ST. LOUIS – The green building movement is turning into a boon for domestic manufacturers.
These growing American companies make a wide range of products, from heat-blocking window shades to floor heating systems to office furniture.
Unico Inc., a St. Louis manufacturer of small-duct, high-velocity heating and cooling systems, is typical of suppliers that are seeing increased interest from green builders.
Joe and Sharon Intagliata launched the company in 1985 to make heating and cooling systems for houses built before the advent of central air conditioning. With a small heating and cooling unit that could operate in a horizontal or vertical configuration and ducts that were about one-fourth the size of conventional ducts, the Unico system was designed to fit more easily into spaces available in older homes.
Unico thrived by targeting the historic home market. Its products were endorsed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and featured on nearly two dozen home renovation projects on the TV show “This Old House.” The company grew rapidly and began attracting the attention of custom homebuilders in the early 2000s.
The recession knocked sales down in 2009, but the growth of green building has helped the company recover and opened a new market.
“We’re seeing a broadening of our market to high-efficiency homes and even commercial projects, such as restaurants and retail stores,” said Scott Intagliata, director of marketing and son of the company’s founders. “Everywhere we go, we’re seeing a continual drumbeat of interest on the part of end users who want energy efficiency.”
The Unico system is compact and efficient, but not cheap. It generally costs about 25 percent more than a conventional heating and cooling system, Intagliata said, but it also qualifies for some incentives.
One customer, who combined a Unico system inside the house with a ground source heat pump, received a 30 percent federal tax credit on the entire package, Intagliata said.
“It is not something we have pursued before,” he said, “but in March, we’re going to start making presentations to utilities and government agencies to get pre-qualified for rebates and incentives,” he said.
Unico has more than 100 employees and 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space spread across two facilities. Intagliata said the company commands more than 60 percent of the market for small-duct, high velocity heating and cooling systems.
Last year, the company was named a “choice supplier” of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning products for the Greenbuild LivingHome and declared the “Best of Greenbuild” by US Builders Review.
With an emphasis on environmentally responsible and sustainable practices, the green building movement has swept through the U.S. construction industry like a tsunami.
Industry analysts estimate that green building accounted for 44 to 48 percent of nonresidential construction in 2014, a market share worth roughly $140 billion. In 2005, it accounted for only 2 percent of nonresidential construction.
Green building had a slower start in home construction but still accounted for 23 percent of all new homes built in 2013, according to McGraw-Hill Construction. The No. 1 reason customers give for going green, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, is energy efficiency.
Green building, which encourages builders to minimize shipping distances when sourcing materials, also helps to promote local manufacturing.
Electro Plastics Inc. is the kind of local manufacturer that benefits.
Founded in Norway in 1981 to make car seat heaters, Electro Plastics moved to St. Louis in 1994 and later expanded into the building market. It has a 35,000-square-foot factory outside the city. “We manufacture all of our products here,” said Monica Irgens, company president.
The company initially had difficulty in getting people to understand the advantages of their heating systems, which fits underneath the floor, but the green building movement is changing that. Green building principles encourage floor level heat, because, as hot air rises, it puts the heat where people feel it, which is more efficient than putting heat near the ceiling. And radiant heat is more constant than forced air, and does away with drafts, Irgens said.
Another beneficiary of green building is Halcyon Shades, which makes heat-blocking window shades in a St. Louis factory. President Richard Goellner said the company uses technology that Monsanto developed for the U.S. space program, which went to Solutia when Monsanto spun off its chemical business. While Solutia was in bankruptcy in 2007, local investors bought the business unit that was making residential shades and moved production from Mexico to St. Louis.
“It was a really good technology, but it wasn’t marketed correctly,” Goellner said. The transparent shades block UV light, eliminate glare and reflect heat back toward the source. Last year, Halcyon began marketing to government and business customers and added five employees to keep up with the increased business.
“Our shades provide pretty dramatic energy savings by reflecting heat. They keep outside heat out in the summer and keep inside heat in the winter,” Goellner said. The company has no direct competitor, he said, because no other transparent shade reflects heat.
The green building movement, he said, gives the company the opportunity to grow sales to a $50 million a year level in the next decade from $3 million last year. A Missouri resident or business owner, he said, will save enough from reduced energy costs in 2 1/2 years to recover the cost of buying and installing Halcyon shades. In states with higher energy costs, the payback is quicker.
From finding new applications for space technology to reinventing heating equipment, the green building movement also boosts domestic manufacturing by encouraging innovation.
HOK, St. Louis’s largest architectural firm, placed a bet in 2009 that the green building movement would open building-related industries to more innovative products. That’s when the company launched HOK Product Design to develop and market product ideas from HOK employees. HOK Product Design develops employee ideas and licenses them to manufacturers. Last year, the enterprise turned its first profit, said product manager Nicole Walden.
HOK licensed the Freno Rain Garden, for example, to Midwest Products Group. The Freno product line consists of precast concrete wall and curb segments designed to make it cheaper and easier for municipalities and businesses to install rain gardens to catch and process storm water. Rain gardens reduce water pollution from run-off and decrease the load on a sewer system, Walden said.
Another HOK-designed product is the Victor2 Recycling System from Steelcase, a Michigan company. Walden described the Victor2 Recycling System as “recycling units that look more like stylish furniture pieces than industrial strength garbage bins.”