An Account of the 2015 BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines Summit by one of its founders

Bottom Lines Reaches the Summit

An Account of the 2015 BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines Summit by one of its founders

by John Abrams

Nov 16, 2015

NESEA’s first BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines Business Summit is over.  It will not be the last.  

On a beautiful fall day in November, more than 110 NESEA members gathered at Smith College to celebrate two years of Building Energy Bottom Lines, to hone business skills, and to consider the future of this exciting endeavor.  

Bottom Lines is a new NESEA program launched in 2014.  The premise: the NESEA community has done a superb job of sharing technical and policy information for decades, but we have done less to promote and inform the craft of business.

Today, the BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines program consists of three peer group networks; each includes +/- 10 Northeast architecture, building, design/build, and renewable energy businesses.  A fourth group is currently in formation.

In the opening plenary session Heather Thompson, of Thompson Johnson Woodworks in Maine, grilled my two fellow Bottom Lines founders - Paul Eldrenkamp and Jamie Wolf – and me.  She asked us  “What was the longing – the need  – that led you to commit time and energy to the creation of Bottom Lines?”  The three of us agreed that it was a sense of urgency – the notion that if we are serious about making positive change, we must elevate the craft of Triple Bottom Line (people, planet, profit) business practice and distribute business know-how to the next generation.

Business is a force.  We ought to pay equal attention to the craft of business as to technology and building science.  We need to build strong businesses as well as great buildings; in fact, we are unlikely to succeed at one without the other.  The intention of BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines is to offer a place for deep business introspection with trusted peers to expand the leadership skills and capacities of every member.

Attendee Kevin Ireton, former editor of Fine Homebuilding and now a contractor and freelance writer, summarized it well, “It seems only appropriate that NESEA should help those who care so passionately about sustainable buildings to stay in business. The first rule of lifesaving is: ‘Don't drown.’  You could say the same thing about NESEA members trying to save the planet. We can't help anybody if we can’t stay in business.”

The Bottom Lines program aspires to do more than keep us afloat.  It inspires us to rise above the surface of day-to-day business necessities to help each other navigate the complexities of effective business practice that serves all stakeholders, that minimizes environmental impact, and that produces sufficient profits to allow us to do these things well.

Back to the Summit. As the day unfolded, participants attended the following workshops:

• Amy Glasmeir, a professor of Economic Geography and Regional Planning at MIT, teamed with builders Dan Kolbert and Paul Eldrekamp for “What’s a Living Wage?”  Participants used a prepared spreadsheet to determine the impact of true living wages on the cost of a project.  

• Peter Taggart of Taggart Construction led “Accounting and Financial Management for Building Professionals” and came at accounting as a “creative endeavor” that’s not so dry as we often make it out to be.  

• Mel Baiser, Ben Kelley, and Brad Morse tackled “Technology to Help Operate and Manage Your Business”.  They pointed out that “technology is, at best, a facilitation tool and not a savior” that “systems can engage people by externalizing that which often remains internal to one person or a few” that  “technology is key to bringing young people into our industry” and that “tech tools for our industry need to seriously evolve – there are great development opportunities.”

• In my Big Transitions workshop I pointed out that change is situational but that transitions are psychological – if transitions are to be rewarding rather than stressful they must be consciously and effectively managed.  People shared their own business transition experiences – in the realms of ownership, succession, rapid growth, job changes, management structure, and new endeavors.

• Jamie Wolf and Bruce Coldham led the Design/Build Workshop participants through the entire beginning-to-end project workflow process - to help us improve project delivery methods, communication, understanding of the various roles of participants, and optimization of service to clients.   

• The Carbon Footprint workshop leaders – Kate Stephenson, Declan Keefe, Jacob Deva Racusin, Rachel White, and Marc Rosenbaum - examined different ways of quantifying environmental impact in our businesses and projects.  They demonstrated the difficulty of measuring impacts, but stressed that the things that we measure are the things we can manage – and improve.

The closing session was a series of Pecha Kucha presentations by four companies – Lewis Creek Builders, Building Shelter, Quigley Builders, and Steveworks – who have hosted Bottom Lines gatherings at their places of business.  Their images and commentary conveyed the complexity of the experience – the sense of accountability, the generosity of their peers, the fear of exposure and subsequent joy of learning, the unlimited potential for progress in our enterprises.

Steve Silverman of Valley Home Improvement chaired the conference.  He spoke about what BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines means to him:  “It means I am surrounded by kindred spirits; smart, passionate, caring people who share a common thread of craft, small business and beyond. It means I have trusted companions in the often lonely world of a sole proprietor.  Bottom Lines accelerates my rate of business and personal development.  It fosters openness and sharing. And it gives me a measuring stick.”

And Kate Stephenson, the executive director of Yestermorrow Design/Build School (NESEA’s partner in Bottom Lines), had this to say “After a great day at the Summit, I ran into an acquaintance on the way out the door who I had invited to come.  He looked at me and said ‘Kate, this is exactly what I have been seeking for the past ten years.’ To me, it was a great example of what Jamie calls “finding your tribe” and the opportunity Bottom Lines can offer to practitioners who often feel they are alone in the wilderness.”

It is tribal.  It is a culture of sharing.  It’s also a big investment – of time, money, courage, and commitment to transparency.  But Bottom Liners seem to agree that the value far outstrips the investment; the risk is low.

The Summit marked the end of the beginning of the BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines program.  The future is bright.  I was recently at the national conference of the North American Timber Framers Guild.  I spoke about the Bottom Lines program.  A Seattle architect who works with the Northwest Eco-Building Guild (a Northwest version of NESEA) approached me after I spoke about Bottom Lines.  “Do you imagine that this is something we could do regionally, here in the Northwest?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” I responded.  “The template for success has been created.  It can be used anywhere, by any group of people who want to explore the art and craft of business, and what it takes to be a truly effective Triple Bottom Lines business in today’s world.”

Ultimately, this is about increasing our capacity to do work that matters.  Someone recently said that the best young minds of our current generation are devoting themselves to figuring out better ways to get people to click on ads.  We need these people to being doing work that matters.  BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines promotes that philosophy and ability.

One of those groups may, at some point, include you. Have a look on the NESEA website.  Talk to a Bottom Liner.  It may be the business tribe you’re looking for, too.  

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JOHN ABRAMS is founder and CEO of South Mountain Company (SMC), a 41-year-old integrated architecture, engineering, building, and renewable energy company committed to triple bottom line business...

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