EXPANDING ACCESS: Rich Rifkin thinks his retail business model could revolutionize the way green building products are distributed and sold.
Courtesy New Home Inc. EXPANDING ACCESS: Rich Rifkin thinks his retail business model could revolutionize the way green building products are distributed and sold.

Rich Rifkin, a 37-year-old entre-preneur with an outsized resume and ambition to match, stirred the media pot this summer when his Dublin, Calif.–based startup company, New Home Inc., announced that in January 2010 it would open the first of eight planned retail showrooms in the San Francisco Bay area, offering an array of green building materials and related services.

Rifkin spent three years developing what he’s calling “a new type of distribution company” that will tap into a $20 billion green building products arena that Rifkin is convinced could be much larger if only contractors and homeowners had more choices and access to products. “Green building materials are hard to find and more expensive, so most of the time contractors will go with non-green products.”

Pro dealers and distributors generally don’t promote green products aggressively and offer them mostly on a special-order basis. And price still limits these products’ sales. The Home Depot (whose Eco Options program now includes 6,000 items) and Lowe’s may talk a good game about green, says Rifkin, but don’t provide enough options. He admires the four-year-old specialty retailer Green Depot, but notes that its nine stores offer only 13 product categories, where New Home will offer 200,000 green building products in 33 categories from 500 suppliers, along with eco-friendly furniture and clothes.

Former builders and green-certified professionals will man New Home’s stores, which will carry inventory but also rely on suppliers’ distribution networks for jobsite delivery. “Right now, green products cost more because a distribution platform doesn’t exist,” says Rifkin, who when interviewed in August conceded that New Home’s “full-store operating model” was still “a work in progress.”

New Home will support its stores with an online retail site that doubles as a destination source for green information and training. Visitors will be able to search lists of contractors and suppliers, and municipal building departments can post design and construction guideline changes. Some of these online features could become revenue streams.

New Home is the latest of a long line of businesses that Rifkin has been associated with over two decades. He comes from a family of bridge builders, but his interests have leaned towards real estate and finance. In the late 1990s, he provided financial consultation and services to two now-defunct Colorado builders, Lexington Homes and Westmont Homes. He has run a design firm and conducted mortgage-training seminars. He sees New Home as the culmination of his career efforts.

When Builder interviewed Rifkin, he was soliciting investors to raise $20 million to get the initial phase of New Home’s stores up and running. (He’s put $1.4 million of his own money into this venture.) Eventually, he wants to open 25 stores throughout California and dreams of having 100 to 200 stores across the country by the end of 2011. He’s banking on rents staying low to be able to open each store for about $2.5 million.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA.