To those driving north or south on a connector road between Loveland and Ft. Collins, Colo., it’s just another ordinary-looking building. At 9,000 square feet, the headquarters of Porter Industries Inc. is the size of the average American office space. Made of brick and capped with green aluminum roofing, the exterior is not particularly remarkable.

Get a little closer, however, and things seem a little less ordinary. A sign in the parking lot reserves a spot for the company hybrid vehicle. Inside, the carpeting is made of recycled content. In the lobby, a striking gold placard greets visitors. The award is attractive, yet almost an understatement of the effort wielded to attain it; this placard represents 18 months of planning, collaboration, inspection and renovation that transformed the facility into a green building.

In August 2006, Porter Industries became the first cleaning company in the nation, and the first for-profit and privately owned building in Colorado, to be awarded the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Existing Buildings (LEED-EB) 2.0 Gold certification by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

A solid foundation
Porter is a small business not unlike thousands of others across the country. It’s been around for 40 years, having survived despite huge shifts in industry and customers in the Loveland-Fort Collins area that stretches south to Denver and east to Greeley. Thousands of high-tech jobs — and thus square-footage — have been lost as companies moved, downsized or shut their doors. However, the area is now experiencing a huge population boom, and is also feeling positive effects of a surge in the biotech industry. That translates into business opportunity for Porter.

Bob Stone has been with the company through it all. Now the proud owner, he started at Porter in 1970 as a window-washer and eventually worked his way to company president in the early ’80s. He and his wife Marilyn purchased the company in 1997, and revenue since then has increased 40 percent thanks to a business model that expects and embraces change. Two years ago, Stone set out to make a very ambitious change for his business by pursuing LEED-EB certification.

LEED is a rating system for the design, construction and operation of green buildings — including existing and new buildings, commercial interiors, homes and schools. LEED certification has become popular in the Denver area, where the progressive green-building culture has placed Porter in a rather unique position to forge ahead as a green pioneer. While Stone shrugs off labels like “environmentalist,” he’s always looking for ways to be more efficient. Stone’s had an interest in energy efficiency for decades, starting in the ’70s when he put a solar panel on his home.

But why pursue LEED-EB? Stone and other Porter employees simply say: “It’s the right thing to do.” To Stone, doing the ethically and morally “right” thing is central to his company’s mission to care about people and their environments. In Stone’s opinion, the health and safety of employees are the company’s most valuable assets — and healthy indoor environments for customers and outdoor environments for everyone else are important as well.

LEED, too, values those human assets, providing a rating system with benchmarks that allow owners to measure performance in five areas of human and environmental health.

Porter’s LEED-EB team includes Steve Hendrickson, president and CEO; Greg Jones, head of business development; and Ken Sargent, support services administrator. Jones and Sargent earned LEED professional accreditation, meaning they showed a thorough familiarity with LEED requirements, resources and processes. The two accredited professionals, or LEED APs, will be able to serve as expert consultants for other companies that desire LEED certification.

The road to LEED
The decision to pursue certification came after many months of investigation. After initially hearing about the LEED programs, Stone was interested. But he sought advice from experts in Colorado and the USGBC, and from business partners and mentors who had been involved in LEED pilot projects, before committing. Throughout the process, the company continued to use those resources.

Going LEED didn’t require a revamping of the entire structure — just some changes to enhance the building’s operational efficiencies.

“People think it’s expensive, that it’s going to cost a lot of money, and it’s not,” Jones says.

But as the adage goes, you have to spend money to save money. The same is true about LEED certifications. However, the staff insists the savings the company will incur will more than make up for the $60,000 it put into it. While many businesses may be afraid they won’t get a return on their investments, says Jones, Porter is already seeing reductions in usage and utility bills.

Exact cost comparisons won’t be made until later this year, but some results were immediate. Water bills have already been reduced by 40 percent, thanks to new touch-free restrooms and a waterless urinal. Energy bills are expected to decrease as well, with fluorescent lighting being halved from four bulbs per light to two and with automatic evening thermostat setbacks in the office and warehouse areas.

The staff found that small changes made a big difference in earning LEED certification credits. By simply monitoring waste for a number of weeks and converting to an aggressive recycling program, solid waste was reduced by 62 percent.

Nearly half of the 32 credits required for minimum LEED-EB certification can be earned through green cleaning programs. Porter earned all 14 possible points for its green cleaning practices, including sustainable cleaning products and materials, exterior maintenance and low environmental impact policies.

LEED applies to other aspects of business as well, adds Hendrickson. With periodic inspections and reports, complete with action items and corrective actions documented, LEED underscores the life cycle cost of building ownership. The process holds participants very accountable, requiring quarterly reporting on exterior items such as maintenance equipment and landscaping and interior issues such as storm water management, the HVAC system, recycling, fire suppression system and safety lighting. Those inspection reports are kept in a log book.

“LEED has helped us to realize that documentation is important. It’s made us think: ‘Are we doing proper documentation in other areas of the business? Are our systems really in order?’ So, over this next year, that will be a focus for us, now that we really have gone through the systems of the LEED process, to take another fresh look at our training program, at our employee orientation program, at our quality improvement program with our customers,” Hendrickson says. “That’s probably an added benefit that we’ll enjoy this next year, is making sure that all of our systems are functioning and efficient.”

That aspect of the certification sold Stone, who repeats that LEED increases operational efficiencies — and who wouldn’t want that for their business?

“The best way we could describe it is that it is simply a good business practice,” Jones says. “It helps you to take responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of your facility, which extends to the upkeep and maintenance of how you run your business.”

It’s all about timing
The certification comes at an important time for the cleaning industry, says Stephen Ashkin, president of green-cleaning consulting firm The Ashkin Group LLC in Bloomington, Ind. Over the next few years, every contractor will at least have access to or be using green products. Companies will be able to differentiate themselves from competitors not just by using green products, but also by becoming green themselves.

“We want to buy green product and services from green companies,” Ashkin says. If everyone’s offering the same green products, price — not service quality or health or environment — remains the main factor for customers. “So what will happen is, companies like Porter and others who are going beyond that to become green companies will really be more successful in the marketplace.”

That’s exactly what Hendrickson is hoping for. Like many other contractors, he’s upset by some of his competition that continues to offer almost unrealistically low bids. Those “bad apples” drag down the entire market by making it difficult to remain competitive while offering fair wages and benefits to employees, Ashkin says.

LEED-EB certification, along with two LEED APs on staff, should help to elevate the cleaning industry to start valuing services that support sustainability, Hendrickson says. Cleaning should be more than a commodity.

“We really like the cleaning industry; I mean, we’re passionate about it,” Hendrickson says.

It hurts everyone when there’s seemingly little appreciation for the safe and the healthy environment that can be provided for building occupants, he asserts. In a low-bid-driven industry, building service contractors can be their own worst enemies by undercutting competitors instead of raising the bar of service across the board, Hendrickson adds, and he worries quality service is getting lost in the shuffle.

“I think the LEED program really is a big asset to help people understand that cleaning is an important component in the indoor air quality of a facility and since we spend so much of our time inside, we’re hoping that this will really help to raise the value of what our industry provides — and as a result of that, we begin to be compensated more fairly for the real benefits that we bring to a company,” Hendrickson says.

The bigger picture
It has been mere months since the certification was announced, but Stone and his two LEED-APs can’t wait to put their skills to good use. The company secured its first cleaning contract with a LEED building in November, and they anticipate business on the consulting side of things will slowly trickle in.

Porter’s services will be offered to BSCs of any size in any location, as the LEED-EB checklist is the same for all.

“You know, it doesn’t matter how big your building is, because you’ve got to go through the same process,” Stone says. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s 100,000 square feet or whether it’s 10,000 square feet.”

Stone and his staff so believe in green, they helped raise $100,000 over the past year to fund a promotional project with a local media partner and Colorado State University’s Institute for the Built Environment (IBE). The project, a DVD video series entitled “Green Building in the Rockies,” was finished in November and is available to USGBC members and other parties interested in LEED certification and sustainable building.

Brian Dunbar, executive director of the IBE, first became introduced to Porter when he and colleagues were invited to lunch with LEED-EB team members in late 2004.

“We sat through lunch with our mouths open,” Dunbar says. “We thought, ‘Wow, this company is onto something, and they’re ahead of the game.’ What makes a cleaning company make the connection between health and energies and building and waste, when there’s a whole bunch of people in the middle who don’t get it yet?”

The Stones and the Porter LEED team are confident they “get it.” So is Ashkin.

“It’s easy to talk about it. It’s a lot harder to do what you’re talking about,” Ashkin says.

Porter Industries certainly walks the walk, and has earned recognition locally and nationally for doing so. In January, the company was presented with the Loveland Chamber of Commerce “Business of the Year” award. The owners and staff of Porter were also honored by two state senators among many others when they formally received the LEED-EB Gold certification.

But while receiving certification marks the end of many months of hard work, the work is by no means over. Stone’s additional goals for Porter this year include the addition of a photovoltaic system for solar energy, implementing water-conserving landscaping called xeriscaping and creating a neighborhood recycling drop-off point on-site. As the company helps lead the growing movement toward a greener world, Hendrickson remains excited about things to come.

“It’s been a journey and maybe it’s just beginning,” Hendrickson says. “Hopefully, it is.”