By George Harvey
Bob Tortorice had always wanted an energy-efficient home powered by wind or solar energy, but in 1979, when he decided to get such a house built, he was unable to find contractors who could help him. He solved this problem by building it himself. In time, he would use the experience he gained, doing that and other construction work, to open his own business.
Kathe Tortorice brought her own experience, very unlike Bob’s, to the business. She got her BS and MBA at Babson College, well known for its education in economics and finance. She then worked for Digital Equipment Corporation doing process design and strategic planning.
They put their backgrounds together with a fair dose of creativity, and created Building Alternatives in 1986. Bob’s background in construction provided the business with its physical product. Kathe’s, however, helped form a new kind of business plan, and from that, a customer’s experience is different from what it would have been elsewhere.
Building Alternatives takes customers through a series of steps toward a final goal of having their own homes. These are carefully planned to maximize efficiency, both in the building itself and in the process of getting it built. They also enable the customers to make their own decisions about design, materials, and products used in the building. Because customer involvement in decision-making is maximized, stress and worry can be minimized.
The first step is that Building Alternative act as consultants. The goal is to get a clear understanding of what the customers’ needs are and how they want to live their lives. The options before them are examined, along with the potential effects of choices. “Every home is unique,” Bob says. It is a point he makes repeatedly. Different people want different solutions.
The next step is to produce a set of specifications, getting a clear understanding of costs based on customer choices. The customer is directly involved in deciding what materials, technologies, and products are to be used. With such an approach, surprises are reduced to a minimum.
Finally, Building Alternatives guides the process of construction to be as the customers desire, providing only the services the they want, building only what the they ask for.
There is one point on which Building Alternatives is inflexible. It is that every home must be Energy Star certified. They insist on building only homes that are as efficient as possible.
Bob and Kathe are the only employees who work directly for the business. They manage building, rather than doing the construction themselves. There are some important reasons why this is an advantage. One is that it means that constructing the home is fully planned; there are no decisions made on the fly during the construction. Another reason this is good is environmental: building crews always work at sites that are local to them, cutting down on transportation time and energy. Professional management costs less than no management.
Having a business devoted to guiding construction, as opposed to doing it, means that time can be devoted to research. The result is that Building Alternatives is not stuck in the same old-fashioned techniques that worked when Grandpa was young. This means the most modern techniques can be used, updating technology constantly.
“We believe in manufactured products. Stick-built construction is absolutely the worst way to build a house,” Bob says. He points out, however, that every home is unique because the needs of every family are unique. And so, manufactured products have to be used in ways that are appropriate to the circumstances.
Bob is certified as a HERS inspector. He understands the importance of proper insulation and its application. “Forty percent of efficiency is air-sealing,” he says, and this he knows, based on his experience. Orientation and solar gain are more important in planning than solar panels, which can often even be added off-site after construction is completed.
Building Alternatives really does represent an alternative to traditional approaches of construction, and it is one many people might do well to consider. The phone numbers are 603-823-5100, or toll-free at 1-877-823-5101. The website is www.buildingalternatives.com.
When I was a child, my father told me stories of his experiences in World War II. Among them were tales of a group of men of almost superhuman stature, called Seabees. They could go anywhere, any time, build anything, and have it ready and waiting for the Marines when they landed. When I learned that Bob Tortorice had been a Seabee, I was not surprised.