A Social Entrepreneur Links Affordable Housing to the Green Economy

Battling back an ugly job market, a young architect turns a stint as a volunteer into a impact-focused green building business.

Shane Gring grew up playing with Legos and building tree forts; there was no question that he would study architecture when he arrived at college. But after he graduated in 2009, the collapse of the economy and the housing market left him without work. He signed up for a stint with Americorps, never imagining that what he saw as a career detour would spawn a new business combining his passion for architecture with affordable housing and sustainable building.

Americorps sent Gring to Boulder, Colorado to help Habitat for Humanity adopt LEED green building standards. The volunteer organization's commitment to those standards isn't just environmental; green buildings are cheaper over time and easier maintain, so what starts as affordable housing stays affordable. Gring earned his certification in building green homes and helped develop ways of making homes that used less water and energy out of safer and more sustainable building materials.

But building green has higher up front costs than regular housing, an issue for an organization like Habitat that must walk a fine line between affordability and sustainability. To solve that problem, Gring developed the idea that would become his business.

Demand for LEED-certified home builders is on the rise, but architects, designers, and contractors need experience working on green building sites to earn the LEED accreditation. And thanks to a recession that hurt home construction and the relative novelty of green residential building, there aren’t a lot of options for people to learn. Gring realized that if he charged tuition to professionals eager to work on green building sites and earn the increasingly important certification, he could use some of the revenue to offset the higher initial costs of green housing—and provide skilled volunteers for Habitat.

After piloting the program, called Everbuild Pro, inside Boulder’s Habitat chapter for two years, last year Gring and his colleagues spun it into BOULD, an autonomous social enterprise that will partner with Habitat and similar organizations around the country, leveraging interest in learning green building techniques to fund affordable housing developments and his business. In addition to the direct benefits to Habitat, Ging says he’s proud his company is increasing the number of people qualified to build sustainable housing.

Last year, BOULD helped build 20 LEED-certified homes and funnel $20,500 to affordable housing builders while training 160 people. Students include architecture, design and building professionals, high school students, and real estate agents and lawyers interested in learning more about green residential housing.

Gring will soon start a fellowship at the Unreasonable Institute, a social enterprise incubator in Boulder, where he will learn from experienced mentors about scaling his business and attempt to secure further capital to fund the company. Gring isn't too nervous about the transition from architect to entrepreneur. "In architecture you are pitching, presenting, the design of your buildings on a daily basis," he says. "You get really good at taking critique and defending your ideas and it’s really helped me out when I’m pitching for BOULD in competitions and in front of investors. A great training, inadvertently, for the position I’m in now."

Photo via (cc) Flickr user COD Newsroom

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