BY ROBERT P. MADER
Of CONTRACTOR’s staff
WALDWICK, N.J. — Energy efficiency and green contracting can be bright spots for mechanical contractors in this difficult economy, but the market could use a little nudge in that direction, said Robert T. Armistead, PE, president of Armistead Mechanical Inc. here.
Armistead took the reins as president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America convention in San Francisco in late March. He is the fourth generation of his family to run the firm that was started as a residential plumbing and heating business by Robert A. Armistead in his garage in Jersey City, N.J., right after the First World War.
“One of the markets that should be on every contractor’s radar is the ‘green’ construction market,” Armistead told CONTRACTOR. “While we often think about the construction of new LEED-certified buildings, opportunities worth considering include remodeling and retrofitting existing facilities to reduce energy and water use.
“Many manufacturers, companies and building owners are looking to differentiate themselves to their customers by upgrading and greening their operations,” Armistead continued. “These opportunities cut across all market segments, and we think they are worth the extra effort it may take to pursue and develop them.
“We will definitely be continuing the work begun by MCAA Past President Dave Kruse in this area. In fact, we’re just about to launch a new product unique in the construction industry to help individuals prepare for the LEED Green Associate exam. This DVD-training manual-Webinar package will ensure that industry professionals can obtain this important credential quickly and conveniently.”
The green market could use a legislative push in the right direction, though.
High on his wish list is for Congress to get the Rebuilding America Coalition’s Building STAR proposal enacted into law. Armistead noted that if the federal government could put just a little seed money toward financing energy efficiency retrofits of commercial and nonresidential buildings, the nation could make huge strides both environmentally and toward energy independence. The mechanical contracting industry can help solve some of this nation’s most pressing problems, with just a few incentives to owners, he said.
Armistead wishes that lawmakers could understand that. The importance of green and sustainability are a no-brainer for the young people with whom Armistead speaks, but the “grownups” don’t get that energy efficiency is a national security issue.
“Educating policymakers and the public on the contribution this industry can make to solving our environmental problems and ending this nation’s dependence on foreign oil” [is the biggest challenge], he said. “It’s interesting to me that when you talk to our students, they get it instantly. But convincing our policymakers in Washington that investing in energy efficiency is the right policy solution is much more of a challenge. We have to continually educate the public, and their elected officials, on the value this industry contributes to our economy and our country’s security.”
In the meantime, we’ll have to survive the recession. Armistead said the one task he hates the most is laying good people off, no matter how much sense it makes from a business standpoint. The economy has been tough on morale.
“Probably one of the biggest challenges is keeping our people energized and motivated in this very difficult and slow market,” he said. “It is very disheartening to our staff at times trying to acquire work when the competition has been so keen of late. We have to trust that if we keep doing the right thing and adapt to the changes we see coming that we’ll be OK in the long run. I see that as one of my most important jobs — making sure that the people that are working so hard know how much they are appreciated. Communication and letting them know how much their efforts are appreciated is key.”
A point that Armistead makes more than once is that the world of mechanical contracting in 2011 and 2012 will not be what it was in 2007. Contractors who have changed and grown will be the ones who prosper.
Armistead explained that the turnaround has technically begun, but for the construction industry the recovery will be long and slow. And when markets do come back, they will be different. He believes sustainability will have taken hold, owners will be looking for a range of services over a building’s life cycle, and technologies and ways of working like BIM will become more commonplace. The contractors who last, he declared, will be those who understand and adapt to changing times.
“At Armistead Mechanical, as at so many other contracting companies, we’re facing the fact that our business has changed dramatically,” he said. “We need to develop new skills in order to make the most of the opportunities ahead.
“First of all, we are thinking outside the box to search out new market opportunities and reach out to owners and clients. MCAA and its service contractors group, MSCA, and its plumbing contractors at PCA are helping members think about how to rebrand our companies and develop new business lines.
“We are also developing our skills in new technologies like Building Information Modeling,” Armistead pointed out. “Keeping up with technological change and making the necessary investment is a challenge, particularly in a down market. MCAA is helping by providing workshops and learning opportunities on BIM, as well as advice for contractors from our Information Technology Committee.”
You can read the interview with Robert Armistead in its entirety here.