Beyond profit: Deltec earns B Corp status

STRUCTURALLY SOUND: Deltec Homes achieved B Corporation certification last month, which requires that a company make decisions based on all stakeholders. Company President Steve Linton was a driving force behind the effort to produce greener homes and now the socially conscious B Corp move. Here he shows the design of Deltec’s round house, for which they are best known. Photo by Able Allen

Deltec Homes has been building prefabricated houses since the 1960s. Their signature round structures adorn many local hillsides, and from the beginning, the open design plus the advantages of factory production combined to reduce these homes’ environmental footprint.

In recent years, the Asheville-based company has worked hard to enhance its green building credibility, and last month, Deltec took a big step toward becoming more socially responsible as well, becoming the first company of its kind to achieve B Corporation certification. There are only a handful of such companies in Western North Carolina, and only five others in Buncombe County: New Belgium Brewing, Watershed Capital Group, Cloud for Good, Krull & Co. and Leah B. Noel CPA. The remaining 28 certified B Corps in North Carolina are mostly in the Triangle area. The movement is spreading locally, though, with companies such as Riverbend Malt House working on getting certified.

The certification is a function of B Lab, a global nonprofit with offices in Pennsylvania, New York, California and Colorado. According to its website, B Lab aims to empower “business as a force for good.” Certified B Corporations meet the highest standards of social and environmental performance, transparency and legal accountability. Unlike traditional corporations, B Corps are required to consider the impact of their decisions on all stakeholders, including employees, suppliers, the communities they operate in, consumers in general and the environment.

Thanks to the work of B Lab and the community of B Corps, 32 states (not including North Carolina) have established a new corporate form: the benefit corporation. And meanwhile, they’ve also created a growing roster of companies worldwide that are redefining success in terms of what’s sometimes call the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit.

Building for the future

Deltec was founded by two brothers whose families still own it today. Robert Kinser was an engineer who’d worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where his job was to turn the physicists’ concepts into something practical. As current Deltec President Steve Linton puts it, “He built this skill of taking ideas but then putting them into action.”

Wayne Kinser was a salesman, and the two decided to pool their strengths and go into business together. They began building homes, initially A-frames, but quickly realized that design wouldn’t suit the needs of the future. The idea of round homes wasn’t new, but the brothers, says Linton, “dramatically changed the way that any round home has been built.”

Deltec has always prided itself on the strength of its structures and the efficiency of its construction process, and the environmental benefits were there from the start. That plus an obvious similarity to Buckminster Fuller’s famous Dymaxion House, not to mention marketing partnerships with organizations like the Mother Earth News, has tended to attract environmentally oriented customers.

“By nature of the way a prefabricated home works, you kind of get this leg up to begin with,” says Linton. “Because of the design of Deltec, I think we’ve always had customers who value sustainability and green building.”

And these days, those consumers represent no small part of the market. In a 2014 Nielsen survey, 40 percent of respondents said they’d made a “sustainable” purchase in the previous six months. And last year, SurveyMonkey reported that 5 percent of the consumers they surveyed said their next car would be a hybrid-electric vehicle.

Deltec's latest model home is built in Mars Hill. Steve Linton calls it "the quintessential Deltec," and it is designed to generate as much energy as it would use, a net zero home. Photo courtesy of Deltec Homes
Deltec’s latest model home is built in Mars Hill. Steve Linton calls it “the quintessential Deltec,” and it is designed to generate as much energy as it would use, a net zero home. Photo courtesy of Deltec Homes

The green guy

In the early 2000s, Deltec hired Linton to launch its green building department. For the first five years, his whole job consisted of developing less wasteful ways to build the homes and ways to make them more energy-efficient — stuff he says is a “ton of fun.” The idea was to enhance the company’s appeal to such customers, including those wanting zero-net-energy homes (which generate as much energy as they use).

Linton, a structural engineer, began his career managing historical preservation projects. He’s also been a schoolteacher and built his own “green” home. He seems to thrive on breaking things down to their smallest parts, finding the cracks and literally filling them in.

If you tour the factory floor at Deltec, for example, you might find a big box of chopped up blue foam insulation board. On the construction line, whenever there’s a piece of scrap that’s less than 4 feet long, it’s cut up into little nuggets that are then used to insulate the spaces above doors and windows that are often underinsulated in conventionally built homes.

Practices like this support the company’s claim that building its homes produces 80 percent less waste than conventional methods.

Linton also introduced the use of high-quality, innovative gaskets where the sectional walls meet. Because Deltec homes are tight in the right places and breathe in a controlled way, they can actually use 66 percent less energy than a conventional home the same size, the company maintains. But going green took more than chopping up some foam board: In 2007, the company completed what was then WNC’s largest solar installation on its roof.

“I think by naming me — basically a building scientist, someone with a green background — to the presidency, the owners kind of established that while maybe the market got us here, at this point, this is part of our DNA,” says Linton. Earlier this year, the company launched the Renew line of net-zero-capable homes, including some in more traditional (not round) styles. And on April 24, they’ll open their first net-zero model home for tours, in Mars Hill.

The road to B Corp

All those steps toward sustainability made becoming a B Corporation very attainable, says Linton. “I think my perception was, we put a ton of effort into making this company and our products sustainable: This ought to be easy.” He started the journey after talking with the publisher of Mother Earth News, whose parent company, Ogden Publications, is a certified B Corp.

“But I wouldn’t characterize it that way after going through the process,” continues Linton. “In many ways, it was just sort of acknowledging or codifying the things we already knew we were good at. But what I liked about it was that it wasn’t just environment. We were pretty solid there, but there are these other circles: workers and community and governance and consumers. So it’s looking at sustainability in each of those areas.”

It’s the details that make the certification process so valuable, Linton maintains. It forces applicants to take a fresh look at how they do things and consider “What are you trying to accomplish? How are you going to permeate that through the business?”

Together, he says, those little things have an impact and “are really what make the fabric of a company’s culture. I certainly can’t take all that credit, because it’s everybody here that works to really make this a special place. All that, to me, is embodied in that certification, even though there’s no way to quantify it.”

One big thing B Corps certification does is protect companies that want to consider the triple bottom line from being sued by shareholders for not maximizing profits.

But beyond that, says Linton, it helps all the stakeholders, from himself to the customers, “understand how we view our role as a business, where we are a force for good, where we seek to not only be the best in the world but the best for the world. At Deltec we work hard, day in and day out, to make profits, just like all companies must do to be sustainable, and we understand at our core that there are many kinds of profit: financial, for sure, but there is profit in helping our employees grow and flourish, helping our community, restoring the ecosystems around us, and also in being part of a movement that’s bigger than just us, that challenges all businesses to think more and more this way.”

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About Able Allen
Able studied political science and history at Warren Wilson College. He enjoys travel, dance, games, theater, blacksmithing and the great outdoors. Follow me @AbleLAllen

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