Sustainable Housing for the Rest of Us

Andrea Calo

Twenty Minutes with Jason Ballard

By Jordan Hylden

Jason Ballard is CEO and cofounder of TreeHouse, a sustainable home improvement retailer and home solutions provider based in Austin that aims to do for our homes what Tesla did for cars and Whole Foods did for groceries. It has two new stores opening this summer and plans a nationwide expansion. Ballard calls his company “an exercise in applied theology.” I caught up with him in a coffee shop in Dallas.

Your company describes TreeHouse as dedicated to “reinventing home improvement with the twin goals of ecological and human health.” How can a home improvement store like yours make a difference?
I studied biology and ecology in college, and in the early part of my young adulthood I was chasing two parallel vocations. The one I thought would win was the vocation to be a priest in the Episcopal Church, and the other was trying to make a difference in what seemed to be some very obvious environmental challenges we’re facing as a species. As I started thinking about what to do, I started seeing that if you triage all of the environmental challenges that we’re facing, almost all the roads point back to the home. The home as a sector is the number one user of energy, and the number two user of water behind agriculture (unless you consider energy production). The construction industry is the number one producer of landfill waste and consumer of renewable and non-renewable resources. Our homes are the number one source of toxin exposure for almost all of us.

Realizing all of this was an amazing revelation, once I had it. I just couldn’t shake it, and so I thought if I wanted to make a difference in ecological and human health, then I needed to be working on the built environment. It is existentially urgent that we find a way to shelter ourselves without ruining the world around us, and so I just launched out. That may sound idealistic, but I’m an eternal optimist.

What are some things that are probably at my house right now that changing would make the most environmental impact?
I’m happy to answer the question, but I spend a lot of time getting people out of the green-blame mindset, the one or two things you can do to fix everything. It really is about fundamentally reimagining the home — the materials we use, the way we interact with them, operate them, and maintain them. That said, it’s helpful to know where to start.

The number-one user of energy in the home is the HVAC system. So if you assume that most contemporary sources of energy are non-renewable, harmful or polluting, then addressing that system would be very important. The most cost-effective way to make your HVAC right is a smart thermostat. You could spend $20,000 to replace the HVAC, or you could spend $200 to replace the thermostat and have very nearly the same effect in terms of energy use. The pound-for-pound best thing to do is a smart thermostat, followed closely, even if it is more expensive, by solar power. The reason I say solar is that there are really creative ways to finance solar power today. At TreeHouse, we have solar panels that generate $100 of power a month, but we’ll finance them so that your monthly bill is only $100 a month. So it’s effectively free, cash-flow neutral. It’s money you were going to spend anyway, so you might as well spend it toward owning your own energy production. I like to joke that the only reason not to have solar power, if you have a TreeHouse nearby, is that you live in a shady spot or you’re bad at math. So, addressing energy use through those two things are probably where I would start. You’ll see a pretty immediate benefit, and it’s fun.

What led you to start TreeHouse?
After I graduated from college, I moved to Colorado with the goal of getting involved in environmental work. At the time, all I knew was that I wanted to be in nature and work on environmental challenges. I ended up putting myself at the disposal of the sustainable building industry, in the Front Range mountains in Colorado. I was swinging a hammer and doing all sorts of construction jobs, really anywhere I could be part of adding something positive to the world.

That’s where the insight came from. There’s something missing here, I recognized. The sustainable building industry needed someone who could do this on a large enough scale to make it affordable. It was clear to me at the time, and it still is, that one of the battles that TreeHouse exists to fight is that sustainable building can’t be something that’s just for the top 2 percent of society. It needs to have mainstream adoption, or it won’t make a difference. If only 2 percent of homes have solar power, we’re going to miss, and we can’t miss. I think it’s a really exciting time to be alive, even if it’s a bit scary, since we’re making decisions right now that humanity’s going to have to live with for the next thousand years. That’s where it all hatched, and I was young enough to think that I could make it work.

Let’s talk more about the issue of mainstream adoption. I’ve heard your store called the Whole Foods of home improvement stores. But people say that Whole Foods will take your “whole paycheck.” How can environmentally conscious home improvement be more than a luxury good?
I’ll defend Whole Foods a little bit first of all. I think they do tremendous good in the world, and they do have that “whole paycheck” reputation, but it’s sort of a cynical take on Whole Foods. A lot of things can take your whole paycheck — deer hunting, motorcycles, theological books, you name it. But investing in good agriculture and good health is not a bad place to park some money.

That said, Whole Foods is more expensive than conventional grocery stores. TreeHouse has been eyes wide open about this issue from the beginning. But there also is a bit of a business strategy about it. It’s very difficult to start a business at the bottom of the market. You might say that TreeHouse is a bit like Robin Hood, leveraging the top of the market to subsidize our growth so that we can make sustainability more affordable for more people. Tesla is another company that’s famous for doing this. Their absolute goal is a $30,000 widely affordable electric car, but they started with a $120,000 electric car that’s faster than a Ferrari. That’s very intentional; it was just good business strategy.

Right now I would say that because what we sell isn’t ubiquitous, it is a bit pricier. That said, homes are generally expensive, and the kind of decisions about the home that TreeHouse wants you to make are not radically more expensive. You’re talking about a marginal expense. And especially when you’re pairing these expenses with reductions in energy use, they end up paying for themselves. If your goal is to spend the lowest amount of money over the next ten years operating your house, the cheapest thing to do actually would be to shop at TreeHouse and invest in these energy-efficient technologies.

I can see how that could work over time. For instance, granite countertops and stainless-steel appliances were a rare luxury 20 years ago, and now they’re almost seen as a necessity.
Think about the smartphones that most of us have now in our pockets. They’re quite expensive. I don’t think that most people are simply price-conscious, bottom-of-the-barrel consumers. I think most people, given the opportunity, don’t mind spending money well, whether that’s on their health, things that add to their perceived happiness and well-being, or basic things like food, clothing, and shelter. We’re prepared to spend a bit more if we can believe in why we’re doing it. Ultimately, I don’t think TreeHouse is asking people to buy Ferraris, but to get the good hamburger for $5 instead of the bad hamburger for 99 cents. I look at companies like Patagonia, Toyota, Whole Foods, or Apple. These are companies that aren’t luxury companies; they’re aspirational companies. They represent the best of our hopes and desires, and perhaps that’s what TreeHouse tries to be. We’ll never be a cheap company, but hopefully we won’t be considered a luxury good company.

How can we help consumers think about larger values? I’m thinking of your standard big-box retailer that advertises a low low price, encouraging us to think about nothing else. We aren’t often told about things like whether workers were paid a fair wage in safe working conditions. Are there ways that we can empower and encourage consumers to think about these things too, not just the price?
Yes, but I’ve developed a more pragmatic approach to this over the years. When we opened TreeHouse, our first two years were really tough. We missed our revenue targets by a long shot. We had the idea I think that we were obviously such a good cause that people would beat a path to our door. And that wasn’t the case. So I realized that I was talking past people’s housing needs. A home is not an answer to the question of how to save energy. If that was our first concern, the most energy-efficent thing to do would be to sleep on the ground. A home is primarily about shelter and comfort, and then emergent properties like self-expression, community, and so on. So whatever we do, we have to make sure that the homes that TreeHouse is offering are answering those first-order needs better than anyone else. That then gives us the permission to advance our business goals, which are health, sustainability, and responsibility.

I think Tesla is another company that did a great job of this. For a long time with electric cars, the pitch was, hey, they’re kind of weird-looking, and most self-respecting people wouldn’t be caught dead in one, they’re slow, they might catch on fire, but hey, save the whales and drive an electric car. Tesla came along and said: No, if this is going to become normal, they have to succeed as cars. They have to be safe, fast, and sexy. They have to be great cars. So our idea is that behavior changed by guilt is a very difficult thing to pull off, as most priests would tell you. You have to hold out a better hope. So at TreeHouse, we aim to help people build their very best homes. This includes health and sustainability, but it doesn’t exclude beauty, comfort, safety, self-expression, and so on. We have to win in all of those areas, or we’ll be stuck where electric cars were stuck for a long time.

It sounds like you’re helping people reorder their loves with respect to their homes, rather than simply saying you have to live in a shack and eat your vegetables, because of the environment.
That’s exactly it. It’s not just the “penance” approach. Now, there is a part of the sustainable community that is very John the Baptist — like in its approach to this: everybody needs to set their thermostat on 80 and only shower once a week, and have rammed-earth floors, thatch roofs, and ride your bike everywhere. Virtuous, but smelly. Now obviously this is a kind of stereotype of the green community, and I’m in many ways sympathetic, insofar as we diagnose the environmental problems of the world in similar ways. Nevertheless, I disagree pretty radically with this kind of solution on pragmatic grounds. I’m not really interested in the moral high ground here. I want a healthy and beautiful world, so what’s the best way forward? Look, maybe it would be best if everyone tore out their air conditioners, but I think that’s a bad strategy for success if your goal is ecological and human health. I don’t think it will ever happen. We have to find a way forward, not tell people to go backward.

Let’s talk about your business goals. Your values statement says, “TreeHouse grows through a commitment to our values. By caring for people, communities, and the environment first, we can fundamentally change how millions of people relate to the world around them.” How can a for-profit business put people, communities, and the environment first? Don’t investors want to see the value of their investment come first?
There are two layers to this question. One is that this is a thesis that TreeHouse is attempting to prove wrong. That is, I believe companies that embody our highest goals and ideals and work for the common good are always going to be better businesses in the long run.

The other way to answer the question is that if you start your own company you can do things however you want to. This is how I would like to do it, and if it won’t work this way, then I’m not interested in being a businessman. Either I can do business while caring for people and the world around me, and trying to live from the truest places in myself, or I’ll go back to seminary. I don’t have my ultimate self-identity staked on business success. I feel like this is something I’m supposed to do at this moment, and for me it’s a working out of my Christian faith. I’m not willing for it to be anything less.

This is a bigger issue, obviously. I once read an article making the case that Marriott hotels, even though founded by devout Mormons, shouldn’t stop offering pay-per-view pornography since it was good business, and management is responsible for maximizing shareholder value. Arguably, this is a case where what’s good for a business and what’s good for the community are in some tension. Is that unavoidable?
I sure hope not. That’s a really cynical take on business, I think. Wendell Berry says that we live in two economies, our own little economic systems and then what he calls the Great Economy. Our mental models of what good businesses and economies look like are always incomplete, he thinks, and probably harmful to the degree that they ignore the Great Economy, by which he means the kingdom of God. Insofar as our little economies cooperate with the Great Economy, the kingdom of God, I believe that they’re better economies, better businesses, and better communities. I believe that both as a Christian and as a businessperson.

Part of TreeHouse’s challenge is to be an icon of that way of thinking, to be an embodied answer to the notion that good economics has to be bad for the Great Economy of the created world. I’d like to prove that Marriott or any other company doesn’t have to choose between the two economies. I hope that one day TreeHouse can be a rejoinder to the way of thinking that says you do.

So you might say, along with Wendell Berry, that a business whose “small economy” is parasitic upon the Great Economy might make more money in the short run, but in the long run, it will neither make more money nor be sustainable as a business.
That’s exactly right.

You’re a committed Episcopalian, and were in the ordination process for a time to become a priest. Did your faith make a difference in leading you down this career path? Do you see it as a vocation?
I find our church to be rich and deep, catholic and self-critical at the same time in the best sorts of ways, with an eye to the future and our roots at once. I love being Episcopalian. I think it’s the most wonderful thing, and it nourishes me deeply.

I did train to become a priest. I have a very unconventional path to becoming a CEO, which includes my own faith journey. I always knew that whether I was to become a priest or go into business or something else entirely, I was very consciously trying to do something with my life so that each day was a response to the reality of the work of Christ. That’s what I’m trying to do, rather imperfectly at times. I’ve told many people that TreeHouse is an exercise in applied theology. What would home improvement look like if Jesus Christ is raised from the dead? That’s the most basic way to put it, and I’m very consciously thinking about my work this way.

Now, do I see it as a vocation? I know that might sound like a simple question, but it’s a very piercing question for me. The last time I hung out with Bishop Tony Burton [rector of Church of the Incarnation, Dallas], I launched into an existential crisis about whether I should have become a priest, and whether I’m doing what I’m called to do. TreeHouse is getting some success: we’re partnered with Tesla, we’re partnered with Nest, and all of these cool companies. Inc. magazine is writing articles about us. But I wrestle with this, since Jesus pretty clearly had some strong words to say about the rich and the powerful, and he encouraged humility and poverty. So if I’m on a path that may well include wealth and power, am I truly following Jesus? This is something I’m still working through, so if there are any spiritual directors reading this, please feel free to get in touch. But I’ve consulted people — my bishop, Bishop Burton, my Christian brothers and sisters — and I’ve continued to be encouraged that this can be good and holy work.

At the same time, I’m not ignorant, and I don’t think I’m an exception to all of the warnings about wealth and power and fame found in Scripture. I have what I hope is a healthy skepticism about success. If readers could pray that I could keep my soul intact on this journey, it’d be much appreciated. All of us face challenges to our faith, and my set of challenges are not what I ever imagined. I really did imagine myself a rural priest in South Dakota or someplace, writing and fly fishing and living the George Herbert lifestyle. That would have come with its own challenges — anonymity and lack of money, and so on, but I was preparing myself for that. My life today is not one that I ever imagined. And yet I wake up every morning excited about the work I get to do, and I continue to believe that I can make it something beautiful for God. I hope that by God’s grace, God will make it a beautiful offering for himself. I still have a long way to go.

In your day-to-day business practice, how do you go about trying to make what you do something beautiful for God?
Not all my employees are Christians, and not all of my leadership team are Christians, but I very consciously try to institute what I believe is a Christlike framework for decision making. But it is not simple. I struggle with questions like: Jesus taught us to forgive people seventy times seven times, but if you forgave all your underperforming salespeople that much, you would have no business.

Maybe I’m too self-critical in this regard, but I’m still very early in this journey of figuring out what all this looks like. Part of what’s so jarring is that a lot of what you might call the economic advice of Scripture is very bad business. So it’s a little bit of a trip, trying to figure out what to make of all this. I read a David Bentley Hart article over Christmas, called “Christ’s Rabble” — and my goodness, it hurt so much to read it, and I think I’ve read it four times. It’s this kind of journey of wanting to press deeper into the kinds of things Christ has called us to, even if they seem perplexing and impossible, and I still don’t know what that might mean. But I am doing my best to think about my business and the decisions I make through a lens of grace, love, and hope — through the lens of a Christian approach to life.

Have you had any church customers?
Yes, several. There’s sort of a secret Episcopal insider track. If there are priests and bishops reading this, it’s my delight to serve the church, so if there’s anything I can do to be helpful in that regard, you have an open line.

TreeHouse is focused on home improvement, but do you have any suggestions for church improvement?
The first place to start is resiliency. A lot of the financial burden on churches today comes from decisions made decades ago, when people went with the cheap option. Because of that, now they’re expensive to maintain. Building things well the first time is a kind of endowment for the future of the parish. It’s important to choose high-quality materials and pay the extra 20 percent up front, and avoid 200 years of maintenance costs.

The next two areas to address are energy and water use. These things can be very simple. Most churches have giant roofs, and so solar power is a no-brainer. With the financing options out there today, you are going to spend zero dollars more on energy that’s causing no harm. It also is a kind of insurance policy for the church, to own your own energy source and guard against energy costs rising in the future. It’s important to make sure all of the systems are functioning properly — lighting, HVAC, and so on. As for water, the main culprit in a church will be the toilets, and low-water-use toilets are easy to install.

Lastly, as we’re Episcopalians, we care about what happens to the physical spaces that we worship in, and our own bodies. So, we should make sure we’re not bringing extra toxins into the church, when we paint or install carpeting. These things can be quite nasty. As we live longer and longer, we’re starting to see increasing onsets of cancers and dementias, and an increasing body of evidence suggests that this has to do with the low level of toxin exposure we constantly have. It’d be nice if the church wasn’t contributing to that; if the church truly were a sanctuary at every level of meaning.

It just kills me when I see churches putting up these pre-fab metal buildings that they everyone knows will need major repairs in twenty or thirty years. As Episcopalians, we love our churches. It should be a place we’re happy to invest.

Episcopalians and other liturgical Christians have a robustly physical involvement with their faith: We kneel, swing incense, we worship “in the beauty of holiness,” we might venerate icons, and so on. Do you see connections between our worship practices and how we relate to the natural world?
This is one of the things that I think makes Christianity more true. I love the Eastern Orthodox concept of veneration. It’s less than worship, but it’s more than respect — it’s like a holy respect. I love this idea, and it’s one of the great insights of Christianity, I believe. And I think you can make a connection between venerating icons and venerating God’s creation. There are lots of schools of thought, basically Gnostic, that say the physical doesn’t matter, that the spiritual is really what counts. On the other side, there’s a kind of secularism that says the physical is all that matters, and the spiritual is a bunch of hocus-pocus. It’s only Christianity that says these things are designed to be together, that God was physically incarnate and physically was raised from the dead, and has created a physical community called the church to be his light in the world. It’s deep and beautiful wisdom.
How can our churches help business people connect their faith to their work? My concern is that too often either we don’t challenge or form people except to ask them to pledge to the stewardship drive, or we give off the sense that the for-profit world is greedy and cutthroat, and only the nonprofit and co-op world has God’s blessing. Do you get that sense? How do you think we can do better?
Most mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church, are shrinking. Whatever else one may say about that, I think we can confidently say that we’re not doing a good job of connecting with the people in the pews. If you are called to think theologically or to be a priest, I think you’re called to do these things on behalf of the whole church. I think it’s important, I should be clear, to write for an academic audience, but I think that the highest calling is to write for the whole church, not for a small insider group. There are profound issues and questions that some people have a calling to do something about, and they have need of thinkers and priests to help them engage fully and wisely. Look, I geek out on liturgy as much as any Episcopalian, but I hear priests talking an awful lot about liturgy and all of the different sorts of inside-baseball things that happen at General Convention, but I don’t hear nearly enough about the day-to-day issues that people face.

For instance: how does one cultivate a life of prayer if you work sixty hours a week? How does one think about the advent of automating technologies that are making many jobs irrelevant? Those are just a few of the questions in my mind that I wrestle with as a Christian businessman, and if the church is the last place those things are discussed, of course there’s a disconnect. I’d love to see the church roll up its sleeves and get engaged more on the front lines. We sometimes make grand pronouncements about politics, but there’s a missing middle about the real world that people are facing. I don’t think the church is doing a good job at addressing it.

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