For entrepreneur Laura Elfline, sustainability isn’t just a practical means of doing business, it’s a way of life. In 2009, Elfline co-founded Mighty House Construction, a Seattle-based residential construction company with her husband, Doug, a second-generation builder. The pair routinely goes beyond LEED and green building considerations to take a truly holistic approach to new projects, which range from spot remodeling jobs to ground-up original structures.
“How you use your home and financial considerations are just as important as green building products, energy conservation practices, and space utilization,” the Elflines tell customers on their website. “It is important to us to provide a fabulous, useful, and healthy indoor environment that treads lightly on the planet without being a financial burden.”
That may sound like a tall order — and Elfline admits it’s sometimes a hard sell — but in a tough economy and a competitive market, it gives Mighty House Construction an edge.
“People are being much more thoughtful about what they’re choosing to do on their homes,” she says. “In the past, it was like, ‘I kind of feel like blowing out this wall and fixing the patio.’ That’s great and adds value to a house, but it isn’t necessarily sustainable. I think a lot of building and remodeling that was going on before [the recession] wasn’t sustainable. People took out all these loans to do amazing things and then they couldn’t pay for them.”
So Mighty House works to help its customers make appropriate upgrades within their means. For example, Elfline says, “One of the things that’s always an ah-ha moment for folks is in regards to decking materials. People in the Pacific Northwest are used to cedar decks, but they always rot, even when you put a lot of effort into their maintenance. So then they look at Trex, which is a recyclable material, but it’s also very expensive — and in certain applications is the wrong product to use.”
As an alternative, Mighty House offers ironwoods from South America or Indonesia, which don’t rot, don’t get devoured by local bugs, require zero maintenance, and last for at least 20 years. They’re more expensive to install and travel farther to reach Seattle, but over time they’re more sustainable. “It’s kind of like going out and buying that good pair of shoes, or going to a discount shoe store again and again and putting a lot of energy into the process,” Elfline says. “It’s been a big seller to have long-lasting wood product without maintenance.”
Beyond the job site, the Elflines work to make Mighty House Construction as sustainable a small business as possible. The company provides flexible hours and other benefits to its three full-time laborers and two part-time administrative assistants. Everyone tries to avoid wastefulness around the “very, very, very small office,” Elfline says, by being mindful of everything from office supplies to vehicle trips. “We use energy-saving appliances and tools and buy from local vendors as often as we can,” she adds, as well as using secondhand or recycled materials whenever possible.
The Elflines are also very active in their community, volunteering with groups such as Eat Local Now, CoolMom, and Sustainable West Seattle. SWS runs the West Seattle Tool Library. The library, located on the South Seattle Community College campus, lends tools to do-it-yourselfers and hosts an “Ask the Expert” event one Saturday a month, during which Mighty House personnel and other contractors field home-improvement questions from the general public. All this activity not only allows the business to give back, but it also helps generate leads and referrals, Elfline says.
“It’s really hard to pinpoint what makes us a sustainable business, because some of it is so much like breathing to us,” she adds. “I don’t know if we’ve ever thought about how to become a sustainable business, we just are one.”
Photo by Rebecca Nelson