A green future for Kitsap construction industry

With new construction lagging, construction worker Matt Stefnik of Seabeck found himself unemployed this year, the construction company he worked for having gone bankrupt. So in the spring, he decided to get trained in the one sector of the construction industry that is actually growing: green building.

Stefnik enrolled in Olympic College’s first home energy assessment program earlier this year, a seven-week session that certifies students to perform home energy audits and determine how homes could be more energy efficient.

“It makes me a more intelligent remodeler and builder,” Stefnik said.

Now, Stefnik is building his own business, Matthews Construction Services, Inc., that will include home auditing and weatherization retrofitting in addition to construction and remodeling. He plans to hire four to six of his Olympic College classmates.

Eighteen students completed the program in June. It was paid for by a $60,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Starting this fall, Olympic College will offer a five- to six-week weatherization program to teach students how to improve air flow in buildings and install the equipment that will help homes conserve energy. That program will be paid for by a two-year $276,000 federal grant, said Wendy Miles, director of the college’s Military and Continuing Education program.

The new offerings coincide with a $4.88 million grant awarded to Bainbridge Island, intended to expand green jobs in the county and pay for 5,000 home energy audits, including 1,000 in Bremerton. With these opportunities now available, some in the construction industry hope green building will catch on in Kitsap County.

Troy Olson of TNT Home Builders in Port Orchard, said he enrolled in Olympic College’s program as an opportunity to expand his business’ offerings in the midst of a construction slowdown.

“I looked at it as an opportunity to kind of add something to my resume,” he said, adding that his new qualifications help his business become more marketable.

Now, Olson offers energy audits and retrofits in addition to his building. The extra time, effort and equipment involved may add extra costs, but he said it’s the right thing to do - and is saves customers money on utility bills in the long run.

“There’s a real need for these kinds of services,” Olson said. “Everyone wants homes to be more efficient.”

Detrick Jones, president of Price Jones LLC in Bremerton and instructor for the fall weatherization program, said it’s not demand for green energy services that’s lacking.

“The biggest problem is I need help,” he said, adding that green building is faring better in the downturn economy than any other contracting field. “The work’s there, it’s just trying to find skilled employees to do it.”

The growth in the green building industry is not happening as quickly as he would like, however. While some contractor associations are adopting green building and energy conservation techniques, it’s easier for others to save money in the short-term and take shortcuts, Jones said.

Olson said that much of the energy conservation field, still in its infancy, is dependent on grant money for its work until it catches on more in the private sector.

“The industry is still shaping itself a bit,” Olson said. “Without grant money, I don’t know how successful it’s going to be.”

But both Olson and Stefnik said that the BP oil spill ravaging the Gulf of Mexico offers a timely, if sobering reminder of why conserving energy is important.

“The oil in the Gulf clearly shows that we need to lessen our dependence on fossil fuels,” Stefnik said.

Miles said it is hard to say how green jobs will fare in the next several years and no one has a clear answer on its role in the economy and environment.

“I think we’re at the beginning of the curve,” she said.

Nonetheless, she said everyone can help by reducing their own energy consumption in their homes.

“If we could conserve how we use our energy, it helps so much more than even going after alternative energy sources,” she said.

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