Giant Greenbuild expo beckons smaller players

Filed under Economy, Environment, Innovation, News, Product development
Greenbuild 2010

Chicago-area manufacturers and supplies of "green" building products or services were among the 1,000 exhibitors at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo at McCormick Place.

Small companies with environmental products or services were among 27 employers participating in a a “green” jobs fair that attracted 500 Chicago-area job seekers to McCormick Place Nov. 16.

The jobs fair was hosted by the U.S. Green Building Council in conjunction with the BlueGreen Alliance and the city of Chicago.

While  applicants lined up 12 deep to talk to big companies such as Chicago architectural giant SOM, Turner Construction and Bank of America, there was no wait  at the table for apprentice training for Pipefitters Union Local 597.

Yet Bill Wren, the representative behind the table, insisted the union’s members “are the foremost experts in green.”

“Right now you are being affected by the equipment we install,” he declared, referring to the heating, cooling, solar and refrigeration systems union members put into buildings and maintain.

The pipefitters are but one small component in the growing number of organizations, including innovative small businesses and service providers, trying to get a toehold in what many see as a growth industry.

“I’m hoping for architects and building managers with an open mind,” says Jacek (Jack) Helenowski, head of Square 1 Precision Lighting, a cold cathode and architectural light manufacturer based in Stone Park,  13 miles west of Chicago’s Loop.  Helenoiwski is one of the smaller exhibitors at Greenbuild International Conference and Expo opening Wednesday.

Helenowski, who has been in business since 1987, says his lighting is more efficient, comparable in cost and lacks the arsenic in the increasingly popular LED fixtures. While  his sales, which are 70 to 80 percent commercial and 20 to 30 percent residential, “have been steady” in recent years,  getting the  message out about what he believes is a better, greener  product can be hard, he says. “More and more people are realizing ” a need for this type of product, but “it’s hard to beat billions in advertising,” he adds, referring to the larger vendors who also are at the show.

Greenbuild  is expected to attract more than 30,000 architects, builders, developers, property managers, suppliers and public officials. Billed by sponsor USGBC  as the world’s largest green-building conference, the three-day trade show ending Friday will be opened by keynote speaker  (Ret.) Gen. Colin Powell and conclude with appearances by U.S. Secretary for Housing and Development Shaun Donovan, and entrepreneur and activist Paul Hawken, founder of Smith & Hawken.

Educational programs, workshops, off-site tours and 1,000 exhibitors touting products from bio-based asphalt sealer to smog-eating roof tiles are featured.

Washington, D.C.-based USGBC unveiled the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental  Design)  rating system a decade ago.  It has become a popular standard for measuring resource-efficient construction, especially for large commercial and public projects and for a growing number of private residences.

Since buildings are estimated to be responsible for about 40 percent  of the nation’s energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, green advocates say more resource-efficient construction and remodeling will help cut dependence on foreign energy  and slow damage to the climate.  Public officials, including President Obama, say developing more green businesses will boost the economy and generate new jobs.

Persistence is key for green entrepreneurs

Despite this optimism, smaller players participating in the show says it take time and persistence to  achieve those goals  in the slow-changing building trade hit hard by the struggling economy.

Kevin Stasi, sales director for International Building Products North America, which concentrates on selling sustainable products including bamboo flooring, bamboo plywood, cabinets and commercial cleaner lines from Greenmaker Industries, products sold in the Green Depot store in Chicago and other independent hardware stores, says building trust and sales  “is definitely a slow incremental process.”

Even to an audience that is looking for his products, he says.  “Architects and contractors will say ‘It is great it doesn’t smel,l but how do I know it won’t flake off in the next six months?’” of Ivy Paint, a line of zero-VOC paint line that  he sells.

Still Stasi is upbeat about business after a period when many major construction projects were cancelled or stalled. “We are seeing an increase in the number of meetings with designers and architects,” said the New York-based distributor.

Longer range, Stasi predicts the independent green-building products he represents and those at the Expo will become mainstream.  “(The products are) starting to conform to the standard channels of distribution and specification,” making it easier for those who order products in large quantities.

And small business are not the only firms which must  fight preconceptions to win over skeptical architects or property managers.

“People relate everything green to the vertical and inside,” said Tim Chimack, vice-president of regional sales for Rose Paving Co., based in Bridgeview. “We do outside the building.”

A national provider of asphalt and concrete for commercial and institutional parking lots, the company also sells more environmentally friendly permeable pavers such as the ones used around U.S. Cellular Field and at Governors State University.

“It’s challenging,” Chimack says of the current economy.  Green solutions such as the permeable pavers which allow rainwater to be absorbed into the ground to limit storm water runoff  do cost a bit more money, he admits. But “they last three times as long, not to mention the added aesthetic value,” he added.

By Sharon Stangenes

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