When the Phoenix construction market collapsed in 2008, a big chunk of it fell on Jerry Meek’s head. “We lost $26 million of work over a 45-day period,” says Meek, president of Desert Star Construction, a 34-year-old company that specializes in high-end custom homes and remodels. Meek sat his employees down and laid it out plainly: “If we were to choose a business to be in at this moment,” he said, “it would not be construction.” After registering the shock on their faces, he presented a plan to press on regardless. “I said, ‘My wife [Carol, who runs the company’s office operation] and I are not going to take a paycheck until the economy turns around. And nobody’s going to get laid off.’” Rather than hunker down, Meek did the opposite, investing in his employees and his community and refocusing his business on high-end sustainable building. “Little did we know what we were committing to,” Meek laughs, adding that it was a year before his family’s income resumed. But with the Phoenix market on the rebound and Desert Star’s star once again on the rise, Meek’s determined optimism now seems prescient.
The first steps in keeping the lights on were persistence and networking, Meek says. He contacted previous clients and sent crews out to perform any deferred maintenance on their houses. “Our intent was to do it at no charge,” he says, “but the clients paid us anyway,” and the effort yielded referrals for several new projects. The company garnered public notice with pro-bono projects that provided additional, less tangible benefits. Meek calls one effort—refitting 10 hotel rooms for an organization that assists victims of human trafficking—“the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
But the company’s boldest response to the downturn was to embrace green building. Adding a LEED AP to its roster in 2009 (Meek’s son, Jeremy), the company dove into the deep end of the pool, with a multimillion-dollar LEED Gold commercial renovation. “There were 32 permits,” Meek says, “and a five-month duration, start to finish, including design.” With that project’s success, Meek put two and two together. “We decided we’re going to take the sustainability movement and apply it to luxury [houses],” he says. The company followed up with a private residential compound that earned LEED certifications (at the Certified, Gold, and Platinum levels) for each of three buildings. At this point, Meek says, sustainability is in the company’s bloodstream. “Right now we’ve got 11 projects going. Seven are [slated to be] LEED certified, and two of those are net zero.”
“Sustainable luxury may sound like an oxymoron,” Meek says, but the concept resonates with his clients, many of whom are corporate executives. “Most of their corporations have embraced the triple bottom line: people, planet, and profit.” Accurate energy modeling allows Meek to cost out not only a new home’s construction, but also its operating expenses, a significant plus with those accustomed to reading a balance sheet. “We always bring it to the table,” he says. “Once we explain it, they embrace it.” Even more than the economic benefits, he says, “there’s a social responsibility that everyone responds to.” His crews responded positively, too. “They know sustainability is the future, and they want to be a part of it.”
The LEED program awards points for a variety of green practices, but energy efficiency is Meek’s bottom line. “We never buy points,” he says. “Our position is, to be sustainable, you don’t want to use the energy in the first place.” Achieving zero net energy use in a 13,000-square-foot house, as Meek expects to do in one current project, is significantly more difficult than hitting that mark in a house one-tenth the size. But so much the better, he says, because it gives clients another reason to choose Desert Star. “What differentiates your company?” he asks. “There are still more builders than projects out there, and it’s going to be that way for a while.”
Meek isn’t about to call the housing crash a good thing—a year of lost wages is no joking matter—but he takes pride in how he’s dealt with it. Facing a choice between shrinking his company and investing in it—between austerity and targeted stimulus, if you will—he chose the latter. It took sacrifice and nerve, but he kept his team intact, expanded its capabilities, reconnected with his client base, and raised the company’s profile in the community. “It’s like the difference between a cow and a buffalo,” Meek says. “The cow runs from the storm; the buffalo turns into it. We turned into the storm.”