Jason Ballard, co-founder and CEO of the Austin-based TreeHouse home-improvement stores, has a way of sounding earnest without being strident, of selling you on the idea of a smarter way of living versus hawking a product.
If you look at his LinkedIn, you’ll find that before the the first store opened at Westgate Shopping Center in 2011 (there’s now also a Dallas location and one in the works for Plano), he’d worked as a carpenter and an environmental consultant and even served as a lay minister in the Episcopal church.
Ballard recently gave me a tour of the Austin TreeHouse store as part of a recording for the “I Love You So Much” podcast. Aside from the products sold and the structure of the store — it’s what would happen if an Apple Store and a Home Depot had a baby — I was most struck by Ballard himself. As a homeowner since 2001, I’ve had night terrors about home-improvement projects. They are scary, they often cost far more than you expect, and unless you hire the right people they can go completely awry.
TreeHouse, Ballard says, pairs up customers with in-store consultants who walk them through the process, explain options and help find solutions to small or big problems.
In contrast to the high-stress prospects of installing a rainwater-collection tank or introducing Internet of Things gadgets into your home, Ballard himself has a calming, deep-knowledge way of explaining how technologies can ease the cost and improve the sustainability and health of your home.
“TreeHouse is a very technologically optimistic company,” Ballard said. “The environmental movement can often have sort of a Luddite feel to it. The way forward is only to take a shower once a week, set your thermostat to 78 degrees and ride your bike everywhere. You can actually save energy, increase comfort, increase safety, increase security, save water, all the things that TreeHouse wants and homeowners want can happen through these automating technologies.”
We took a look at a few of those technologies in a brief tour of the store.
Magic-Mousing with Tesla’s big battery
It looks just like Apple’s Magic Mouse, the one you get when you buy an iMac, but the white, glossy mountable panel sold at TreeHouse called the Tesla Powerwall is an item Ballard says could be a game-changer for improving home-energy performance.
TreeHouse was the first retailer to sell the Powerwall, which stores energy collected from solar panels or wind-energy devices. “We’ve known for a while we need a battery to fill the supply-demand gap,” Ballard said. “The Tesla battery has captured people’s imagination to show that it could be not this ugly, dangerous-looking thing, but elegant, affordable, useful technology.”
From Alexa to Nest
When I asked Jason Ballard to name the single-easiest tech improvement you can make in your home, the most bang-for-your-buck, he didn’t hesitate: Smart thermostats such as Google’s Nest product can quickly affect your energy bill and make your home more efficient, he said.
“Air conditioning, heating and cooling, is the largest energy user in the home,” he said. “We know that programmable thermostats can drastically cut energy bills, but nobody programs them right. This learning thermostat was a huge innovation because it programs itself. It’s adding intelligence to the largest energy user in the home and they pay for themselves in 12-to-24 months. You’re going to get that money right back and your home’s going to be more comfortable as you’re saving that money.”
Ballard said that the interoperability of devices such as Nest with other smart-home devices -- such as Amazon’s Echo and Dot, as well as smart lighting -- continues to improve. LED bulbs such as Hue can change color and use far less energy than CFL or traditional bulbs, making them better in many ways (although they are pricier).
Doesn’t it seem like we’re falling behind in toilet technology behind countries such as Japan, who appear to be light years ahead of us in terms of bathroom innovation?
Ballard says that some of that is "cultural gravity”; people in the United States haven’t really taken to bidets, even though they do use less water than our typical potties (about seven times less) and are more hygienic. TreeHouse gives its employees the option to try out a smart bidet/toilet for free in order to better sell customers on the idea.
Toilets can even be, in a word, sexy. (No, keep reading, it won’t be gross, I promise.)
Some higher-end models that cost up to $1,700 not only save water and offer bidet options, but also self-rising seat covers, heating options and even touch-screen controls. But you don’t have to spend that much to get a more efficient throne.
“’No flow’ used to mean ‘no-go,’ ” Ballard said, but that’s no longer the case. Part of what TreeHouse has to do, he said, is educate customers on how the porcelain game has changed. “We have to want to make people use less water,” Ballard said.
Paint. Yes, paint
You could go to TreeHouse to get a giant rainwater tank installed in your yard or to get started on getting your entire home set-up for solar panels. But when I asked Jason Ballard about ways of starting small and inexpensive on the road to improving your home, his answer was simple: “Paint.”
“The quickest and easiest way to change the way a room looks and feels is paint, changing the coatings,” he said.
Eco-friendly, carcinogen-free paint can be found, “For the same price point as paint you’d find anywhere else and it can really change a room quickly. And it’s one of the most approachable projects,” Ballard said.
One kind of paint I’d never heard of before touted by Ballard was Romabio mineral paints and washes.
Not only are the paints made from natural materials, but they ship in smaller containers than typical paint cans, reducing their carbon footprint in shipping. Customers add water to the paints themselves.
You can hear the full “I Love You So Much” interview at around the 27:45 mark below:
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