Not content to just install sustainable systems for clients, in 2008 L.J. Kruse officials decided to make its headquarters as green and sustainable as possible.

That year the company started a renovation that included the installation of 30-killowatt photovoltaic cells, a 1,600-gallon rainwater-harvesting system and new energy-efficient HVAC systems. Those included a Carrier hybrid heating and cooling system powered by solar or gas. The L.J. Kruse building also has a solar domestic hot water system, carbon dioxide monitors and demand-based ventilation.

The building is now considered “carbon neutral,” which means that it saves as much energy in carbon emissions as it emits. These emissions are commonly called greenhouse gases.

As a sort of working advertisement, L.J. Kruse frequently opens its facility to anyone who would like to see its sustainable features. The company also regularly invites area schoolchildren in to learn about sustainability. Kruse said the open house has proven to be a great public relations effort.

Hurst Mechanical

Another company finding sustainable success - this time in the Midwest - is Hurst Mechanical of Belmont, Mich. The mechanical contractor provides a variety of HVAC, refrigeration, sheet metal and piping services.

Russ Borst, vice president of service for Hurst Mechanical, said it was the proliferation of green certification that pushed Hurst Mechanical into the field. With so many businesses looking to build LEED-accredited projects, Hurst officials decided to offer its services to help them through the process.

The majority of Hurst customers have turned to the contractor in an effort to save on energy costs. Many of these customers include the owners of medical buildings, manufacturing facilities and office complexes. Hurst offers energy audits to find out where upgrades will have the most impact. They also perform retro-commissioning which looks to make sure that mechanical systems are performing correctly.

And in this economy, Hurst Mechanical isn’t waiting for its phones to ring with customers wanting green technologies. Borst said that his company has periodic “lunch and learns,” which have been a successful way to educate potential clients.

Hurst Mechanical sends out invitations to area businesses and former customers to attend a luncheon where they can learn about the latest energy technologies that the company can offer.

At a recent event, Borst said 20 area companies attended, including representatives from schools, colleges, hospitals and churches.

While green products and technology has become a profitable market for Hurst, Borst said it is more than just about money. He said that the United States is one of the largest energy consumers in the world, and that saving energy will help future generations.

“It’s very important that we look at the future of where our children and grandchildren will live,” he said. 

L.J. Kruse Co. installed these photovoltaic cells on the roof of its building. It is just one of the sustainable features of the building that has helped it become carbon neutral. Image courtesy of L.J. Kruse Co.

Stirrett Johnsen

When Troy Aichele, a LEED-accredited senior project manager for Stirrett Johnsen Inc. in Silverdale, Wash., approaches a project, “a light goes on.”

“Every building you go into looks like a new project” with sustainability in mind, he said.

Aichele said he now easily sees where energy improvements and retrofits can be made. And this has given him an advantage over other area companies when working with customers.

Even if building owners are not interested in receiving LEED credits, most are still looking for ways to save energy and lessen the building’s impact on the environment, he said. For example, Aichele said, more owners of leased properties are seeing the benefit of being a “green” location. He said that property owners can advertise their space as green to lure potential tenants.

He added that hospitals, which account for over 30 percent of Stirrett Johnsen’s work, are becoming a leading consumer of green technologies. Since hospitals and many health care facilities are always open, building owners are looking for any way to cut down the energy costs and environmental impact.

As a LEED AP, Aichele said that he has been able to help Stirrett Johnsen clients solve their energy problems. And green technology provides the best of both worlds, he said.

“You make money and help people,” Aichele said.

Bell Products

At Paul Irwin’s Napa, Calif., company, Bell Products Inc., it was a prescient vision on where the industry was heading that led them to specialize in green work.

“The crystal ball told us a number of years ago that this was the future,” Irwin said. “We had to become involved.”

One of the company’s recent projects involved American Canyon High School, which is part of the Napa Valley Unified School District. Officials wanted the sprawling campus to be as energy efficient as possible.

For the eight buildings that covered the 260,000-square-foot campus, Bell workers installed 14 rooftop HVAC units and 118 internal geothermal heat pumps with bore fields installed where athletic team activities are planned. More than 300 holes were dug to serve the geothermal system. In addition, employees made and installed 90,000 pounds of rectangular ductwork and an additional 10 miles worth of spiral duct. Building information modeling techniques were used extensively.

Mark Kamrath, Bell’s business development manager and a LEED-accredited professional, said such sustainable projects are common in northern California.

“It’s getting to be the standard of construction out here,” Kamrath said.

For reprints of this article, contact Jill DeVries at (248) 244-1726 or e-mail