High clerestory windows are a common design detail on residential and commercial structures. But in the architectural case of the under-construction metro Dallas store for green retailer TreeHouse, clerestory windows are not merely details, they are applied in five massive, building-wide swaths below the building’s signature sawtooth roof to flood the emerald aisles beneath with natural daylighting and dramatically reduce energy usage.
And a notable architectural case this may be, as the 25,000-square-foot structure is destined to be the first sizable home improvement center to achieve a net-zero energy footprint. As we concluded our in-depth interview with Jason Ballard, president and co-founder of the company, he articulated what he sees as the significance of the Lake|Flato Architecture-designed project. “We think this will be one for the architecture books,” said Ballard, “and something that will be studied by architecture students for many years to come.”
In the final segment of our sit-down interview series with Jason Ballard, he reveals more about how he intends to guide his startup among the emerald aisles of sustainable home improvement products and services.
The building will be strictly solar powered, of course, and nearly every inch of its sloped roof surfaces will be tiled with photovoltaic panels―530 of them to be exact―designed to generate over 160 kW of power. You can read much more about the thinking that went into the ideation and design of this building and what makes Ballard and TreeHouse tick by reading The Emerald Aisles of TreeHouse: Part 1 and The Emerald Aisles of TreeHouse: Part 2.
Below, in the final segment of our 3-part interview series with Ballard, he discusses how the company intends to increase the depth and breadth of home improvement services, how the company is embracing virtual reality to accelerate and rapidly iterate store designs, insights on how the company approaches the smart home, and much more―including a hint on where the next TreeHouse might be built.
DH: So how far do you plan to take the TreeHouse product and services model?
JB: I think we will continue to turn up product categories and we will continue to turn up service categories as well. But again, a lot of this is being driven by our mission as we grow up as a business, and we kept staring at the problems that we were facing and homeowners were facing. What is keeping people from making meaningful strides with regards to energy, water, human health, beauty, and quality in their home? And the answer wasn’t: Well if they can just get the right screw or they can just get the right nail and then they will do it.
TreeHouse is moving deeper into services delivery, and toward that goal has a fleet of vehicles docked at their Austin, Texas, headquarters location.
And so we started to say the stores are only so big, so we began investing more and more in those things which will actually make a difference in the mission of the company. I think you would say that eventually we have ambitions where there’s no part of a home that we can’t touch both from the product and the services standpoint. I think in the coming years you can expect both of those things to continue to elevate.
DH: As a natural progression of your business, do you see yourself offering TreeHouse-architected and certified green home plans?
JB: We’re already very good at consultation. We’re very good at design. And as we continue to collect the suite of products and services, the question you’re asking will continue to beg. Why not just take the extra step and do the whole home? I think that will be a question that will continue to get asked as we continue to layer in the product and services that would make it possible. I think it opens some interesting possibilities.
DH: Can you tell us how your company balances your mission of promoting more sustainable homes while also embracing technology?
JB: There are kind of two camps in the sustainability movement. One is very technologically pessimistic, and they think the solution will be to turn your thermostat up to 78 or 80 degrees, shower half as much, ride your bike everywhere. And emotionally I am largely in sympathy with these people, but I actually don’t think it’s a recipe for mass adoption of sustainability.
Smart-home technology is an important component of the TreeHouse products and services approach, and the company carefully curates products they see as additive to the experience of owning a home.
I think TreeHouse presents itself as a technology optimistic company, and we believe that technology has a large role to play in helping us transition to a sustainable future. So, yes you can keep your thermostat on 72 degrees, just make sure your air conditioner is solar powered. So technology can solve for both the sustainability issue and the comfort issue, and you can repeat that kind of example ad infinitum.
As we are a technology optimistic company, I think you will see that become increasingly clear from our brand. You’ll be interacting with your house more and more using technology and technological touch points. We’re very careful about the way we deploy this, because we don’t want it to feel like a gimmick. It really needs to be additive to the experience and so we’re looking for what is a moment that could actually be enhanced by technology, or a moment that could help you arrive at a better outcome. So you can use technology rather than rely on something static or something human, and those are the moments that we’re going to focus on.
DH: How are you approaching the new store design process as compared to what your competitors are doing?
JB: We’re using virtual reality to a very great effect and instead of being on store version 2, we’re technically on store version 10. What most retailers do is have a big off-site secret warehouse where they build out mock stores and stand inside and see how customers like it. It’s very expensive, it’s very slow, and it’s very wasteful because they will just pack it up and haul it off to the landfill.
We’re using virtual reality to great effect and instead of being on store version 2, we’re technically on store version 10.
We’re able to build new stores in VR at basically zero cost, zero waste, and very fast. All of our store designs now are 100% in VR. So I can sit in Austin and just drop in store 3, or drop into this Dallas store and so it’s making the process better and making the process more aligned with our mission―which is less waste and less cost. And so that’s one way to use VR, it’s not gimmicky and it really is additive to the process. So we hope to very soon introduce virtual reality experiences to our customers for the same reasons.
But another company, a very large company, that experimented with VR was McDonald’s and they had a deal where you could go on a virtual reality tour of a Happy Meal. You put on the VR goggles and play around inside of the bag with a toy and different sizes of hamburgers. So to me it became a giant gimmick. Does this make the hamburger more tasty? Does it make it healthier for my body? It didn’t actually add to the core experience.
DH: What can you tell us about how customers may experience technology once inside your new stores?
JB: One way VR can solve for our customers is when you’re remodeling a kitchen. It’s very expensive, and even a cheap kitchen is not actually cheap. You’re still talking about thousands of dollars for cabinets, countertops, faucets, flooring, paints, and maybe a window. What we often see is that people pause at that last moment and think: Will it really look the way I hope it will look?
That’s a great moment for VR to add to the experience because it can give you one more step of confidence. Yes, in fact I do like the way this looks, I like the spacing. That makes the customer more delighted. And if you like your kitchen, you’re less likely to tear it up in five years and try again, which creates less waste in the world. So it becomes this really virtuous cycle using technology. And so I think you should expect to see that in our stores in the future and then other similar things like that, where we’re taking novel technologies and using them to solve for the actual process.
DH: How much emphasis will you place in the future on the emerging smart home versus less-glamourous green building science?
JB: One thing we always say is that we love smart homes. We have a great relationship with Nest, with Tesla, and with many of these sort of companies, but we often tell our customers it’s more important to have a dumb home than a smart home. Which is to say start with basic things―make sure the home has proper insulation, a good roof, good windows, and those types of things.
Then as we approach smart homes, we think it really needs to be additive to the experience of living in a home. So, back to first principles, what is a home for? At the end of the day when the first Neanderthals crawled into a cave or built a lean-to shelter, they weren’t saying: How do I become more sustainable? Shelters were first created―and their primary functions to this day―are safety and comfort, and so we love technologies that increase safety or comfort. So that’s layer one.
At the TreeHouse flagship location in Austin, Store Director Travis Young (left) and Smart Home Advisor Ayaz Husain paused to pose for our cameras during the store’s 5th anniversary event in October, 2016.
That having been said, layer two is TreeHouse’s mission which is related to energy, water, and health, and so we love technologies that can reduce energy, reduce water use, reduce toxins, or increase healthful behaviors in the home that humans are not as good at engaging in on their own―so by automating them you can improve them. That’s another layer of technology that we like.
The third and last layer where we need to be careful not to be gimmicky: Our homes are also poised for self-expression. And so technologies enable you to make your home―in a strange way―more human, yet more an expression of yourself. We haven’t gone there yet, but music is an interesting one, as it is a profoundly human activity.
And so again we believe sustainable, healthy homes do need to succeed as homes, they need to be comfortable, safe, and ultimately an avenue of self-expression. Lighting, for example, can create moods, can create feelings, and can create scenes and so that’s the third-tier focus.
We believe sustainable, healthy homes do need to succeed as homes. They need to be comfortable, safe, and ultimately an avenue of self-expression.
Beyond that, if it’s not making the home safer and healthier, not helping us reduce energy or water use, or if it’s not creating a meaningful moment of self-expression and getting things moving along that direction―we get really suspicious.
I’ve seen some hilarious devices, such as a trashcan that notices you threw a milk carton into it and then writes out your grocery list for you. Those feel kind of silly to us.
DH: You recently launched your e-commerce effort. How do you see that evolving, and how do you plan to extend the consultative nature of the bricks-and-mortar store to digital?
JB: Unlike a store, the only way you get to an e-commerce website is by getting pointed to it in some way, so you have to invest a lot more up front in awareness. But what we’re trying to do is begin flexing that muscle a little bit and become native to that kind of commerce as well as to bricks-and-mortar commerce, and as we do you should see us add more categories and products in the coming year.
TreeHouse recently launched an expanded e-commerce program, offering products in two of their focus areas: Smart Home and Healthy Home. Online shoppers can click through smart configurators to learn about product specifics, or call to talk to a live staffer.
But we are always trying to figure out what the TreeHouse angle is. How are we more than just add-to-cart? What kind of curation can we do and how can we advance the mission? How can we support homeowners? So on our smart home page we have a configurator that helps you pick from a suite of products for health, then frames it up in terms of categories of health so you can easily select which things feel important to you―something you can’t get from an Amazon.
So, even if you could get on the phone with an Amazon, good luck getting them to tell you which smart-home apps natively talk to each other, or which products natively talk to each other, or among all the smart locks in the world there’s only one that works native in the Nest app. Good luck finding that.
If you want an aspirational or elevated home, TreeHouse is the brand to come to.
Anytime we can add more value than just a transaction, those are the areas we’re going to attack first―but we always start with smart and healthy. Next, I think you’ll continue to see categories that really reinforce the mission of TreeHouse, but it won’t be nuts, bolts, or screws―it will continue to be things where we want to put a flag on the ground so that if you want an aspirational or elevated home, TreeHouse is the brand to come to.
DH: You have managed to build unique relationships with multiple premium brands in the industry, including Nest and Tesla. Who is next on your pursuit list?
JB: We call them hero brands, a kind of an internal language we use for brands that are the best of their category and are fulfilling some of the core mission criteria of TreeHouse. So you mentioned Nest and Tesla. Another one is BigAss Fans and their residential company Haiku Home―we are their only retail partner right now, and that was also a very difficult to negotiate relationship.
Yes, that is a Tesla Model X crossover SUV on display at a special TreeHouse Austin event. Tesla is among the so-called hero brands the company has been cultivating, which include Nest, BigAss Fans, Romabio, and others.
The one that we’re still pursuing mostly right now is the carpet company Interface. We already sell Interface, the carpet tiles, and we sell them pretty decently, but they have another one called Interface FLOR and they do not sell FLOR to retailers. They have their own FLOR showrooms, including one in downtown Austin. But the FLOR line is very residentially focused, where Interface seems to be a bit more commercially skewed. So as we’re such a home-focused company, gosh, we’ve got to have it―it’s the most sustainable residential carpet in the world and it feels like a crying shame we don’t sell it, so that’s the company we’re actively pursuing.
Another big win for us in the past year was Romabio paint which is a non-petroleum based product, sort of beyond no-VOC. We are the first retailer in America of that product. And there are few others like that we are chasing.
DH: And finally, what can you tell us about TreeHouse #3?
JB: I’m happy to say [smiling broadly] there will be another Texas store, that’s all I can say publicly at this point. But we will be happy to let you help us break the news when we are ready with that.