Healthy Home, Healthy Bottom Line
Darryl Whalen’s Seattle-based company, Healthy Painting LLC, has a motto: Old craft technique—healthy modern slant. It reflects the owner’s four decades of experience, but also hints at something greater.
Whalen brings a unique level of professional sensitivity to each job. He’s meticulous about site cleanup and reusing materials. He taps a regional paint company, Miller, for zero-VOC offerings, and combs hardware stores for supplies and products that bring minimal off-gassing and odor—and he attends American Lung Association and National Center for Healthy Housing (NCHH) workshops to stay on top of best practices.
These approaches are now woven into his marketing strategy and have been since 2008. He is not the lowest bidder on a job, but confidently asserts that his methods are the best, the cleanest and safest—and customized for each situation—to assure a repaint will not be a stinky, sticky mess. It’s a practice shaped from years of curiosity about his trade’s role in a healthy-home environment.
“In the early ’80s, I started learning about environmental issues and water conservation, and it made me start to look at paint labels more closely. I wasn’t active in the environmental field, but I was becoming mindful of things,” he said. “Today, I still feel like I’m piecing it all together. It’s a living, learning thing. There are always changes and updates to technology and ways you can do things.”
Whalen’s approach is a perfect fit for the emerging healthy-home trend, a growing conversation where homeowners are concerned about how their home can impact human health and be a contributor to problems like asthma and respiratory issues, among other health concerns. This trend, some say, is a great opportunity for the knowledgeable, well-versed paint pro.
“To me, the healthy home movement is a residential repaint play. As a contractor, you want to have a tool in your selling toolbox so that when you see that homeowner that this resonates with, you’re ready and prepared to respond,” said Jeff Winter, director of marketing for Sherwin-Williams’ residential repaint division.
A GROWING OPPORTUNITY
About a decade ago, the conversation about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) really started to heat up, and manufacturers, in earnest, began churning out low- and zero-VOC offerings. Today, the healthy-home trend is where the VOC conversation was 10 years ago, Winter said.
“We see homeowners as the ones starting the conversation now. But the contractor may not be equipped to answer the questions as thoroughly as the homeowner would like,” Winter explained.
According to NCHH, a healthy home is defined as “housing that is designed, constructed, maintained and rehabilitated in a manner that is conducive to good occupant health.” In a 2014 survey, online home-design site Houzz.com found more than one in three homeowners felt their home is ‘less than healthy.’ And media accounts do their part to push the trend too. Earlier this year, for example, Lumber Liquidators was exposed for its Chinese-made laminate flooring, which was reported to have potentially dangerous levels of formaldehyde.
“We expect the healthy-home trend to continue to gain traction, especially as we see millennials create households,” Winter noted. “This concept is less about what is good for the environment, but more about what is not going to be harmful to me and my family.”
A big piece of the healthy-home conversation revolves around indoor air quality and off-gassing from man-made materials like flooring, cabinets and furniture. It’s a concern Chad Ruhoff, vice president of energy services for Oregon-based remodeler and builder Neil Kelly, hears quite often.
“Some people aren’t affected by high-VOC levels, but the long-term effects are still there,” he said. “Fifty years ago, we built houses that were loose and air moved through them quite easily. And the furniture was made of real wood. It wasn’t chipboard with lots of glue and formaldehyde in it. I have to be more cautious about what we do because people are becoming more sensitive, and this has really increased in the last couple generations.”
Off-gassing can relate to paint supplies as well. Whalen had one client express concern about a sensitivity to caulk odor. Whalen admitted not having an immediate answer and candidly described several hardware-store trips and a lot of label reading to find a product for the situation.
“Even some of the tapes can be a concern at times. It’s a relatively small contingent of people who have these challenges, but I really work to help them,” he added.
Some consumers can be so sensitive that even the small addition of VOCs from a paint tint can be an issue. “A lot of attention is given to the paint, but the tint can also be a factor. We make sure we use zero-VOC tints as well,” added Steve Wiezorek, director of Valspar’s professional product marketing.
A TIGHT-HOME PROBLEM
Today’s homes are built tight, largely in the name of energy conservation. But some will argue that indoor air quality could be sacrificed as ventilation is restricted.
For this reason, Whalen, in addition to using a HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestance) air-purification system, also makes a concerted effort to open the windows of a home on interior jobs to release off-gassing from his materials and anything else in the home.
“Sometimes, people leave windows closed for years and that can make for an unhealthy environment,” he added. “The truth of the matter is that green building isn’t necessarily healthy building. Everything can be sealed tight, but that doesn’t mean that everything that’s going in there is healthy.”
POP THE QUESTION
Some building professionals highlight the importance of the paint pro starting the healthy-home conversation with customers.
“If you ask if someone in the house has respiratory issues, the homeowner will start to think about why the contractor is asking this. You can be the painter that offers a solution and show them how to do this differently,” Ruhoff said.
And today’s consumer is likely willing to pay more for the peace of mind that comes with building or painting to healthy-home standards.
Winter says, with the high number of zero-VOC products on the market today, pricing for a premium product is very competitive and it’s not that much of a factor when looking at the entire job anyway. “It’s within reach for any customer, quite frankly. The cost of the product is really only about 20% of the job,” he added.
He also said informal surveys from his team indicate that today’s consumer is less price-conscious than some may think. Reputation and professionalism are the top two priorities he is finding. “I think that’s a common misperception in the business, that it’s all about price and being the lowest bidder,” he added.
Ruhoff is a testament to this. His company has several go-to paint teams, and he highlights professionalism and quality as the top two qualities he looks for. His company usually sets the low- or zero-VOC specs on a job, but he is looking for someone who, above all, ‘gets it’ when it comes to healthy homes and building methods.
BEYOND THE PAINT
Larry Zarker, CEO of the nonprofit Building Performance Institute in Malta, NY, says it’s also important for paint pros to think holistically about the job and not just be that “last 1/32 inch that hides the sins of the contractors who came before them.”
He encourages paint pros to consider building analyst certification or partner with a building analyst who can conduct a home air-quality audit for concerned consumers. Having relationships with reputable contractors who can fix mold or mildew problems originating deep behind the walls of a home can also be a plus.
“Today’s consumer is not as concerned about oil prices, but if a daughter or son misses a soccer game because of asthma or sinusitis, they’re willing to do what it takes to get that fixed,” Zarker said. “This is where a paint pro could be on the front lines. If a painter comes to the realization that some things have been done incorrectly in the past and takes responsibility for correcting them, he can come out of it a hero. I’m not saying you need to be a toxic-mold specialist, but if there are problems behind the walls, it’s often a paint professional who encounters it.”
PRODUCTS THAT PERFORM
Critical to any paint pro’s healthy-home marketing toolbox is a paint product that delivers when it comes to low or zero VOCs and low odor. There are plenty of paints to choose from and many won’t break the budget. Here are a few that come highly recommended:
• Natura from Benjamin Moore — Zero VOC with zero emissions and minimal odor, Natura brings performance and the Green Good Housekeeping Seal and Green Promise designation. It’s great for those with allergies and sensitivities to odor, fumes and other air-quality concerns. It comes at a bit of a price premium, in the high-$40s–$50/ gallon range.
• Water Blocking Primer/Finish from Sherwin-Williams — Used for below-grade concrete block or masonry, the zero-VOC primer brings odor-reducing properties in addition to effectively resisting hydrostatic pressure. Great for killing that musty smell often found in basements, the primer comes with Sherwin-Williams’ GreenSure designation and can be found for roughly $40/gallon.
• Harmony from Sherwin-Williams — Zero VOC and antimicrobial, Harmony also helps to eliminate odors—and company officials also claim it even helps to reduce formaldehyde levels in a home, actually breaking the chemical bond of formaldehyde. Around for nearly a decade, Harmony has been fine-tuned through the years. “We’ve taken a legacy product with a lot of name recognition and added unique industry-first features,” Winter added. This interior acrylic paint can often be found in the $50/gallon price range.
• Ultra 2000 from Valspar — This product is UL GREENGUARD Gold certified, low odor, and boasts zero VOCs. The popular professional-grade interior paint is also reasonably priced in the $20/gallon range. Valspar offers zero-VOC tints as well.
• Medallion from Valspar — Another low-odor, low-VOC interior acrylic paint from Valspar that has received plenty of great reviews from pros and DIYers alike. Gets high marks for easy cleanup.
• Acro Pure from Miller Paint Company — If you’re a contractor in Washington or Oregon, you are probably familiar with the Portland-based 125-year-old Miller Paint Company. Acro Pure is an interior-job staple for Whalen. The zero-VOC antimicrobial product is durable, easy to apply, and brings little odor. “I like to stay local for supplies and materials, if possible, and these guys have been doing low VOC for quite some time,” Whalen added.