With a northern New Jersey upbringing, a West Point education and overseas military stints in their background, the Boggiano brothers might not be pegged for environmentalists. But they cemented their status as environmental educators with the 2008 launch of Everblue Training Institute, now an international educational program meant to build a sustainable workforce.
I spoke this week with Jon Boggiano, Everblue's principal and co-founder, about how the company came to be -- and about the ever-evolving sustainability industry.
How did you come up with the idea for Everblue and why was it needed?
There are three principal partners in Everblue -- myself, my brother Chris Boggiano and Grant McGregor. My brother and I both have a military background. We graduated from West Point and served a number of years overseas. When we left active duty, we wanted to start our own business. We both went to work for larger companies. We met Grant. We wanted to do something related to energy efficiency.
Having served overseas, I think America's energy policy is screwed up. We have some serious issues. I believe passionately about the environmental issue, but the real reason we started looking into this field was because we wanted to do something about energy security. We started going to educational classes. We took a number of courses. The quality was uneven at best. The stereotype was: It's just long-haired hippies from San Francisco that do this stuff. Or it wasn't very professional or there was no organization to the courses. Coming from West Point, there's a very disciplined approach to training, to education. We thought we could do better.
You mentioned energy security was an issue. What do you mean by that?
On the environmental side, my brother and I both lived in Germany for five years. Europeans have a different approach to their entire development patterns -- how they build their homes and communities. When I lived in Germany, I could walk out my apartment door and take a left and I'd be in the woods. I could take a right and be down by the bakery and the restaurants and the beer hall. I never really needed a car. The entire community, from young kids to 90-year-old ladies, would ride their bikes. It wasn't as car-centric. It was very dense communities surrounded by farms and nature. It really contrasted with the American suburb.
I was deployed to Kosovo and Iraq and so was my brother. War is inherently wasteful. I can't tell you how much stuff we threw away. You look at our entire economy and what we need to be investing in. You say, Why are we spending all this money overseas?
Did you have an interest in energy efficiency before your time overseas?
When we were growing up, we lived in northern New Jersey and my father owned a couple of acres in upstate New York. We used to spend our summers and weekends in the country. As we drove from the city to the country, every year the suburbs would spread further. You'd drive over the next hill and the entire valley would be clear cut for a subdivision. Or a farmhouse was gone and now there are town homes. It was heartbreaking to come over a ridge and what was beautiful countryside is now completely leveled. That was the start of it.
Living in Germany crystallized the idea that our style of development isolates our communities. It doesn't build our culture. It is wasteful. When we moved back from Germany, I didn't think I could ever live in a traditional suburb. I made the decision to live in a mixed-use community where I could walk. I bike to work now and most weekdays my car doesn't leave the garage.
Where do you live?
We live in North Carolina. Just north of Charlotte in a community called Birkdale Village. It has won a number of planning awards. It's got a main street with apartments above [stores] and about 4,000 single-family homes. It's very dense compared with a traditional suburb, but it's not a city.
How does Everblue deal with the problems you've mentioned?
The approach we've taken to education is two-fold. We really don't talk about politics in our classes. We tell everyone that if you're an American and you believe in the environment, this is the right thing to do. We like to only teach things that are practical, that are realistic and that are achievable. When a student walks out of our classes, [he or she] knows how to do something now that makes sense, that can save money, that is more efficient. It's digestible information that people can use.
What specific courses and training do you offer?
The first thing we started teaching and the course that made us famous is LEED training. We do a LEED exam prep course that helps people prepare for and earn the LEED credentials. That's a very standardized, rigorous course. We teach people 60 categories of LEED building. We go credit by credit and explain how every credit works. We explain the principles and how you put them into place. It's generally a two-day course. We've expanded significantly. Another popular standard is an energy auditor standard. That's been an extremely popular course. That's one I feel every building contractor in America could use.
Who are your students?
About half of our customers are large companies and the federal government. The other half is more of the small business. It's most likely small business contractors, electricians, maybe an architect. They're usually self-employed or they run small teams and they're looking to differentiate themselves, improve their service, start an energy auditor business or a renewable energy business. In the last two years or so, we've brought in a handful of career changers. We pride ourselves on the fact that we can reach everybody from the boardroom all the way down to the small business and everything in between.
In the time you've been studying this field, what changes have you seen in the industry?
It has gone from being a 'fringe activity' to mainstream. The military is driving this and you've got big companies all committing to this in a realistic way -- not just in the marketing departments, but in their entire value chain. It has gone from being fringe to a little bit over-hyped at the start of the recession to now becoming the norm.
Where do you see this movement going? What's next?
From an education perspective, even though we train tens of thousands of students and the industry has grown by leaps and bounds, we're still just a drop in the bucket in terms of awareness. People have an idea, but they don't know what sustainability or green building means from a scientific or technical perspective. There's still a lot of education that needs to be done.
Secondly, there is the grunt work. The challenge is in the implementation. How do we manufacture toxic chemicals out of our products? How do we build a green building that can survive usage changes? We're getting into the more difficult phase now. There are a lot of technical challenges that need to be solved.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
From the U.S. perspective, [green building] is largely about fixing what we have. That's going to take us 10, 20, 30 years from when we truly started doing it 100 percent to convert everything we have over to being energy efficient. The other side of it is, energy efficiency is very tactile. It's quality of installation. In the building industry, we've always focused on cost and time. How quickly can you build it and how cheaply can you do it? That has to change in our building industry.
Photo: Jon (right) and Chris Boggiano in Iraq