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  • Casey Shaw

Thoughts on Launching and Sustaining a Social Impact Startup



In my world of high-performance buildings, we get to help people fight climate change in their homes. We achieve this goal by advocating for better building standards and partnering with project managers to provide sustainable, multi-family housing to people who may not otherwise have it. The work of building is secondary to the chance we have to collaborate with home builders, owners of projects, and material suppliers on creating sustainable homes.


Along the way, we seek to partner with like-minded individuals who are passionate about applying sustainability principles to their building projects. This partnership is where innovation lies.


Our projects vary in size, scope, funding, and materials. They are in different climate zones, from the boundary waters of Minnesota to the desert of Arizona. What unifies all these projects is our effort to conserve water, reduce building waste, and curtail carbon emissions. In addition, we strive to improve energy efficiency by creating a continuous air barrier and sealed envelope building facade. Our ultimate goal is controlled air tightness.


Challenges to Sustainable Construction


Despite the clear benefits of sustainable building practices, adoption remains extremely limited across the country. So, the challenge is to ask city and local leaders, “Why?” Why is adoption of high-performance buildings so slow? What challenges may be preventing the construction of buildings that save carbon emissions?


Three common misconceptions delay communities from fully embracing sustainably built homes. These misconceptions are related to appearance, cost, and timing.


  • Appearance: There is a common misconception that all high-performance homes are “weird-looking.” In reality, these homes come in virtually all traditional and modern styles.

  • Cost: Ten years ago, building a sustainable home may have been out of reach for most people, but things have come a long way since then. Many projects are now achieving cost parity with conventional, code-built homes.

  • Timing: Just like with releasing any disruptive product or service to market, time to market is critical. Local opinions and sentiment can either create or hinder momentum in rolling out sustainable building projects.


Ideas Lead to Breakthroughs


Whereas traditional developers follow a prescriptive path with each subcontractor working independently of each other, high-performance developers seek a holistic, whole-house integrated design. Wind and solar options for these homes are the icing on the cake. Wind or solar energy supplying electricity to buildings is an evolutionary cog in the wheel of incentivizing communities to build better, especially when combined with microgrids or selling any extra power back to grid operators. Buildings becoming their own power plants makes sense, provided they’re not too leaky to begin with as code-built homes tend to be.


Though I continue to advocate for better, longer-lasting, built homes, what the market will bear or accept is out of my hands. What you as a social impact business owner and nonprofit manager should see is that not only must you keep the ideas coming, and refine those ideas along the way, but realize that being late to market erodes the addressable audience of tomorrow. You must move at speed to capitalize on opportunities that come your way.


Because when you seek to disrupt how buildings are built, and any social impact practitioner will tell you, it’s not just the funding, or the execution of projects, or your assembled team, and their leadership style that matters most to success or failure, it’s also timing.