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Customers unwilling to pay to be 'green' hurt Green Building Center

Published: Monday, Oct. 18 2010 5:28 p.m. MDT

Ashley Patterson talks to Claire Uno about paint in the Green Building Center, which is going out of business.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A trend toward "greener" buildings in recent years failed to keep the doors open of a small business dedicated to the cause.

The Green Building Center, which was meant to facilitate environmentally-friendly remodeling by homeowners, has been forced out of business and owner Ashley Patterson's dream has crumbled.

She puts part of the blame on customers who were either unwilling or unable to pay the true cost of being green. "People didn't come in and buy stuff here," Patterson said as she worked alone in the store, cleaning up and shutting down the business.

The Green Building Center had been in business since 2003 near the corner of 2000 East and 2700 South in Salt Lake City. When she started the store, Patterson was enthused about doing something good for the planet that was also good business. She offered "green" building materials for home remodeling projects. They were meant to be resource-friendly and environmentally sustainable. Her goal was to sell, as much as possible, building products made in America from recycled materials.

In a 2003 interview, Patterson was optimistic. "The green building movement is just starting to take off in Salt Lake," she said at the time. But this week, she had a different mood. "You know, quite honestly," she said, "when all this is cleaned up and I'm done with this place, it's going to be a huge relief."

The Green Building Center did well for 5 years. Then the bottom fell out of the housing market. "With the downturn, people simply stopped remodeling the kitchen," Patterson said.

Homeowners grew reluctant to invest more money in homes that were losing value, according to Patterson, and banks are still reluctant to lend money on devalued real estate.

But at the heart of Patterson's business problem was the pricing of her building materials. As the economy soured, customers began looking for cheaper alternatives. "I grew really weary" Patterson said, "and everybody who worked here, we grew really weary about people almost mad at us because stuff wasn't cheap."

It costs more to make environmentally "green" products from recycled materials, she said, because they require expensive American labor. Foreign building products have a pricing advantage, "using low-paid labor with low environmental standards," according to Patterson.

As an example, she said a granite countertop might sell for $50 a square foot, because the granite is strip-mined with cheap labor in a foreign country that has poor environmental regulation. On the other hand, a countertop made from recycled glass might cost $100 per square foot because used glass has to be collected, cleaned, crushed and reconstituted. That generally involves American workers with higher wages, significant health care costs and more expenses to meet higher environmental standards.

She acknowledges her store failed to develop professional relationships with high-volume builders and architects. Instead, the store relied on do-it-yourself remodelers, making the business highly vulnerable when homeowners began worrying about the economy more than the Earth.

Another factor in the store's demise, ironically, may be the spread of the "green" mentality through the industry. Patterson notes that many large-volume national chain stores have begun marketing "green" building materials. She calls them "lighter green" because, in Patterson's opinion, they are often less environmentally-friendly that what she offered and are often produced overseas with cheap labor. But the competition hurt. "As more big companies started coming out with a greener option," Patterson said, "our prices didn't look as good."

As potential customers went elsewhere, settling for cheap, instead of green, Patterson found herself coming to work every day essentially for nothing. "It's not sustainable to provide a community service for free," Patterson said. "I would very much doubt that this community will get another place like this for awhile."

e-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com

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