Interview: ecobeco Founder Brian Toll Talks Green Building & Remodeling

In 2008, Brian Toll left his marketing job at Sprint Nextel to found ecobeco in Rockville, Maryland. ecobeco’s website describes its philosophy:

“We believe that all homeowners should live in comfortable, efficient, healthy homes. ecobeco is your trusted partner for whole home design that impacts you and your family, your community, and the environment in positive ways.”

Brian Toll 225x150 Interview: ecobeco Founder Brian Toll Talks Green Building & Remodelingecobeco’s core business is remodeling old houses for energy efficiency, comfort and health; in addition, the company builds custom homes. ecobeco participates in the Maryland Home Performance with Energy Star Program and the US Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home Program.

Brian holds a BS in Economics from the Wharton School and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman caught up with him in his office in Rockville…

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EarthTalk: What makes ecobeco a sustainable business, and in what ways do you help the
environment?

Brian Toll: Well first, let me thank you for having me on the show today. ecobeco is all about sustainability. We have been helping consumers reduce their energy costs for about ten years now and most of our focus is on reducing the amount of energy that people consume. And the impact to the production of energy and the dirty emissions and trying to get it so that we will have a lower carbon footprint. So while many of our consumers are coming to us for a variety of issues related to comfort or just trying to get their bills down, we have the added benefit of being able to help them with making the environment better and for a subset of our customers, that’s a really great advantage.

E:  And of course, everyone will save money.

Toll: They sure will. Everyone will save money and it’s that triple bottom line that we’re looking for, and we have a lot of fun doing it. We’ve helped over 50,000 people in the Montgomery County area, through the energy efficiency programs with our local utility.

E: So that’s people, planet, and profit is the triple bottom line. So why did you choose to start ecobeco? Under what circumstances?

TollSo in 2008, you might remember there was a movie that came out by a gentleman named Al Gore, and it had a strong impact on me. At the time, I was working in a technology firm and thought to myself, maybe we’ve sold enough cell phones and I should be doing something that’s going to make a difference for the planet. I decided to make a switch and started asking around and looking on the internet and thought, it seemed to me that the amount of consumer information available on energy efficiency. And back then, is was very hard to figure out what people could really do. So I was fortunate enough to be introduced to my future business partner and we co-founded the company ecobeco back in 2008. I come from a business background, I have an MBA and my partner, Reuven Walder, was a home energy auditor, who was certified with the Building Performance Institute. We just started the business out of a little warehouse area here in Rockville, and it’s grown from there to as large as 40 employees over the past ten years.

 E: That’s impressive. I remember when I first got my house ten years ago, eleven years ago. We were very slapdash, we said, oh, we’d better put in some insulation. Maybe we should do something about the windows, but I think you can be a lot more systematic. So what advice do you have to people to make their homes greener? Where do you get started, how do you be as effective as possible?

TollSo first, let me just say, I’ll narrow my comments to energy efficiency. So when I talk about green, that’s what I mean and of course, there is an entire industry that talks about material selections and paints and indoor air quality and forestry and other sourcing issues. But for us, at ecobeco, we’re primarily focused on reducing energy consumption. And of course, the first thing we would recommend to someone is a home energy audit; which will look at the way that air moves through the home and will look at the way that people consume energy on a day to day basis. So what we would call the base load, things such as your lighting, your refrigeration, your use of ovens and washers and driers and so forth. And then of course, heating and cooling which in the mid Atlantic may not be as substantial as say, the Northeast or the Southeast but we still get a pretty substantial amount of heating and cooling. So when we focus on looking at the movement of air in someone’s house, we’re really trying to get at looking at ways to reduce the frequency that air changes through the house. So when you can control the way that air moves in and out of a house, it means that your heating or your cooling stays in the house longer and that’s a way to save you money. When your air conditioning or your heating system doesn’t have to work as hard. So the home energy audit uses scientific tools and that’s a big difference between what five years ago, you could have purchased what was called a home energy audit from the windows companies. That product was essentially, then, walking around your house and saying, you need new windows. And it was shocking how often you needed new windows when you bought your energy audit from a windows firm. But with us, we are using a product from the building performance institute which is a certifying group. It’s an ANSI standard that is used to certify home energy auditors and we have a methodology that uses equipment such as a blower door tester, or an infrared camera, and we use energy modeling software. From the results of those tests, you can compare what your house is actually doing to what it could be doing. And then, based on the level of investment that a customer might be willing to make, you can make improvements to the home to both increase the comfort and reduce energy consumption.

E: So this way, you really know how to prioritize what you should do first; how you’re going to get the most bang for your buck.

TollThat’s absolutely right. The energy model is very insightful. If I had 100 dollars to spend, I would upgrade my lights to the LED lighting. If I had several thousands of dollars to spend, I would focus on tightening my building envelope and increasing my insulation levels. And then as your budget expands, you can think about ways to improve indoor air quality because just as — when you have pollution that comes into your home from the outside and you can have 

pollution that comes into your home from things that you are doing inside your home. And when the building envelope gets tighter, you need to be more cognizant that those pollutants are getting filtered and diluted, so that they have less impact on occupants. So as we invest more in making our home tighter, we also, at the same time, invest more in ensuring indoor air quality. And those are things that you don’t necessarily hear about unless you’re talking to people who have really done their homework and have gone through the standard training programs that are available.

 E: Okay so obviously you’ve got insulation, you’ve got ceiling ducts, ceiling windows, things like that. That’s for the envelope, right? And then, you have some kind of mechanical system;  would that be a fan or a ventilation to make sure that the air does circulate?

TollYeah. So the most recent technologies in heating, ventilation — heating, cooling, and ventilation are using fans that have a lot more smarts. And they’re able to vary the speeds that they run and they’re able to incorporate information about how temperature is changing in your house. How fast it’s changing and counterbalance that with a more appropriate response.

Compared to, say, in the older equipment, where it would turn on full blast or turn off. And turn on at full blast and turn off. That approach, a lot of people have heard that you’re wasting a lot of energy when we short-cycling, meaning, on/off, on/off, and it’s better for the system in terms of how the fans are designed and the systems are designed for the fans to turn on and run for half an hour or an hour. And what that can do is it ensures that you’re getting more air circulating, which means more air through the returns; which means more air through your filter. So what you want to have is both air being filtered on a relatively constant basis and you also want to have the air being diluted. Which means if you live in a tighter home, you want to bring fresh air in from outside. If you live in a older home or a home that is, from our point of view, not considered tight, you usually don’t have to worry about the ventilation impacts.

E: Okay but it all starts with an energy audit and then you have to find the company that knows what it’s doing.

TollThat’s right, and in our area, we happen to have a home performance with Energy Star program. Which is affiliated with all of the utilities in Maryland, and they have a list on their website and you can just go to the utility and look up the home performance program. I think there are home performance programs in about 15 states in the U.S.

E: And there are a lot of states that give some kind of incentive also, right? But what about if people don’t live in a state with such a program; is there a way to go about shopping for the best installer or the best energy audit?

Toll:  I think the best thing to do is there is a website, BPI.org, which is the Building Performance Institute’s website and the certified installers and the certified energy auditors are listed on that site. So you can do a search for the folks that are subscribing to the philosophies of doing best in class work. And you find those people and they can give you better information about what you need to do. Because it’s a triple bottom line investment, you may find that they could give you an energy model that has a very long payback period because energy prices are not as high as I think a lot of people expected because of the natural gas boom. So the reason that people are making these investments is because it saves energy, it helps the environment, and it makes their home much more comfortable. And increasingly, we’re seeing some evidence that people who make these investments can see some gain on the property value of their homes and that’s not obvious in a lot of places. But there’s more and more evidence that the appraisers are being trained on green attributes of homes and we’re seeing on the order of 5-10% increases in the values of homes. Or, alternatively, some homes that are selling faster and this may be the Prius effect that people with certain values want to live in those homes. But for right now, the research is emerging and I’m very hopeful that we’re going to see more and more homeowners saying, I want to live in a clean, energy efficient environment inside my house. Not just the outdoor air but the indoor air too.

E: Right, which is good for your health also.

Toll It absolutely is and there’s been a lot of work done, even in the past few years, from the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, talking about the impacts on particles. PM 2.5 is a pollutant particle. It impacts the lungs. Over the long term, it can increase your risk of strokes and heart attack because of the additional pressure it puts on lung function. So people who are living near the streets, very busy streets, where the gasoline gas goes, would be well served to put systems in their home that help improve the indoor air quality. And then people, generally speaking, would also be helped.

E: I keep reading about PM 2.5 and China and India but it’s in some of our homes too.

TollIt absolutely is here, in Maryland and everywhere in the U.S. and thank goodness we don’t have the levels of pollution of Delhi or other places but yes, it still impacts us here. It still can reduce our life, how long we’re going to live; so whatever we can do is always helpful.

E: Sure. So ecobeco has been quite successful despite the cheap energy, which might be good for the economy but is not so good for the environment. But where do you see yourself going from here? Do you have some grand future vision or even just a short term plan? What’s the next step?

TollSo about a year and a half ago, ecobeco decided to expand our products from the energy efficiency focus to remodeling in general. So we are now offering full service remodeling, which would include using sustainable materials and clean building practices when we go to a home to do an addition or a remodel or whatever it is that the customer might want. We’re doing it in an eco-friendly options kind of way. So there are certainly people who want to put a lower priority on these things; there are some people who think, oh, it’s too expensive, I don’t want to do that. But we have local suppliers who are aligned with our values and those suppliers will give people the option that aligns with their values. So you can decide how much you want to spend and we will have supplies that are as green as you want to be.

 E: Can you — green materials or, when you define them, I think of bamboo but I also think of like, local products. What does it mean to build a house of green materials?

TollSo for me, I would say it has more to do with the sourcing. So bamboo is an example of a positive sourcing, but there could be other kinds of resourcing such as recycled content or a sustainable forestry service, SFC certified. And then, the other part is that we want to make sure that there’s low to no VOC emissions from the material so that we don’t have adhesives or we don’t have wood products that are going to make people sick once they move into the house. So we’re focused on those issues. And then while we’re constructing, we’re using all of the best practices to keep the dust and the dirt out of the house because most of the time, people are living at home while we’re doing the work. And we need to be cognizant of their health.

E: So again, you have a health and air quality issue.

TollMhm.

E: Okay, any last words or final comments?

TollI’m optimistic that the spirit of businesses offering more green solutions for customers… it’s been getting started for a very long time, and I continue to be optimistic that we can make a big difference in our planet. And we know that the rubber meets the road in the kind of work that we’re doing every day, from lightbulbs to insulation to remodeling. And we’re just going to keep trying and hopefully make a difference over time.

E: Okay, thank you very much.

 TollThank you.

 

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