By Matthew Power. Let's face it. Working with "green" building materials hasn't always been easy. Products can get discontinued without notice. Promising new materials turn out to perform poorly. Historically, these obstacles have left a nasty aftertaste for many builders.

But Cedar Rose Guelberth, an environmental building designer, consultant, and owner of the Building for Health Materials Center (800-292-4838), a building supply company in Carbondale, Colo., says the time is right to rinse away the past.

"When a builder wants to use a green product, he typically has to go through 60 phone numbers to find a supplier and arrange shipment," says Guelberth, who has been selling green products in one form or another for almost 20 years. "That's where we come in. We've done a huge amount of research. We understand what has not worked, and we also undertake a certain level of research to bring new products into the house umbrella. It's in my best interest to make sure I'm selling a good-quality product. If not, products don't stick around--and that's not in anybody's interest."

New vision

In response, Guelberth has set up a national distribution network devoted to ecological building products. She asserts that her company can provide everything needed to build a green house, delivered to the jobsite--often at less cost than buying standard materials.

"We made a decision not to centralize distribution, because of the environmental impacts," Guelberth explains. "But we have very stable programs for contractors."

Those programs, she says, can provide every material a builder needs, at a discounted price for large quantities, from certified framing lumber to cotton insulation batting. And, in many cases, she says, prices compete head-to-head with those of standard building products.

Photo: Cedar Rose Guelberth

Researching, testing, and distributing a wide range of environmentally friendly products, Cedar Rose Guelberth hopes to become a one-stop shop for eco-conscious building. Guelberth also has worked hard to fill some voids in the green building product family. For example, try specifying cabinetry with a clean-air pedigree. Typically, you either have to look at European brands or go to a custom shop. Guelberth managed to find a Portland, Ore.-based company with the scale and environmental vision to fill that void. "We're now a national distributor for Neil Kelly Cabinets," she explains. "It has a good line with over 300 door styles."

Price control

"If you're looking to buy a cheap roll of vinyl sheeting, then I can't match that cost, but our natural linoleum is competitive with a higher-end vinyl sheet. That's how it works. In many cases we can offer really excellent pricing," Guelberth says.

Another good example, she adds, is "healthy" paints. "If you're using professional-grade latex paints at $25 or $30 a gallon, then we can offer excellent-quality healthy alternatives in the same price range."

Guelberth notes that her years of product knowledge also add value, because she can separate better-performing, healthier products from greenwashed brands. For example, she says that some no-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints perform poorly and may not add a genuine health benefit.

Certain green products are more expensive, she says, because they simply don't have the economy of scale of their mainstream competitors.

"For example, we just added a new cotton insulation called Ultratouch," she explains. "It's about twice the price of fiberglass, but the quality is very consistent."

Trade secrets

Guelberth doesn't like to discuss the details of her business operations and distribution network, which she considers proprietary. She runs the operation using an alternative business model, offering flexible work hours for about a dozen local people, including single mothers.

"We try to encourage people to work and live in the area," she says, "to reduce the environmental costs of commuting."

The key to moving into the mainstream building market, she says, is understanding that not every builder is coming from the same place.

"When builders call up, the first thing I need to know is why they called. There are two different types: those who have made a values choice to move toward greener construction and those who have a client driving them in a greener direction. From there, I can work with them on their terms."

Builders who do take advantage of Guelberth's resources have several options. "We have a national contractor's package available, showing which products they may want to use. And at other times, they can fax a spec list to us, and we'll fax back to them a list showing the products we recommend."

"One thing that's very important," she adds. "We start mapping out early what they're going to need and when. They need to preplan. We don't have a distributor in every single town. We can get product to the jobsite, but only if the planning is in place."

Who You Gonna Call?

What happens when a green product needs servicing?

Photo: Courtesy Equator

It's a contractor's worst nightmare: a mechanical failure and nobody within a hundred miles who can fix the problem.

Not to worry, says Cedar Rose Guelberth, owner of the Building for Health Materials Center. "We have very good technical support, both in-house and through the manufacturers directly. Say, for example, you have trouble with an Equator washer we sold you. (We never have had any problems, incidentally.) If we can't readily solve the problem in-house, we would put your repair person in direct contact with his or her technical department. We can even set up a conference call."