Green Business Quarterly Article



TO MELANI HARMON, GREEN HAS ALWAYS been a way of life. Her parents, who she calls “pioneers,” built their home from the ground up, using local materials—a decision that ultimately served as inspiration for Harmon Builders, LLC.

Harmon’s husband, Paul, founded Harmon Builders in 1995 because his former business—a rock-climbing gym—had burned down, and he was looking to start anew. Seeking a business that would allow him to utilize the craftsman-style carpentry skills he gained in his former work at a local cabinetmaker in Frederick, Maryland and various jobs in the industry, he decided to launch his own construction firm.

When Harmon came on board in 2001, she shared her background with her husband. “My parents harvested cedar timbers and obtained local rock from their land and used it to build a house,” explains Harmon, who is now co-owner of the business. “We never had heating; we had wood stoves and fireplaces built by my father. So I learned from an early age to appreciate local resources and craftsmanship, and that became the inspiration for my husband and I as we moved forward with the company.”

Harmon and Paul became increasingly interested in green construction after building their own home nestled in the mountains, which they now also use as a model to share their experience with clients. “There isn’t much support and advocacy for green building in the area, at least on the residential side of the business, so we feel responsible for informing our clients that there are ways they can aid the environment and help themselves,” says Harmon. “It’s important for us to say, ‘This is how we live, and this is how we’re conducting business.”

As an example, Harmon says she and her husband will explain to clients that instead of using a distributor to order cabinetry, they can order through Harmon Builders. “All cabinetry and furniture is designed and built here in our shop from indigenous wood produced by a local Amish mill, and glues and finishes have low or no [VOCs],” Harmon says.

Indeed, using local suppliers is a cornerstone of the Harmon’s philosophy. “We want to support small, local businesses—to fuel our local economy and to lessen our carbon footprint, because we’re not shipping materials in from all over the country,” says Harmon. “This way of working helped build this country and, to us, makes a profound statement.”

Harmon says the business has also always utilized “the three Rs”—reduce, renew, and recycle. “Many of our products built are from recycled, reclaimed, and/or reused materials,” Harmon says. “If lumber, wiring, or metal can be repurposed, it’s our mission to make this happen.”

Some clients are listening and following Harmon Builders’ lead. For example, the company is currently renovating a 1700s farmhouse. The owners, who are seeking a greener lifestyle, hired Harmon Builders to reconstruct the roof, Dutch-lap siding, and revamp the home with insulated windows. “Salvaging this home lessens the building impact of the area and conserves the original footprint of the home,” says Harmon.

One major turning point in going green may have been the couple’s work on the Lucy School, which offers an integrated arts and music curriculum for pre-kindergarten through second grade. Harmon Builders was hired to build all of the cabinetry in the school, which wanted to use a rapidly renewable resource since it was seeking LEED certification. “We built all of the cabinetry, cubbies, and storage units with bamboo, and instead of plywood backs, we used wheatboard, which is also rapidly renewable,” says Harmon.

More importantly, however, was the role the project played in the Harmon’s business. “The owners wanted to inform contractors and subcontractors working on the job about environmentally friendly building practices, so they encouraged us to get Green Advantage certification,” says Harmon. “We’re now both studying to obtain the LEED for Homes and LEED Green Associate Certifications, which will allow us to bid on jobs looking to get LEED Silver, Gold, and Platinum certification.”

Looking toward the future, the Harmons would like to someday build a LEED-certified green community with a concentration on what they call “aging in place and universal home design.”

“This combined approach to remodeling and new construction will make a home more sustainable and convenient today, and also help one avoid cumbersome modifications in the future,” says Harmon. “We feel that this is a direction that modern building techniques really need to aim toward.”

One thing that won’t change much as the company seeks to become more involved in green construction is their size. Although Harmon Builders works on four or five projects at any one time, it has only three employees and subcontracts many services. “We’re a small company, and want to stay that way,” explains Harmon. “We feel that if we expanded significantly, it would take away from the quality of our work and customer service.” GBQ