Developing Your Company’s Online Reputation

Managing your brand online may feel like one more task on top of an already full plate, but these days even if you’ve gotten good word-of-mouth recommendations, the first thing a potential client is going to do is search your business name online. You need to make sure you make a good first impression, or it’s likely they will never pick up the phone to call you. Don’t be afraid to take a hard look at your current marketing strategy and re-direct your time and effort into digital marketing.

What to Know Before You Build

Thinking about building a new house, putting on an addition or renovating? On Tuesday, April 4 at 6 p.m., SEON (The Sustainable Energy Outreach Network) will be giving a free presentation at the Manchester Community Library. A panel of local experts will present “What to Know Before You Build”, an informative talk, which will cover all aspects of residential construction; choosing an architect, selecting a contractor, contracts, the design and planning process, construction loans, financing, energy efficiency incentives and savings.

Presenters include Alan Benoit, Architect at Sustainable Design; Mel Baiser, partner at HELM Construction Solutions; Laurie Fielder, the VGreen Program Manager at VSECU; and Steve Spatz, Residential Energy Consultant at Efficiency Vermont. Following their short presentations, each member of the panel will be available for a more intense question-and-answer session with interested individuals from the audience.

The program is free and open to the public. Manchester Community Library is located at 138 Cemetery Ave. in Manchester Center, Vt. For more information, contact the Library at 802-362-2607.

Builders and Designers for Climate Justice

It’s abundantly clear that we will not build the power necessary to win unless we embed justice—particularly racial but also gender and economic justice—at the center of our low-carbon policies.
— Naomi Klein

Since President Trump's recent election, many conversations among our colleagues have been focused on how we — as designers and builders and leaders in our industry — can take action. Lots of ideas have been floating around, and many new initiatives are underway, but we weren't able to find any efforts specific to the high performance building industry that both speaks to the issues of climate change, while also focusing on social, economic, gender and racial justice. We believe that green and high performance building should not be done in a vacuum. Reducing energy costs and improving indoor air quality are important, but as an industry we are missing the larger context around climate justice. Whether it is building resilient communities in the face of climate disasters, making energy efficiency more affordable and accessible, or addressing poverty and homelessness — we can do more. 

So for the Better Buildings by Design Conference a few weeks ago in Burlington, Vermont with our colleagues from New Frameworks, we decided to issue a statement and work to get as many construction professionals to sign on as we could. The initiative is called Builders and Designers for Climate Justice. To date we've had over 75 companies sign on and are collecting signatures both digitally and in-person at events across the country.

Nearly 50% of the energy consumed in the U.S. is due to the construction and operation of buildings. As members of the construction industry, we feel a responsibility to commit to working for climate justice through the use of more sustainable materials, construction of healthier, more energy efficient buildings, and the development of resilient communities. The climate crisis is real, and inextricably intertwined with issues of racial and gender justice. Where one is impacted, we all are impacted.

We hereby attest that:
• We firmly oppose the Trump Administration’s denial of climate change.
• We reject the xenophobic proposal for building a wall on the border with Mexico.
• We stand united with our fellow immigrant and refugee workers.
• We will continue to advocate for projects that move us towards climate resilience and build us up instead of tearing us apart!

At the upcoming Building Energy conference in Boston, we'll be collecting more signatures and facilitating a Lunch and Learn session on Thursday from 12:15-1:15 entitled "Advocacy and Activism for Climate Justice" which will provide an opportunity for BE attendees to talk about how they have been working to advocate for climate justice, share resources, and engage in a conversation about how as members of the design and construction industry, we feel a responsibility to commit to working for climate justice through the use of more sustainable materials, construction of healthier, more energy efficient buildings, and the development of resilient communities.

Our goal is to collect as many signatures as we can and issue a public statement on April 29th in coordination with the People's Climate Movement and march on April 29th in Washington, DC. In addition to the public statement, we are distributing action cards to lift up the important work of grassroots organizations who are engaged in working for climate justice and defending the rights of immigrant and refugee communities. We encourage folks to donate their time and resources to the organizations on the front lines of this work.

How can you get involved?

1) Sign on to the statement
2) Follow our Facebook page
3) Volunteer to collect signatures at an upcoming event
4) Connect with local grassroots groups in your community

5 Favorite Books for Builders

Here at HELM, we're always on the lookout for books, resources and tools that we can share with our colleagues. We thought we'd put together a short list of some of the most referenced resources that we often recommend:

  1. Markup & Profit: A Contractor's Guide - Revisited by Michael C. Stone. This should be on the desk of every building contractor. It walks you through pricing, markups, calculating your Gross Profit Margin, contracts, and a number of common management challenges. (If you're one of our current clients, a lot of this should sound familiar, but this is a great reference).
  2. Contractor's Guide to QuickBooks 2015 by Karen Mitchell and Craig Savage. This guide walks you through all the features of QuickBooks and how to customize them and use them to your advantage as a contractor. It includes a sample chart of accounts, common reports and end of year procedures for keeping your books accurate and giving you the information you need to run your business.
  3. A Simple Guide to Turning a Profit as a Contractor by Melanie Hodgdon and Leslie Shiner. This book is perfect for contractors who are new to running their own business, and are ready to take the leap from working for themselves to running their own business. In an easy to read narrative format it walks a fictional "Mike" through the process of understanding his financials, how to set up bookkeeping systems, generate accurate estimates, and turn a profit.
  4. The Partnership Charter: How to Start Out Right with Your New Business Partnership (or Fix the One You're In) by David Gage. While not specific to the building industry, this book is a great guide for anyone considering going into business with a partner, or who has run into challenges running a business with someone else. It helps you identify common goals, strengths, weaknesses, and personality styles and explains what structures you should have in place to set up a partnership.
  5. Essential Building Science: Understanding Energy and Moisture in High Performance House Design by Jacob Deva Racusin. Whether you're new to high performance building or an experienced practitioner, this introduction to building science- written by a builder for builders- is helpful in breaking down the basic concepts in understandable language. It's also a great tool to educate your crew and your clients on the importance of building science principles.

What other resources do you go back to frequently as references? Add your suggestions in the comments.

 

Website Tips for Architects & Builders

Lots of our clients have been meaning to update their website for months...or even years. It is one of those things that never makes it to the top of the to-do list, yet in this day and age, if clients can't Google you (and your website isn't mobile-friendly) then your business is at a disadvantage. We came up with a few tips to make your website effective and attractive to prospective clients.

Nice lighting, bright colors, no clutter. Image courtesy of Tim Matheisen and Mathes Hulme Builders

Nice lighting, bright colors, no clutter.
Image courtesy of Tim Matheisen and Mathes Hulme Builders

1.       Pictures are worth a thousand words. Don’t put any picture up on your website that is not high resolution and well-lit, or doesn’t show your best work. As much as you might geek out on process photos and showing projects you’re currently working on, most clients want to see the finished product—the eye candy. If you do put any action photos up, make sure they pass an OSHA sniff-test (no crazy ladder hijinks, everyone wearing proper PPE). It’s better to have 10 awesome photos on your site than 100 mediocre ones. Invest in professional photography, and if you can’t afford that, you can take decent photos on an iPhone but you need to stage each photo with intention. That means no clutter, great lighting, a few nice props to bring color (flowers, a bowl of apples, a bright tea towel).

2.       What do you do? This is your opportunity to show how and why your business is unique. Show the kind of work you WANT to be doing, not just what you ALREADY have done. For example, if 50% of your jobs are roof replacements, but what you really want to do is kitchen remodels, then show pictures of kitchens and don’t even mention roofs. If you have special expertise, certifications or licenses, this is the place to mention them.

Wouldn't you want to hire these friendly folks? Image from the Byggmeister website.

Wouldn't you want to hire these friendly folks? Image from the Byggmeister website.

3.       Who are you? Clients are attracted by your business brand, but typically they associate the business with YOU, the business owner(s). Make sure you have a section on your website with your photo (a nice head shot, where you look professional and people can see your face). If you want to show you still wear a toolbelt, then get your gear on, but this is not necessarily the place for an action shot. You want people to recognize you and perceive you as trustworthy.  It’s also great to show your team—often clients are curious to know whether you’re a one-woman operation or have 3 crews running at a time. It can be hard to keep an up to date roster of all your employees current on your website, but take a nice group shot at your annual company picnic and update it on your site every year. In a larger company, you may want to include bios for your management team if they are the ones that will have a lot of client contact.

4.       Location, Location, Location. One key thing many builders forget to put on their website is their service area. This may be less critical for architects, but often clients are looking for someone local to them who they can meet with in person throughout the design process. Include a little map showing where your past projects have been located, and talk about the region or towns that you work in (this will be key for SEO or search engine optimization). Think about all the ways someone might want to Google your area, and include all of them in your website text. Here’s an example, with a bit of overkill: “Serving the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, with offices in Northampton, Springfield and Amherst, our clients range all along the Connecticut River Valley of MA.

5.       Keywords. Close your eyes and brainstorm the first 5 words you want someone to think of when they think of your company. Rattle off a bunch of ideas—get your team involved—and then refine down to 3-5 keywords that define your company. Then look at how to use these frequently in your website text, in as many different ways as possible. Being consistent and repeating yourself is OK—it helps build your SEO.

Lewis Creek Builders includes a great infographic on their website showing the design-build process.

Lewis Creek Builders includes a great infographic on their website showing the design-build process.

6.       Process. Here’s your opportunity to talk about not just WHAT you do, but HOW. For a potential client thinking about designing and building a home, it’s almost always their first time going through this process. Explain how you work in clear and simple terms. Describe the steps from the first inquiry to the handover of the keys and how you will provide them with expertise and information along the way. Again, this is a place where you can really distinguish what you do from the rest of the pack.

7.       Making Contact. Your contact info should be super clear—I like to always put it in the footer so it shows up on every page. Create a contact form or just get your phone number and email up there. Be professional and get a business email address (ex: jose@betterbuilders.com not fuzzybunny7869@aol.com). Make it clear who the primary contact should be for inquiries, and name that person. If you are a business with multiple partners, decide who the best point of contact is and list only their phone number (ideally the person who is most comfortable with sales AND has the capacity to return these inquiry calls within 24 hours of first contact).

8.       Updating Social Media. Your website should include clear links to your social media platforms. But if you’re not going to update them frequently—don’t bother. There’s no point in creating a Facebook Page for your business if you are only going to post something there once a year. In fact, having a “dead” page can actually hurt your brand. Pick your preferred platform(s) and stick with them until the tide changes and you need to adapt to the latest thing.

Has building or updating your website been on your to-do list for over 6 months? If so, HELM can assist you with moving the process along. Check out Mathes Hulme Builders and TurningLeaf Housewrights for two examples of recent projects, and stay tuned, as we have a few more sites in the works. With our experience in the building industry, a strong design aesthetic, and excellent writing skills, we can help you get a professional website up efficiently and affordably.

Is Your Nonprofit Ready for a Capital Project?

This article was originally published in Blue Avocado, the practical and readable online magazine of American Nonprofits, for nonprofits. Subscribe free by visiting www.blueavocado.org. Original article: http://www.blueavocado.org/content/capital-project.

Is your organization considering raising funds and investing in building or renovating a piece of property? If so, now is time to make sure everyone is on the same page about the goals of this major undertaking. Focused planning will save time, money, and (a lot of) headaches down the road.

Before taking the plunge, I suggest that you ask yourselves these ten key questions:

1. What's your goal?

The first question when considering any capital project should be: How does this fit into your long-term strategic plan? You should be talking about where you see this organization in 5 to 10 years, and how the capital investment will advance your goals. Does the move advance your mission -- or is there a risk it would detract from it?

2. What do you need?

Architects call this "defining the program." But before you even bring an architect to the table, get very clear among your board, staff and supporters about the scope of the project. Here are some questions you can start the conversation with: Are we talking about cosmetic improvements to an existing space, an addition or a completely new building? Going back to the strategic plan, how many staff do we need to accommodate? What new programs do we anticipate? What services do we currently offer and how do we want to enhance them?

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3. Is the organization financially healthy?

A strong financial track record and well-organized financial statements make all the difference in generating support from individual donors and foundations. Strong credit and assets will matter when you try to secure financing from a lender, too.

So ask yourself whether the board and staff have a strong grasp of the organization's current financial situation and how this facilities project will affect it. If the organization's future is up in the air in any way, then it is worth questioning whether it is prudent to invest in owning a facility, if renting or leasing might give more flexibility in an uncertain future.

4. Are we all on the same page?

Do you have a strong leader (or leaders) who will advocate for this project and push things to keep moving forward? You don't want to stall out after you've started, and yet many organizations get stuck at this stage in the process. Some stakeholders are ready for growth and are excited to take on this new project and all of the potential that comes with it. Others are more risk-averse and don't want to spend any money without a rock-solid plan in place. Sound familiar? Defining and articulating the scope of the project will help ensure everyone understands what they're signing on for. Pro tip: A business plan or pro forma can be a great exercise in this step.

5. Who gets to be the decider?

Many nonprofits suffer from an enthusiastic group of volunteers who have lots of ideas, but there's no clear process for how their input will be incorporated into the process. Do your executive director a favor and clearly delineate her or his authority relative to capital projects. Ask the ED to identify who should be consulted, then create a plan for how to solicit and summarize their feedback. Do this in the project planning phase, before design has even started. Then ask: what is the role of the board? Do they need to approve investments over a certain dollar amount? Do they need to review plans throughout the design process? Is there a board subcommittee focused on facilities planning and design?

6. What's our timeline?

Whether you need to move within 6 months or 5 years will definitely drive your decision on whether to remodel or build from scratch. Even on a relatively small project, don't underestimate the amount of time needed for design, construction and the actual moving process. In my experience with capital projects, a full month of design and planning for every month of construction is a good rule of thumb.

7. Who will manage the project?

Identifying this project manager role as early as possible is key. I can't say that often enough. Most nonprofits I work with are already understaffed and juggling a million things -- and that's before taking on a major facilities project. There may be volunteers ready to serve on the building committee, but who will serve as project manager and ensure the project stays on time and on budget?

The best project managers usually come from outside the organization, someone who has a background in construction, permitting and planning. Part of the overall budget for the project should pay for this pre-construction oversight -- whether it's allocating a certain number of hours in addition to the regular duties of an existing staff member, or hiring someone from the outside as support.

8. Can we raise the money? Should we investigate a tax exempt bond or a bank loan?

Many nonprofits fall into the trap of the chicken-and-egg problem. They have a grand vision but no idea what it would cost to build, or how much money they can potentially raise through grants, donations and loans. If that sounds like you, the best solution is a parallel track process.

Start a feasibility study with a capital campaign consultant to help you define a realistic goal and timeline based on your current operating budget, annual fundraising track record and an analysis of your donor pool. As well, depending on the size of the project, you will want to consider whether a loan from a CDFI, a credit union, a bank or even issuing a tax-exempt bond are possible sources of financing. Whatever the type of financing you ultimately use, it will be necessary in the early schematic design phase to get a ballpark number for what it will cost to permit, design, construct and furnish the new facility.

If these two numbers are in the same range -- great! If not, it's time to start developing Plan B (and C and D, to be honest). Take into account any additional operating costs, such as staffing, financing, or maintenance, that the organization will have once the facility is completed. Often a capital campaign will include an endowment component to help cover these future expenses.

9. Are there any legal impediments to this project?

Unfortunately, too many organizations get a long way down the project planning road before determining whether their project is even possible at a given location. What permits are required before construction can start? What does the timeline look like for applying for and receiving them? Are there constraints related to zoning, historic preservation or occupancy at this site? Permit review is critical to pre-construction planning, and it shouldn't be skipped.

10. What are the milestones when you will decide whether or not to move ahead with the project?

Planning any project of this scale is a constant information-gathering process. Most likely your building committee will be meeting regularly for many months before any construction starts in order to make sure everything is lined up, and that decisions are made. As part of your project schedule, define the key decision-making points that will determine whether the project moves ahead as planned. (These could be part of regularly scheduled board meetings or special sessions.)

Here are four typical milestones:

  1. At land acquisition
  2. Upon completion of schematic design
  3. Upon completion of preliminary estimates
  4. At permit submittal

As your board approaches these questions, have conversations about how much money you are willing to spend to get to the next decision-making point. You may have $50,000 or more in permitting, planning, design and capital campaign expenses before you can even decide whether to go ahead with the project.

It takes dedication, a lot of time and considerable financial resources to pull off a major facilities expansion or renovation. Get started on the right foot by putting the time in up front. With a solid plan in place, you'll be able to raise money more effectively and achieve your strategic organizational goals!

Additional resources:

Nonprofit Finance Fund: Facility Planning Guides

Gates Family Foundation: Planning Guide

 

Kate Stephenson is a partner in HELM Construction Solutions and acts as owner's representative for a variety of for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations planning facilities projects. She is the former Executive Director of the Yestermorrow Design/Build School.

Breaking Down Gender Bias: A Toolkit for Construction Business Owners

Here at HELM one of the issues we've been focused on is how to pave the way for more women, transgender and genderqueer folks to enter the building trades.

The construction trades have long been one of the industries with the lowest percentage of women in the workforce – as of 2015, less than 3% of workers in the Construction and Extraction trades were women. Data on the percentage of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) workers in the trades is not available. However, it is clear that many women and LGBTQ workers face bullying and discrimination as a result of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia in the workplace.

So we developed a Toolkit! Our goal in developing this Toolkit is to offer an array of suggestions and solutions to help small business owners and managers break down gender stereotypes and create companies that are inclusive of all genders and sexual orientations. We recognize that many other kinds of discrimination happen in the workplace- including but not limited to race, class, ethnicity and ability- but this Toolkit is specifically focused on gender discrimination.

This toolkit was developed with help and feedback from many of our colleagues in the building trades and social justice movements. We recognize this is just a first step towards raising awareness of these issues in our industry and our workplaces, but we felt the need to start somewhere.

If you have feedback on the Toolkit, ideas to share, or suggestions for additions, please email kate@buildhelm.com. We look forward to developing this Toolkit as a living document. Please share it widely!

Download the PDF: Breaking Down Gender Bias: A Toolkit for Construction Business Owners

Creating an Integrated Team

We recently finished up a high performance home in Greenfield, Massachusetts with Vermont Natural Homes and Bluetime Collaborative. We were really excited about this project because it really exemplified the integrated team approach that we endeavor to use on all our projects, where we bring together the designer, builder, client, project manager and any consultants early on in the project to ensure that the whole team is on the same page and working towards the same goals. And we made a video about it! Enjoy...

Creating Triple Bottom Line Businesses

We're excited to be heading to the Timberframers Guild annual conference for the first time this year. Kate will be moderating a roundtable discussion on Creating Triple Bottom Line Businesses with Chad Mathrani from Vermont Natural Homes, Brad Morse from Uncarved Block, and Jonathan Orpin from Pioneer Millworks and New Energy Works.

Our session focuses on how we can use our businesses to create the world we wish for – to make better lives for our families and our employees, enhance our communities, respond to the urgency of climate change, and achieve financial stability. We will bring together business owners who are using a Triple Bottom Line approach to move beyond simply measuring economic profitability by also looking at how our businesses impact people and the planet. We'll explore questions like: What metrics are we using to measure our triple bottom line? What are the potential risks and benefits to a triple bottom line approach? What does a triple bottom line business look like in practice? A triple bottom line approach can improve the health and well being of our employees, our business and the environment. It can also bolster profits through employee engagement and productivity, and improve our standing in the local community.

It's not too late to join us this weekend at the conference:
September 16-18, 2016 in Saratoga Springs, NY: http://www.tfguild.org/events/2016-tfg-annual-conference