Cutting-Edge Construction

January 01, 2005
January/February 2005
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2005 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
Click here to read more articles about Home Performance with Energy Star

        Shannon Balts and her husband, Kevin Balts, of Balts Construction of the Chippewa Valley, in Wisconsin, pride themselves on running a family-friendly company that is open to new ideas.When a flyer from the state’s Home Performance with Energy Star (HPwES) program arrived offering training in energy-efficient construction practices, Shannon picked up the phone. “We were looking for ways to do our jobs better,” says Shannon, president of Balts Construction. The flyer mentioned techniques for making homes more efficient, more durable, and safer—all qualities that Shannon feels ought to be true of any family’s home, especially any home her company works on.What she couldn’t foresee was the large effect that the one phone call would have on her company’s trajectory.
        Three years ago, Shannon and Kevin, and two of their four employees, participated in a two-day on-site training session that covered building science and house-as-a-system construction techniques.The training also covered marketing tactics.The association with HPwES gave a big boost to a small company that was just beginning to make a name for itself.After the training, Dave Hepfler, a HPwES home performance consultant,would periodically refer jobs to Balts Construction. These referrals were mostly insulation installations, but those jobs would often turn into larger projects as Shannon and Kevin talked with the clients about their homes’ problems.
        Beyond these referrals, the training changed how Balts Construction responded to its own calls from prospective customers. Ever since, for every remodeling job with an estimate of at least $2,000, the company now calls in one of the state’s qualified home performance consultants, such as Hepfler, to conduct an evaluation of the home.The evaluation consists of pre- and postconstruction testing that includes blower door checks for air leakage, combustion appliance safety checks, and basic air distribution checks.“These tests help us to avoid liability problems,” says Shannon.“If we do the job right up front,we know we’re safer.”The testing also adds to their understanding of a house’s problems, and of the best ways to fix them. “We know the building science behind what we do.” Shannon and Kevin were so pleased with the first training that they signed their whole company up for a second in-house session last winter.
        The Baltses aren’t shy about using the expertise they’ve gained as a way of distinguishing their company from the competition.“I use the fact that we hire consultants in my marketing pieces,” says Shannon. She also uses the Home Performance with Energy Star logo in all of her publicity.Their fulltime sales employee emphasizes wholehouse education in her dealings with potential customers, as does Shannon. “Just last week, a new client called to get a bid on a new roof, because he was having problems with ice dams. I figured out he needed air sealing.” Clients may call asking for bids on new windows, thinking these will lead to huge cuts in their energy bills.“We try to educate them so that they’re buying the right things,” says Shannon.
        Another outlet for client education is the couple’s weekly radio talk-show. Every Wednesday they host a 20- minute segment on the radio, during which they discuss home performance problems, usually ones that they’ve recentlyreated. Listeners can call in with questions, although that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the Baltses invite manufacturers to share the time—and the cost—of airing the show.The talk show format has generated a positive response back at the company, unlike the radio ads that they had run previously.“We get three to show,” says Shannon. In early September they held an open house at their new home, which they are building for themselves, and about 50 listeners stopped in.
        From a company that was just four guys and a truck three years ago, Balts Construction has now grown to employ 15 people full time, including roofing, insulation, rough-up construction, and finish construction specialists. At any one time, the company is working on three to four jobs, ranging in size from one-day to multiweek projects.
        Even with all that inhouse expertise, the Baltses are not interested in bringing the home performance consultant’s expertise in-house.“If I were a client,” says Shannon,“ I would prefer knowing that the consultant didn’t have a vested interest in the posttest being right, or in changing the pretest to make more work.” For the Baltses, a third-party evaluator lends more credibility to the results. Expertise and credibility are strong platforms to grow a company on, as the steady expansion of Balts Construction of the Chippewa Valley shows.

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