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Building a Sustainable Brand

Seattle's Dwell Development is a case study on how a high-performance builder can use branding to power growth regardless of where the market goes.

Building a Sustainable Brand

Shopping for a home has some important things in common with dating.  Your initial attraction may be based on looks, but the criteria for a long-term match will be more about substance and character.

Seattle builder Dwell Development has built a very successful marketing program around this principle.  Sales of its individually designed, sustainable spec homes tripled, from 10 to 28 homes per year, during the three years following 2008 when a lot of builders were either closing shop or struggling to stay alive.  At the bottom of the recession, the company was even pre-selling homes in one community for 20 to 25 percent more than competing homes of equal size.

They accomplished this by crafting a distinct local brand based on modern architecture, a high-performance message, and a disciplined marketing program.

Design First

According to company principal Anthony Maschmedt, Dwell has built more than 300 homes over the past 14 years, all of them detailed to perform at least 50% above energy code at the time of construction.  The company also built the first multi-family Passive House in Seattle and just broke ground on the city's first Passive House condo.  Today, all of its projects are Net Zero Ready: when outfitted with solar panels, those panels will generate more power over the course of a year than the home consumes.

Dwell has won 30 awards for its homes since 2012.  These include awards for design and performance, and range from a 2018 U.S. Department of Energy Housing Innovation Award to a Professional Builder Design Award.

However, Maschmedt says that while energy efficiency and other sustainable features tend to clinch the deal, they're not what initially attract most buyers.  In fact, he insists that high-performance builders who don't put as much care into design and marketing as they do into building science are leaving money on the table.

"A badly designed house won't be easier to sell just because it's energy efficient," he says. "You have to put design first.  That's what gets people out of the car and into the house.  Then you need to make the interior as architecturally interesting as possible."

A great looking home creates a wow factor that makes people more receptive to the sustainability discussion.  "Once people see our reclaimed wood floors, beautiful countertops and other finishes they're eager to hear more," he says.  "At that point we start peeling the onion, explaining how we detailed the construction and how, if the home includes solar panels, they will get free electricity for life."

That one-two punch also describes Dwell's online marketing.  The first thing one sees on its website and Instagram pages are professionally taken interior and exterior photos.  According to Amy Golden of Paxson Fay, the company's marketing firm, Dwell spends more on high-quality images than most of its competitors and gets a lot of traffic because of that.  "Instagram is about design. It has proven a great way to connect us to people who haven't heard about Dwell," she says.

But she emphasizes that photos are the key.  "The first thing I would suggest to most builders is that they put more emphasis on great photography," she says.

The Performance Message

While good design speaks for itself, sustainability needs to be promoted and explained.  One of Dwell's most successful promotional vehicles has been the awards it has won.  The company enters five or six competitions per year, and Golden devotes 6 to 8 hours to completing each entry.  "The awards really get homeowners excited about working with us," she says.

She also regularly submits projects to trade and consumer magazines and has gotten local and national coverage.  This exposure helps introduce the company to new audiences.

For customers who want to know more, Dwell's Facebook page includes regularly updated posts on its homes' performance, and on sustainability and energy efficiency in general.  "Once we draw people in, we want to get them to Facebook to read our messaging," says Golden.

The various pieces of the marketing program work together to lead potential customers to a particular conclusion: these homes are special in more ways than one.

The lesson for other builders?  Clarify your messaging on sustainability issues like Net Zero, indoor air quality and water conservation.  Then focus on populating your website and social media channels with educational content and great photography.  Assign someone to update everything regularly. And if you want awards and press coverage, understand that you need to actively seek them out.

Getting Partners on Board

As you would expect, most of Dwell's marketing efforts are aimed at attracting potential buyers.  But consumer marketing isn’t the whole story.  They also supplement it by bringing the high-performance message to their industry partners.

Maschmedt's secret weapon in this outreach is Tadashi Shiga, owner of Evergreen Certified, a Seattle green building consultant.  Evergreen's services include testing and certifying homes for green building programs, working with local code authorities, helping high-performance builders get code approvals and connecting them with the suppliers they will need.  Shiga also offers green building training and has spent the last 10 years helping Maschmedt raise the performance bar.

Maschmedt and Shiga do regular presentations to groups of real estate brokers, title reps, bankers, trade partners, code officials and builders, including one at this year's EEBA conference.  They have also brought their show to local TV stations.

Together, the company's consumer marketing and industry outreach have worked in tandem to create a recognizable brand with a clear mission.  Shiga doubts Dwell would have been so successful without this effort.  "You have to spend time building the brand," he says, adding that it took a couple of years for Dwell to start seeing a payoff.

The Envelope, Please

How Dwell settled on the double wall frame.

If you promise to build sustainable, Net Zero Ready homes that you need to be able to deliver on that promise while also making a profit.  Getting there can take some trial and error.

As a spec builder, Seattle's Dwell Development has to make its homes cost competitive, which means that any extra costs need to be offset by energy savings and electric generation if the home includes a PV system.  To pull that off, the builder has to build as much efficiency as possible into the home for the least amount of dollars.

Company principal Anthony Maschmedt says that his path to Zero Energy has included trying various details then tracking the results until he finds one that offers the optimal cost and performance. Products and systems he has settled on include solar hot water, triple pane windows, and Aero Barrier air sealing technology.

Dwell's homes also feature double 2x4 walls, a detail Maschmedt settled on after trying several others.

When the company first started its business in 2005 they built a standard 2x4 wall, which met code at the time.  Then they jumped up to 2x6 and 2x8 walls to get more insulation value.  They also tried SIPs panels and exterior insulation, all the while tracking cost, performance and the effect on the schedule.  “We found exterior insulation to be expensive and time-consuming, and the coordination process with siding installers was a challenge," he says.

Maschmedt finally settled on the double 2x4 wall because of its cost and flexibility.  For instance, a recent Dwell project that won the DOE's Housing Innovation Award had 12-inch thick walls, but it's easy enough to increase the space between the walls to get mechanicals into it if needed.  The walls can also be made narrower.  And he says you can't beat the cost and convenience.  "We like that 2x4's are cheap and available, and that our framers never complain about using them."

While this wall system works for Dwell's climate, architectural designs and trades, other builders will have different needs.  The point is that you may need some experimentation to identify the winning products for your homes.

He says it was worth the effort.  "Builders sometimes ask how much more they can get for a LEED platinum home compared to a code home."  The answer is that if you want to get a premium, customers need to know who you are or what you stand for.  "Getting your homes certified is important but in the end, it's about the company that builds them."

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Peter Grube
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re: Building a Sustainable Brand

Monday, December 17, 2018 3:54:07 PM

Dwell Development

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