The Education of a Remodeler

By AJ Stones

Small Jobs Leads to Start of Business

The origins of what is now AJ Stones Master Green Remodeler began taking form in 1986 as I began doing handy man work part time before and during my classes at the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). This continued even as I worked an afternoon shift doing maintenance in a large commercial building. Spurred on by an abundance of "side" work, I quit the maintenance position and CCAC in 1989 and started a business offering to complete small projects, mostly centered on my ability to do carpentry work and electrical and plumbing repairs.

As the opportunity for larger projects presented themselves I began with the traditional trajectory of hiring subcontractors and general contracting or "GCing" the project. I soon felt the need to return to college, but this time in the evening, to acquire the necessary business and computer knowledge. Evening classes I found suited my learning style and thus began a pattern I have repeated throughout my career. I seek answers through continuing education evening classes and read extensively about sustainability, remodeling and topics related to my profession.

Early Adopter of Green Building Practices

In 1993 I received an invitation to the first "green building" conference, Building on Earth, in Washington D.C. It was here that for once, I found myself surrounded by fellow travelers also seeking that higher calling, the newly coined "green." Other conferences in the D.C. area followed where I met many young professionals from Pittsburgh. This core group then went on to become the founding members of what is now Green Building Alliance of Pittsburgh, and later, by association, Lead Safe Pittsburgh.

Lead Safe Pittsburgh came about in 1997 the same time that the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI) and Housing and Urban development (HUD) teamed up to educate remodelers about the hazards of lead to children living in older homes. I had become aware of lead-safe issues previously at "green" conferences I attended.

It was at NARI that I acquired my Certified Remodeler designation in 1995. I later leveraged my position as vice president and then president of NARI to bring lead-safe training to the forefront of our education committee agenda. Through this effort, I acquired the necessary training and equipment to get lead-safe certification in 1997. In the same year, I completed lead-abatement certification for Pennsylvania at CCAC.

Training Other Remodelers in Lead-Safe Practices

This paid off in 2010 when the EPA upped the requirements, so that all remodelers had to be re-certified or become certified as an EPA Lead Renovator. I was asked to help train other remodelers by the very same people who trained me in 1997, since I was one of a very few who had consistently incorporated lead-safe practices since that time.

After spending more than ten years primarily repairing older homes in Pittsburgh's East End, I saw patterns emerging. The chronic and systemic issues I routinely encountered all stemmed from previous repairs or ill-fated attempts to improve efficiency. The original design and construction was sound, but space efficiency and energy efficiency were non-existent or outdated. It became clear to me that the "GC" model might work well for building new homes but not as well for remodeling older homes with multiple, inter-related issues.

Master Green Remodeler Takes Form

A "Master Green Remodeler" was needed to shepherd the projects along, coordinating and integrating design and construction. Heating, air conditioning and ventilation (HVAC) would be the keystone of the "green" foundation. But HVAC was a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Thus I embarked upon what turned out to be seven-year journey during which I took almost all the courses that CCAC and Westmoreland County Community College had to offer in HVAC, as well as many other non-credit courses.

Equally important, fortune shone her light on me in the form of mentors. Some of the subcontractors, design professionals and inspectors that I hired and worked closely with early on have assisted me over the years in my nearly completed quest to meet all of the requirements for my own plumbing and electrical licensing in Allegheny County and the City of Pittsburgh.

More Education, More Certifications

As I continued to fill in my knowledge-on-demand education, I pursued and received NAHB's Certified Aging-In-Place Specialist (CAPS) recognition in 2005 and radon testing certification three years later.

I achieved Building Analyst Professional certification from the Building Performance Institute Inc. (BPI) in 2007 and RESNET rater certification in 2008. That same year I was named a NARI Certified Green Professional.

The next stage of my odyssey came from an opportunity provide by West Penn Power Sustainability Energy Fund (WPPSEF) that made training available for energy auditors and helped to launch in 2009 what is now Diagnostics Energy Auditors Western Pennsylvania (DEAWP).

With my BPI Heating Professional certification in 2010, more pieces of the mosaic fell into place. These certifications and others allowed me to measure and quantify energy efficiency. I also began to confirm theories I have long suspected.

Tapped by U.S. Department of Energy

While I worked to increase the efficiency of homes, the existing HVAC systems inefficiency became more apparent. In fact, they became an obstruction to transforming clients' homes into one that would fit current needs and lifestyles.

I ultimately learned to implement and adapt hydronics systems to overcome these obstacles. Hydronics, as you may know, is the use of water as the heat-transfer medium in heating and cooling systems. Some of the oldest and most common examples are steam and hot-water radiators.

By 2010, my knowledge about hydronics systems prompted the U.S. Department of Energy to invite me to help write national standard specifications in hydronics heating for existing homes. This document was regionally and then nationally peer reviewed. The final draft contained no changes from what our committee had articulated.

Caring for Individual Homes

I have come to realization that AJ Stones Master Green Remodeler is more of a practice than a business as I care for clients' homes on an individual basis. This realization is deeply rewarding to me. Equally rewarding to me is helping to educate the next generation of remodelers though apprentice programs, public speaking, continue education programs and mentoring.

Next Steps in Creating Healthy Homes

I am not sure where or when this odyssey will end, but I am looking forward to the next part of the journey in my education. Whatever direction the winds of change blow, it will bolster my abilities in creating create healthy, durable, efficient and safe homes (my definition of "green") and meeting clients' needs now and into the future.