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Have you heard of “locavores?” These folks are interested in eating food that is produced within a 100-mile radius of their home. The idea is to minimize fossil fuels from shipping and nutrition lost from farm to table.

We like to consider ourselves a small part of the locavore movement. We started three years back with a few tomato plants, and our garden has grown gradually each year.

Produce now includes cantaloupe, peppers, eggplant, cucumbers and more. We keep a box of these fresh vegetables on the kitchen table so folks can take what they need for their families.

It only seemed natural that our next step should be fruit.

Last week, we planted peach, plum, pear, apple and fig trees along our drive, just above our woodworking barn. As they mature, the trees will make our entry a little nicer and provide additional fresh treats for our team, our neighbors and visitors.

As for being local, the origin on these trees is just that. We were glad to team with Maple Valley Nursery, a Birmingham original with values similar to our own, to source our trees.

What are you doing to make your life more localized? Do you partner with local businesses like your own? We’ve found the benefits ripe for our picking.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email
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Every year, we have a Christmas gathering to bring all the Stewart Perry families together.

The first year this reunion was held at our place, we spent one Saturday morning planting several hundred daffodils across the lake on the hillside. We chose that spot because it is visible from our conference room and is a reminder of renewal and hope that comes with each new year.

The experience that Saturday with our team and their families was invaluable. We all worked together to create a nice addition to our campus. In the years since then we have added more daffodils so that now every spring across the lake we have a beautiful vista of flowers.

Our daffodils are the gift that continues to give year after year. When we construct an “owner occupied building”, during the design stage, I share with the client that to me a building should be more than 4 walls and a roof and that it should leverage important values of the company. In our case, the daffodils serve us as a reminder to our team of the importance of being cohesive. I wonder what are the important values that your environment helps to communicate?

 

 

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Lately it seems like an increasing number of folks have seen the light when it comes to the drawbacks of dark-colored pavement. Black asphalt has traditionally been the surface of choice for our nation’s roadways and parking lots, but asphalt can act as a heat sink that retains the warmth of sunlight.

The effect is called an “urban heat  island.”  Think about a city like New York in the summer, the asphalt retains the heat, causing the city to be much hotter than the suburbs.

Over the last several years, we have worked a lot of jobs that involved the use of concrete and even crushed limestone over asphalt. These pavements reflect light and heat instead of absorbing it, which has two benefits;

  • First, it cuts down on the amount of solar radiation retained by the earth during the day, which mitigates the greenhouse effect.
  • Second, it significantly reduces the amount of artificial light needed for nighttime illumination, which saves energy.

When you think about pavement that is used for our roads and parking lots, even a slight change in heat and light reduction can have a major impact. Especially when you consider that these gains take place constantly.

Every daytime minute in which less heat is retained and every nighttime moment in which more light is reflected is a small win for our sustainability efforts.  And eventually, enough small wins add up to a huge victory for all of us.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email

Nearly every sizeable city in the United States struggles with clogged arteries. It’s a sea of traffic signals, brake lights and all-around urban sprawl. The roads in and out of town stack up during rush hour with smog-spewing traffic jams.

Nobody enjoys sitting in traffic, so there is personal motivation to eliminate tie-ups. It saves time and reduces frustration. It can also reduce pollution.

Here are a few things we have done to limit the impact employee vehicles have on the environment, at least while they are at work:

  • At our office, the best parking spaces are for carpools only. This encourages our team to find a friend to ride with. It saves them gas money too.
  • Our parking lot has low flow paving, so there is less effect on the ecosystem.
  • An island in the lot is filled with plants to limit our carbon dioxide impact.
  • We offer flex hours, so employees may choose to come in at times when traffic is lower, eliminating the extra pollutants emitted while waiting in traffic.
  • Employees can connect to their email out of the office. If they would like to work from home occasionally, it cuts down on gas and pollution.

This is an example of how being green can have benefits beyond the impact on the environment.

But we can always do better. The key is cooperation, especially among officials of neighboring municipalities. After all, polluted air and water does not stop at the city limits. Low-efficiency buildings in one area suck energy from the overall power grid. By pulling together, cities can adopt sustainable practices that will both preserve natural resources and enhance the quality of life.

What steps are you taking to lower your business’ carbon footprint?


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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

I’ve heard it a million times: “Actions speak louder than words.”

In a country like the U.S., where we vote with our dollars, that becomes even more true. We make a demand and the supplier who meets it wins the sale. Sometimes the government—the officials we elected to regulate policy—can give a push to make it happen. The question is, are we speaking up?

Three weeks ago, we bought a used van for our millwork shop. With a price tag of only $500, it seemed like a great deal. A few days later our shop foreman said the van was getting barely 12 MPG. No problem, I thought. We just need a tune up. Sadly, that did nothing.

The van is circa mid to late 90s. We checked, and the rated MPG when it was brand new was only 13 MPG. At the time, that was all the federal government required. As it turns out, it was operating at peak fuel efficiency.

Due to the rising price of gas, consumer demands and resulting government regulations, fuel-efficiency standards have increased. Pickup trucks are in the 20-MPG range now. Down the road, they’ll probably get closer to 30 MPG. To me, this is an example of the government pressing us to do better. In a perfect world, we’d all become more energy efficient on our own. But the reality is, sometimes laws are needed to encourage businesses (and people) to do the right thing.

On January 1, 2011 every building permit issued in the state of California must be designed to meet green standards. I have no doubt that this can be accomplished throughout the U.S.  I believe we can improve our overall energy efficiency and sustainability practices, like we did with fuel mileage.

So, are you letting manufacturers and elected officials know what you want? We can prompt a gentle nudge in the right direction.


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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

If it has not already, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will eventually impact us all. The environment and the livelihoods of many are at stake. The tragedy is a “wake up call” reminder that we only have one earth, and we all have a stake in pollution control.

Environmental responsibility has always hit home with us. Construction activities that disturb large areas of soil have the ability to pollute, and while the impact maybe not on the scale of the Gulf oil crisis, the total effects can have a far-reaching impact. For us, proper management has always been paramount.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has some new standards going into effect with the Final Effluent Guidelines which will impact construction grading.

Effective February 2010, this initiative is designed to save our creeks, rivers and lakes from about 4 billion pounds of sediment which presently flows into them annually.

Under the new law, all construction site owners and contractors will be responsible for implementing best management practices.

While the new rules are designed to be flexible, accommodating site-specific conditions, they also include a required discharge report for rain events. The water quality report measures turbidity, or the suspended solids in a liquid that make it hazy. In many states a background test is performed before construction begins, and sites may not add more than 50 parts per million to effected water. This would be the expected change during a normal rain event at a natural site.

IMPLEMENTATION TIMELINE
The EPA is phasing in the new law to allow local authorities, other governmental agencies, owners and contractors to adjust to the new regulations. Starting in mid-2011, any site that disturbs 20 acres or more will be required to comply. The regulations will apply to 10-acre sites starting in 2014. Where states have issued their own construction storm water permits in the past, the new rule must be incorporated into any permits issued after the effective date.

While these new regulations will obviously impact cost, to me, it is better than the alternative.


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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

We try to keep our finger on the pulse of best management practices for today’s construction. To us, that happens when quality means/methods balance with an eye toward the environment. Pervious concrete can do both.

Pervious concrete is a wonderful concoction that holds up structurally and is porous enough that water can seep through it and flow back into the aquifer. It has polymers that glue the aggregate together, simultaneously allowing open cells to be formed in the concrete. The top inch filters out particulars such as oil and grease and the storm water flows through.

We had our first encounter with pervious concrete 5 years ago on one of our Florida projects. Since then, we have used it on several more sites. Here’s what we have learned from our experience:

● The product works better on sandy soil, which affords good drainage.

● Some pervious pavements fail because of insufficient drainage, especially in climates that experience heavy winter freezes that harden the ground.

● Shale aggregates in the concrete can break under freeze/thaw conditions, clogging the water flow.

● The selection of aggregate in the sub-base is important, and the curing process is crucial. A seven-day, wet-curing period is what we have learned works best.

Pervious concrete is a Best Management Practice recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency. While it is a little more expensive than traditional concrete, additional cost will be balanced by the reduction or elimination of traditional storm water management systems like retention ponds and sewer tie-ins.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

This April marks two years since we moved to our new corporate campus. The upcoming anniversary got me thinking back to 2005 when we first started the design of our building and grounds. Being a responsible member of our new community was of the utmost importance, so it made sense to build with minimal impact and sustainability top of mind. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards seemed like a great guide to follow.

As many of you know, LEED is the certification program developed by the USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council), which gives points in the following categories:

  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality

Depending on the points a site accrues, the USGB grants certification at these levels:

  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Certified
  • Platinum

LEED was brand new to me back in 2005. We worked hard to educate ourselves and attain a Silver certification.

As we were getting ready for our final submission to the USGBC, I tallied up points. I discovered then that we could buy green power credits for points toward the certification. This means we would pay a little extra to use “green power” to offset the electricity used during construction and subsequent operation of the building. What you buy is based the anticipated building usage, guaranteeing energy is added to the grid from renewable sources like solar, wind, geothermal, biomass and hydro.

This seemed like cheating after all the hard work we had put into building materials and systems. After investigating, I determined the opposite was true. We were creating awareness, helping support a fledgling component of our power grid and reducing carbon emissions. You can do the same.

The EPA has created the Green Power Partnership (GPP), which works with organizations to determine if green power purchase is right for them. During the past year, the top 20 participating retailers had a combined green power purchase of nearly 3.3 billion kilowatt hours annually. That’s enough electricity to power more than 300,000 American homes for a year.

Kohl’s, Whole Food Markets, Pepsi, Dell, Deutsche Bank, ING, Dannon, The Tower Companies, and North Face are using green power for 100% of their U.S. electricity use. We’re working hard to get there too.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Anyone can talk a big game. It seems that in the name of public relations, lots of business leaders are talking up green initiatives, corporate responsibility and the importance of a welcoming in-office environment. It all sounds good, but does it ever really play out in day-to-day operations?

I’ve always thought that corporate culture goes far beyond philosophy. It’s about application and tangible execution when possible. That was top of mind as we made plans for our new campus. We tried to make every detail speak to who we are as a company. The conference table, a focal point of our largest gathering place, was no exception.

Throughout my career, I’ve sat at many a conference table. It seems most are rectangular, a shape requiring someone to sit at the head, “in charge.” A round table would support a “team” atmosphere, but is inefficient for the number of chairs accommodated to its size. This led us to choose a square design—it’s efficient and puts us all on equal footing.

With that decided, I commissioned my friend Tom Church and his wife Susan to design and construct the piece. I requested our table be made from Red Bald Cypress we salvaged from swampland on a project in Florida. The Churches came from Tennessee to collect the wood.

Tom was kind enough to call a few weeks later to let me know he’d come up with a layout for us to discuss. Over the years, I have learned that one should never tell the artist how to paint the painting. I knew Tom had a unique eye for design, a gift of craftsmanship and patience of task. I gave him free reign on the finished product and signed off without seeing a single drawing.

The result was beyond my expectations. The real beauty of the table lies in the way it was put together. The Red Bald Cypress is exceptional, and the craftsmanship equally superb. It was obvious that Tom and Susan devoted a great deal of time to the detail of the design, from the seemingly flawless surface to the curvature of the edges to the solidity of the support. All is in arts and crafts style, hand-assembled with pegs.

While the table is attractive to the eye, the message lies in its components. I found huge significance in Tom’s decision to incorporate two cracked boards. Rather than discard the flawed wood, he reinforced it with burl walnut so that those two boards could be used in the table along with the others. Every time I see the table I am reminded that none of us is perfect and we require a little mending from time to time. With the support of others, we form a solid team.

What are you doing to bolster your team?  If you’re talking the talk, are you walking the walk? I encourage you to live your corporate philosophy. We continue to see the benefits. Mementos around the office—like our table—are reminders not only of who we are, but what we can be.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.

Last week when I was at the University of the South, Sewanee, I traveled through the new Spencer Wing of Woods Laboratories on the campus. I found myself in the Forestry Department in front of a plaque that reads “Restoring Our Forest,” with the subtitle “Importance of fire in the forest communities.”

It goes on to explain the benefit of flames. When fire strikes a wooded area, the species living there adapt to survive, often using the disturbance to their advantage. If the flames are suppressed, it can actually hurt the adapted species. It’s an intriguing concept. The very thing that tears a forest down is essential to maintaining it.

I couldn’t help but think of the times we are in. The last couple of years have been difficult, challenging and devastating to some. It feels like the blaze is rising high around us, but I believe we will be just like the species of the forest community. We will survive, adapt and find a competitive advantage in our experiences. Until the fire is extinguished, I’ll be thinking about how it can help my team evolve.

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Merrill Stewart is Founder and President of the Stewart Perry Company, a commercial building contractor based in Birmingham, Ala. Contact him via email.