Growing up, Jamie Wolf was a talented cellist. But when he went to college, his new cello teacher noticed flaws in his technique and had him completely relearn how to play. “She was right,” he says now. “I had to change everything, and it was hard. But I was a dramatically better player afterwards.” Wolf never forgot that lesson in accepting and embracing change. As the owner of Wolfworks, a 26-year-old design/build company in Avon, Conn., he's remembered it with even greater frequency over the past couple of years. He specializes in high-end remodeling, and once the market started to turn he knew he'd have to adjust to an evolving real estate climate. “I realized the market I had operated in comfortably was about to change,” he notes. “A lot of people were going to come into the remodeling market—it was going to get pretty packed if we had no way to differentiate our services.”
Green building methods and materials had always found their way into his projects, to some degree. But in talking with his friend Paul Eldrenkamp, a fellow design/build remodeler in the Boston area, Wolf decided he needed to venture much further down the sustainable building path. Following Eldrenkamp's lead, he started learning more about Passive House, a rigorously energy-efficient building standard first developed in Germany in the early 1990s. As oil prices escalate, Passive House is drawing higher numbers of U.S. adherents—Wolf among them. “I got immersed and inspired,” he says. He purchased a blower door, for example, so Wolfworks could conduct energy audits. And in early 2009 he went through intensive training to become a Certified Passive House Consultant.
His Passive House education gave him a new awareness of custom building and remodeling's pivotal role in fighting climate change and environmental degradation. “It doesn't matter how beautiful it is: If it's not responding to this energy imperative, it's not working,” he says. “I could no longer be cavalier about just making a little improvement.” Now all of his projects include an energy audit, much to the pleasure of his clients. “Nobody even asks about not doing the energy audit,” he says. “People are fascinated by it. You go through a house with an infrared camera and show them the leaks.” His remodels aren't Passive House projects, per se; according to Wolf, it's extremely difficult to achieve that standard with a renovation. But his Passive House background has vastly expanded his skills. “My awareness of how a building performs was greatly affected by my training,” he explains.
Wolf wants to spread the word about Passive House, and his recently created blog provides the perfect platform. Luckily for its readers, his clear, conversational writing style comes naturally. “I happen to be someone who thinks by writing,” he explains. The blog originated in August 2009, when Wolfworks' workload had dwindled to nothing and Wolf had laid off most of his staff. Faced with free time and trying to figure out his next move, he started playing around with the blog publishing application WordPress. “When I got to this place where everything wound out and work was dead, for the first time in my life, I didn't have an assignment,” he says. “The blog was my August design project.” He began to write posts on such subjects as energy conservation, food and health, and good design, officially introducing the blog (www.homesthatfit.com/blog) in September 2009. He's also become an enthusiastic user of Twitter, another practical social media tool with a range of applications.
One of social media's key functions is to facilitate in-person events, and Wolf has already grown adept at using it this way. Last year architect Sarah Susanka published the latest book in her “Not So Big” series, Not So Big Remodeling. This new title featured four Wolfworks projects, much to Wolf's delight. He organized an open house at one of the featured residences so attendees could see the book's principles in action. He even convinced cookbook author Terry Walters to come and demonstrate recipes from her book, Clean Food. The October 2009 event attracted about 50 visitors and served as a great marketing opportunity for Wolf. It also provided another avenue for communicating with people about the issues that matter most to him. (Along with Passive House, he's promoting the idea of what he calls “Future Friendly Homes”: attractive, durable, energy-efficient buildings that offer their owners a wide range of long-term benefits.) “I felt like it's not enough for me to figure out technically what to do with a house,” he explains. “If I don't communicate it, I'm going to be out of business. If I can't explain this to other people effectively, they aren't going to be prepared to make the investment.”
He's off to a great start in his mission of connecting with the public. But that wasn't enough—Wolf also desired a stronger relationship with his colleagues in the building and remodeling industries. Just over a year ago, he and nine other leading-edge New England companies formed a consortium, calling themselves the Deep Energy Tribe. This group of green building and energy efficiency experts is committed to deep energy retrofits of existing buildings. They meet in person several times a year to share thoughts, findings, and data on sustainable techniques and systems. And they utilize the Web-based project collaboration tool Basecamp to keep in touch online on a daily basis. “We're teaching ourselves, developing our own best practices,” Wolf says. “We're having a great time.”
His company currently has three large remodeling projects in design, but he still has enough time to step back and reassess. He's working with operations manager Karen Hartford to reorganize the business from top to bottom. “We're rethinking how you can do everything,” he says. “We were always doing that, but we've never had the time we have now. We did all the heavy lifting, and now we're putting the puzzle together.” Before the downturn, Wolfworks was undoubtedly a successful and innovative company. But thanks to Wolf's drive, resourcefulness, and openness to new ideas, it's an even better one today.
Wolfworks, Avon, Conn.,
Type of business: Design/build, remodeling
Years in business: 26
Annual revenue: $1.5 million
Average number of projects per year: 10 to 20
Project type breakdown—remodeling vs. new construction: 100 percent vs. 0 percent (historically, but Wolf expects to take on new construction in 2010 and beyond)
Project type breakdown—residential vs. commercial: 100 percent vs. 0 percent