What Vermont Business Owners Need to Know About Paid Sick Leave

On March 9, 2016, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin signed legislation (H.B. 187) making Vermont the fifth state to enact a statewide paid sick leave law, joining California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Oregon. In 2018, Vermont’s new Paid Sick Leave rules came into full effect. For companies who have not had a formal paid leave policy in the past, it’s important to know how to comply with the new regulation to provide paid sick time to your employees. A great resource for information in plain language is this website by the Attorney General’s office: https://www.uvm.edu/consumer/paid-sick-leave.

The basics

Employers must accrue paid sick leave for all employees--at least one hour of sick leave for every 52 hours an employee actually works. The accrual of sick leave started on January 1, 2017. If you work a 40 hour week 52 weeks a year, then that totals 2080 hours. That means you’d accrue 40 hours (5 days) of paid sick leave per year.

In reality, many employees do not work a full 2080 hours in a year. Vacation time, holidays or other paid time off (PTO) do not count towards the accrual.

In 2018, an employee can use up to 24 hours of earned sick time a year. Starting in 2019, an employee can use up to 40 hours per year.

In the first year of employment, employees can accrue sick time but as an employer you are not required to give paid sick time until they have been working for you for a year or more.

A few details


  • Sole proprietors and partner-owners
  • Employees who work an average of 18 hrs/week or less
  • Employees who work 20 weeks/year or less (seasonal/temp)

Salaried (exempt) employees are assumed to work 40 hours a week for the purposes of sick leave accrual.

Sick leave is accrued for any work performed in VT, regardless of whether the company is based in another state or the employee resides in another state.

Fines for non-compliance: employers can be fined up to $5,000.00 by the State for failing to comply with paid sick leave regulations.

So, how do I track this?

If you are using QuickBooks for your payroll, tracking sick leave is pretty straightforward to show on your paystubs, but I’ll walk you through it. Basically, you can choose to track two types of paid time off on your pay stubs. Typically this can include sick time, holidays, vacation, or the more generic category Paid Time Off. If you already offer a general PTO of at least 40 hours/year then that will technically count towards compliance with the Paid Sick Leave regulations. For the purposes of being able to report on Paid Sick Leave, we recommend that you track two categories: Sick and Vacation/Holiday

First, go to Edit > Preferences > Payroll and Employees > Company Preferences

Click on Pay Stub and Voucher Printing

Here you can change the labels of how these categories show up on your pay stubs.


Then click the button Sick and Vacation

Here you can choose how you want to track or accrue the Sick hours.

You have two choices, just set the total at the beginning of the year (this is best for full time salaried employees who you feel confident will likely be with you for the next year or more).

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OR you can choose to set up accrual based on hours worked:

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In this example, the employee is set up to have 5 sick days and 5 PTO days per year, if they work full time. Sick hours can carryover from year to year but you can cap the maximum at 40.

This sets the company defaults. Now you can adjust how much sick time and PTO each employee earns.

Now, go to Employee Center.

Double click to select an employee. Click into the tab labeled “Payroll Info”

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Click the button “Sick/Vacation”

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Here you can customize on an individual employee basis.

If you have not been tracking sick time previously, you’ll want to make sure you set it to start accruing sick time on 1/1/2017 or the employee’s start date, whichever is later. Here you can also choose to set up to either grant the full 40 sick hours from the beginning of the year, or have it accrued for every hour worked. If you are tracking sick leave for the first time, you may need to go back through your payroll records to check how much has already been used in 2018.

Employee Manual

If you are adding paid sick leave to your employee policies for the first time, here is some sample language that will cover Vermont’s minimum requirements:

COMPANY offers paid sick time for employees in compliance with Vermont’s paid sick leave law. All Full-Time Regular and Part-Time Regular employees working more than 18 hours per week are eligible for paid sick leave and can earn up to (5) five paid sick days per year. Eligible employees will accrue (1) one hour of sick leave for every (52) fifty-two hours worked. Between January 1, 2017, and December 31, 2018, employee’s accrual and use of sick time is limited to 24 hours (or 3 days) in a 12-month period. Beginning January 1, 2019, employees can use up to 40 hours (or 5 days) in a 12-month period. Upon hire, employees will start to accrue sick time, but cannot use their sick time until after their (1) one year anniversary of employment. An employee can carry over any unused sick time at the end of the year in which it was accrued, but the employee is not entitled to take more paid sick time than what the law provides in any year.

Once you update your Employee Handbook, you’ll need to notify employees of the new policy and hand out copies of the new Handbook. You also need to post the VT Department of Labor’s Earned Sick Time poster in a location where your employees can see it.

Obviously, this information is specific to Vermont, and law varies from state to state, but the process of setting up and tracking paid sick time in QuickBooks is the same regardless.

In addition, if you use a time tracking software such as Tsheets, you can also track sick time and paid time off there, which provides an easy way for employees to quickly see how much PTO they have available (otherwise they have to ask or look at their pay stub). Details at: https://help.tsheets.com/articles/FAQ/pto-codes-and-accruals

Additional Resources

Department of Labor FAQ: http://labor.vermont.gov/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Earned-Sick-Time-FAQs.pdf

Department of Labor poster: http://labor.vermont.gov/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/EarnedSickTimePoster.pdf

Attorney General’s info: https://www.uvm.edu/consumer/paid-sick-leave

Video on how to set up Sick Time in Quickbooks: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DVLWh55riUc


This blog post is based on research and interviews with State of Vermont department representatives. HELM cannot be held responsible for the legality or accuracy of this information, as it changes over time and varies from state to state. If you have questions about how to implement paid sick leave in your Vermont workplace, please contact the Department of Labor.

Construction Business Basics: Building a Triple Bottom Line Business

Coming up September 20th from 1-4pm in Newton, MA at the Studio for High Performance Design and Construction, HELM will be offering a 3 hour workshop on Construction Business Basics. This is a great intro to the idea of the Triple Bottom Line for anyone in the construction industry- contractors, trade subs, designers and associated businesses. Cost is $149.00 Register here.

What does it mean to run a sustainable business? Is your company making a profit? Are your employees and clients happy? Do you have a good work/life balance? Is your business doing its part to fight climate change? Are you active in your community? This workshop will cover what it means to have a triple bottom line business, touching on how our businesses can address the 3Ps of People, Profit and Planet.

1:00-1:30         Welcome & Context

• Introductions
• Agenda review
• What is a triple bottom line business?
• What are the challenges we face as business owners related to People, Profit and Planet?

1:30-2:00         Planet

• Selling high performance
• Integrated design process is key to high performance
• What are we tracking and why? EUI, ACH50, carbon footprint
• Sustainable vs. natural vs. high performance
• How do we explain what we do to homeowners?
• Embodied energy

2:00-3:00         Profit

• Start with financial sustainability
• What is Gross Profit Margin (GPM) and how to calculate it
• Intro to P&L statement
• Developing an operating budget
• From operating budget to defining GPM to determining markups
• Estimating tips

3:00-3:30         People

• Finding the right people – employees / HR
• Finding the right people – clients / Sales and Marketing
• Personal sustainability – workload, delegating, building on your strengths

3:30-4:00        Wrap up, Q&A, additional resources & follow-up

INSTRUCTOR: Kate Stephenson

Compensation Survey Results

Last fall, we started brainstorming with some of our colleagues in the BuildingEnergy Bottom Lines program about the idea of doing a compensation survey of design and construction firms in our region. We decided to go for it and put together a survey to all BEBL members and HELM clients and colleagues. We sent it out in January 2018 and got responses from a wide range of businesses across the Northeast region, ranging from as small as 1 employee to over 100. We were especially curious to know not only about hourly wages and annual salaries, but also about what kind of benefits our colleague businesses are offering, and how compensation varies by state. The results are finally in - 44 companies participated from VT, NH, ME, CT, MA and NY, and we have collated the responses into a white paper.

 Sample of some of the response data from the compensation survey

Sample of some of the response data from the compensation survey

We learned a lot in the process of trying to collect and analyze this data and hope to do it again and get a larger sample size in the future, but hope this information is useful to our community of design and building businesses as we look at the People component of the triple bottom line: People, Profit and Planet. If you are thinking about employee compensation, we also recommend a great resource in the MIT Living Wage Calculator, which helps you determine what the living wage is for your area.

We'd love your feedback on the compensation survey report and what you'd like to see in the future (post comments below or email them to kate@buildhelm.com).

HELM Named Woman-Owned Small Business of the Year

We are thrilled to announce that HELM has been named the 2018 Vermont Woman-Owned Business of the Year.

From the SBA press release:

Mel Baiser and Kate Stephenson, owners of HELM Construction Solutions, are being recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration for employment growth, financial success, expansion and community involvement. 

HELM Construction Solutions offers a wide range of services, but primarily works to help small business owners develop their companies and manage the construction of green buildings. With offices in Montpelier and Brattleboro, HELM Construction Solutions has over 50 clients throughout the country that include contractors, designers, institutions, homeowners and business owners.

"As a small but growing business, it is a huge honor to be named Woman-Owned Business of the Year. Our goal is to produce high performing businesses with a "triple bottom line", socially responsible approach and at the same time be part of creating high performance, energy efficient, and low-carbon buildings,” said Kate Stephenson, HELM co-owner. “We are also working hard to help bring more gender equity into the construction trades, which have traditionally had very low representation from women, transgender and gender non-conforming people."

The company was started in 2012 by Mel Baiser, HELM co-owner, as Baiser Construction Management. 

To help get it off the ground Baiser attended the Vermont Small Business Development Center’s Start Your Own Business Workshop taught by Debra Boudrieau. During the workshop, Mel learned about writing an effective business plan, financing options, loan packages, marketing and the resources available to launching a successful business.

In January 2016, Baiser and Stephenson partnered and re-branded as HELM Construction Solutions. Since establishing their partnership, they have grown their client base, expanded their services, opened an office in downtown Brattleboro, and brought on employees. 

"When we initially started this business in 2012 we never fully anticipated the demand. We're now working with over 50 clients across the country on a wide range of innovative projects and helping construction-related business owners balance the priorities of People, Profit and Planet as they grow their businesses," said Baiser. “Part of our mission at HELM is to revolutionize the building process one company and one project at a time. We particularly enjoy working with building owners to help them navigate through the complexities of construction be it permitting, selecting the team, cost planning and scheduling.”

HELM Construction Solutions will be presented its award during the 2018 Vermont Small Business Awards Ceremony cohosted by Vermont Business Magazine in June. The ceremony is open to the public and registration will be available in May.

“I remember when Deb Boudrieau told me about a construction management & consulting business starting up in southern Vermont and how impressive the business plan was,” said Darcy Carter, SBA Vermont District Director. “Now five years later, the owners have taken the company from startup to nationwide. It’s a great success story.” 

 Kate Stephenson, Mel Baiser and Erin Rennoldson of HELM Construction Solutions

Kate Stephenson, Mel Baiser and Erin Rennoldson of HELM Construction Solutions

Social Media 101 for Designers and Builders

These days, the three top platforms I think are successful at helping designers and builders reach potential customers are Instagram (if you take great photos in the field and can upload them right from your phone, this will hit a younger demographic), Facebook Pages (for the 30+ demographic, which is probably most homeowners) and Houzz (folks who are interested in design, and are already primed to be looking for contractors and ideas).  Be strategic—only set up social media if you can commit to maintaining it. A “dead” page can be worse for your brand than nothing at all. Pick the platform(s) that you feel most comfortable with and which matches your target demographic.

Your social media should be the place for frequent updates, process photos, daily musings. Here are a few ways you can generate social media content:

  • Share what you’re working on, especially if it is beautifully designed and crafted, or has a unique feature to it;
  • Share your expertise by writing about topics you care about—whether it’s the latest in building science or how to install a newel post;
  • Talk about your clients (with their permission, of course)—tell a story about how you’re building their dream home, and offer a great testimonial quote with a photo of them in front of their home;
  • Share relevant articles or products you think your potential clients would also be interested in;
  • Profile members of your team to put a face to your company;
  • Give a shout out to a supplier or subcontractor who you want to thank (especially if they have a good social media presence, this can help magnify the reach of your posts if you tag them or use their brand hashtag).
  • Share a great review from a past client (and read our tips on how to generate online reviews)

Goal Setting: To keep your social media presence fresh, for platforms like Facebook and Instagram I would recommend setting a goal to post AT MINIMUM once a week. 2-3 posts a week would be great, but not everyone can do that while running a business and having a personal life. Pick a goal that is reasonable, put it on your calendar, and do it.

Scheduling: without getting into advanced social media techniques, I’ll just say that there is a feature on Facebook Pages called “schedule”. You can queue up a whole week or two of posts at the beginning of the week and not have to think about it again, and still add other posts on-the-fly. To schedule posts in Instagram you’ll need to sign up for a third party app like Later (free) or AgoraPulse (monthly fee, but also manages other social media content for you). These won’t actually post for you, but they will send you a notification/reminder and make it easy to just click and post what is in your queue.

Who: is there someone on your team who is already social media savvy who could manage your company’s social media presence for you? If there’s one designated person, and they know it’s part of their role, and you’ve set specific guidelines and goals, this work is much more likely to actually get done. Let the folks on your crew know who is doing social media, and ask them to send in cool photos or ideas to that person. If you’re going to delegate, define expectations and what the key aspects are to your brand (including what is and what is not OK to post, so they have a little guidance).

Grow Your Network: Once you’ve set up your platform(s) let people know about them! Start following your colleagues, competitors, collaborators, friends and clients. They will often follow you back, and your network will grow. If people are seeing what you do on a regular basis, and thinking about your company, they will be more likely to refer a job to you down the road.


What Builders Need to Know About Workers’ Comp

Most contractors I know seem to recoil in fear or get very angry when anyone mentions the two words “workers’ comp”. While it’s a topic dreaded by many, as a general contractor you need to know the rules around workers’ compensation in order to make sure you’re in compliance with state regulations. Every state is a little different, so for the purposes of this article we've focused on our home state of Vermont. We’ll break it down into the key information you need to know.

What is workers’ compensation?

Workers’ Compensation provides payment for medical treatment necessary to treat a work injury, and provides wage replacement benefits if the injury prevents the worker from working. However, workers' comp is more than just income insurance, because it compensates for lost wages, medical expenses, and provides benefits to dependents of workers killed during employment. Workers’ comp is regulated by the state Department of Labor and Department of Financial Regulation which require that businesses purchase a policy for the benefit of their employees.

Do I really need it?

If you are a sole proprietor, and you do not have any employees or independent contractors performing work that is an integral part of your business, you’ll need to decide whether you want to purchase a policy to cover yourself (and your subs―see below). Typically, if you as a business owner are injured on the jobsite and cannot work, and you have health insurance, then your health insurance will cover any medical costs. Beware, some health insurance companies will not cover work injuries, so be sure to check with your health insurer. However, you’ll still be responsible for the deductible and you will not be covered for lost wages. For that you’ll need a Disability Insurance policy. There are many flavors of DI―short term, long term, and even Business Overhead Expense (BOE) insurance which can help to cover the costs of your business overhead if you are injured.

If you ever have anyone working for you, even on a temporary basis, workers’ compensation coverage is required for ALL employment, and employers are liable for anyone they hire, including independent contractors and subcontractors if they are deemed employees under state law. If you hire a subcontractor or independent contractor and they cannot supply you with proof of workers’ comp insurance, then you are required to cover them via your policy.

If you are often working as a sub to someone else, you can purchase your own WC policy, and exclude yourself. This will allow you to show proof of WC coverage to people who want to hire you. For construction related contractors in Vermont, the average minimum policy is around $1,100, but this can vary widely from state to state. In this scenario, the general contractor that hires you may still be liable if they control the sub (tell you when to arrive and leave, what to do and how to do it).

But I thought they were an independent contractor?

A company that provides workers’ comp coverage to its employees will need to provide the same coverage to anyone that is hired to perform the work of the business. The Vermont Department of Labor calls this the nature of the business test.  Under Vermont law anyone hired to perform the work or services that the business provides is an employee by law even if you hire them as an independent contractor . The rules and tests the State uses to determine employee status are clearly outlined on the Vermont Department of Labor website under the workers’ compensation section along with numerous examples.  If you hire subcontractors or independent contractors for a job, you need to require that they provide proof of workers’ compensation insurance, otherwise you are legally responsible to provide the coverage and your insurer will charge you for them.  If the independent contractors you hire can pass ALL of the State’s tests of not being employees, then you are not responsible for providing workers’ compensation for them.

Getting Certificates of Insurance from your subs

The first step is making sure any sub who will be issued a 1099 at the end of the year has provided you with a Certificate of Insurance. But you can’t just file it away- you need to look at it! Make sure the certificates show workers’ compensation coverage is being provided. You'd be surprised how many small contractors have general liability coverage but no workers’ compensation coverage. Also check the dates―certificates of insurance must cover the period when the subcontractor worked for you, and should be updated annually for people you work with on an ongoing basis. We suggested collecting this paperwork prior to hiring the sub to do the work. If you have a subcontractor agreement, make sure that carrying liability insurance and workers’ comp is a condition to the agreement.  If you don’t get certificates of insurance, you will be charged for subcontractors by your insurer as if they were your employees both for liability and workers’ compensation coverages.

Getting started with workers’ comp

Unfortunately, when you go to take out your first workers’ comp policy, since you have no history to show, you may be in an “assigned risk pool” which can mean a higher premium, less choice of insurers who are willing to offer you a policy, and possibly being required to pay the whole year’s premium up front. After a few years with no injury or accident, you can graduate to a carrier who offers you a payment plan and more civilized audit processes.

How can I minimize the cost of workers’ comp insurance?

The #1 factor in determining your workers’ comp rates is how your employees are classified. Different types of work have different levels of risk. For example, an office manager or clerical position might cost around $0.40 per hundred dollars of payroll. But on the higher end, a high-risk category like roofing or ironwork could carry a rate of around $25.00 per hundred dollars of payroll. For general contractors it may be useful to distinguish between carpentry and millwork as these categories carry different rates.

Make sure you have set up your payroll reports so that you can break out hours and dollars paid by classification code. If you use QuickBooks, you can set this up under Payroll Items. If the payroll records do not document the hours spent in each kind of work, all the employee’s payroll will go into the most expensive classification applicable. You’ll also need to be able to break out any Overtime from regular wages. A little extra effort in time tracking and documentation could save you big bucks when it comes time for your audit.

Safety is the #2 factor in determining your insurance rates. If you have fewer claims, your rates will be materially lower than if you do have claims. The insurance rate depends upon the employer’s payroll, experience rating and the type of work performed. A work injury can affect an employer’s safety record and experience rating for a 3-year period. Too many claims, and your options for coverage may be limited to the assigned risk pool.

Annual audit

Every year your insurance company will do what’s often called a “premium” or “payroll audit” to review your total payroll after the policy term ends. This can be either in the form of a voluntary audit (a form to fill out and send back in that will adjust your rates for the policy year just ended), or an in-person audit where someone from the insurer shows up at your office to go through all your records. If you are paying more than $10,000 a year for your policy, you can expect to get an in-person visit each year. At that point, you’ll need certificates of insurance documenting that any 1099 subcontractors have their own workers' compensation insurance. If you can’t provide those certificates then you will be liable. This will mean a hefty retroactive payment to the insurance company and higher rates for the coming year.

Another useful tip to prevent surprises at the end of the year is to review your WC policy quarterly against your actual payroll. Then your insurance agent can adjust your payments along the way if you’ve had significant changes in the number of employees on your crew. You don’t want to overpay if you have lost employees, and if you hired a bunch of new positions halfway through the year, you don’t want to be surprised by a big bill after the audit. Some insurers offer a pay as you go system where you pay workers comp premiums each payroll according to actual wages paid.

When you purchase a new policy, make sure you understand up front what their audit requirements will be so you can be sure your bookkeeping systems are tracking all the critical information they will need at the end of the year.

Working in multiple states

If you work in multiple states, workers’ comp can get pretty complicated pretty fast. Each state has its own regulations, and if you are in the assigned risk pool you may need separate policies for each state you work in. And you’ll need to be able to split out your payroll records by hours worked and wages earned in each state.

What about Unemployment Insurance?

So far, we’ve been talking exclusively about workers’ compensation insurance, which is mainly an issue between you, your insurance agent, and your insurance company. But the Vermont Department of Labor is also responsible for tracking down cases where businesses have not been complying with state law regarding workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance (UI). The issue is around who is considered an employee vs. who is considered an independent contractor. The guidelines are different both at the federal and at the state level, and the criteria are different for WC and UI. In short, it’s confusing. (For details, see the Vermont Department of Labor website.) The VT Legislature is currently considering a couple of bills which would help clarify the criteria, so stay tuned for more details on that.

What’s the risk of non-compliance?

A labor department auditor or investigator could show up unannounced on one of your job sites, and a DOL audit could take months to complete, possibly resulting in thousands of dollars of penalties or assessments of past due contributions. An Unemployment Insurance (UI) audit may take considerable time, but a workers’ comp investigation is usually completed in a matter of weeks or months. The workers’ comp penalties are higher than the UI penalties, and are in addition to having to purchase workers’ comp insurance. Why do so many companies take the risk? Businesses can save up to 30 percent on labor expenses by classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees. The construction industry is under the microscope due to a long history of not correctly classifying employees. The chances are you will have to deal with this at some point, so bite the bullet, make sure all your employees are on payroll, check that all your subs are carrying workers’ comp, and you can be confident you’re in compliance. The other risk is that if no workers’ compensation benefits are received, there’s no limitation on the injured worker’s ability to sue your business for whatever damages the court will award as well as your being responsible to pay all the benefits the worker would have been entitled to under workers’ comp. You might be trading immediate savings on your workers' compensation premium for exposure to legal damages which could easily exceed the normal general liability policy limit of $1,000,000. And if an employer has no workers’ comp and a worker is injured, the employer is personally liable to the employee for medical benefits, wage replacement, and any permanent disability caused by the injury.

But my workers want to be considered subs

Often employers will say that their workers are unwilling to go on payroll as employees. They prefer the higher hourly wage they can get as a subcontractor. We will often use our Labor Burden Calculator to show employees that their total income is often higher as employees since they do not have to pay self-employment taxes and insurance, and as employees they are often eligible for paid vacation, sick time or other benefits. If they still insist on being considered a sub, make sure you’re calculating your cost to cover them under your workers’ comp (if they don’t have their own policy). In addition, make sure that you have a contract for each job, that they submit invoices for work completed (not hourly time sheets), and that you can prove that they also work for other contractors, that they are highly skilled and not supervised by you, make their own hours and use their own tools. Contracting only with subcontractors who have formed a business entity such as an LLC or corporation is a good way to protect yourself against an assessment for unemployment insurance taxes as the result of an audit.

At the end of the day

Navigating the world of workers’ comp is complex and can be aggravating and expensive. But once you understand the rules of the road, you can set up a system that protects your employees and your business. As more businesses in the construction industry come into compliance, it will mean a more level playing field for all of us.

For more information:




This blog post is based on research and interviews with a variety of insurance providers, general contractors, and state of Vermont department representatives. HELM cannot be held responsible for the legality or accuracy of this information, as it changes over time and varies from state to state. For detailed information relevant to your state, please contact an insurance agent or legal professional.

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.

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