CINCINNATI -- Most homeowners and builders didn’t know how to spell or even pronounce LEED when Cincinnati started offering major long-term property tax breaks for new homes that met the national efficiency standards .
That was almost seven years ago.
Today, the city dominates the state’s LEED market, with more than 90 percent of Ohio’s LEED-certified homes inside the city’s limits, according to Paul Yankie, chief financial officer of Green Building Consulting . LEED, a group of rating systems set up for the construction, operation and ongoing maintenance of buildings deemed to be green, stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.
The company, founded by Paul Yankie’s mother Barb Yankie as a one-woman business in 2006, has completed an essential step for nearly all of the city’s LEED homes and hundreds of others. She is now the president of the company that tests and measures all of the components needed for certification and then independently verifies them to the U.S. Green Building Council. No residential structure can be LEED-certified at any level without independent verification.
From insulation and building materials to mechanical systems, Barb Yankie was one of those people who had never heard of LEED before 2007, but she made it her business to learn. While the bulk of GBC’s work involves more general energy-efficiency measurements and consulting on a wide range of homes and projects, LEED quickly became her calling card.
The company’s current projects include more than 200 certified homes and more than 100 LEED projects in seven states. That list counts high-profile local projects like Seventh and Broadway, the second phase of Mercer Commons in Over-the-Rhine and the new River’s Edge development in Covington. Yankie declined to discuss the company's revenue.
“I really couldn’t explain how I did it,” said the 67-year-old grandmother of two.
Those who work with and around her, though, credit years of hard work, a passion for energy-efficiency and a drive that just won’t stop.
“She literally wakes up running,” Paul Yankie said.
A Sustainable Second Career
Barb Yankie’s early success — with her business doubling every year — was not the outcome Paul Yankie predicted when his mother told him she was quitting her corporate job, starting her own business and buying a $20,000 camera that could see through walls.
“I love my mother to death, but I just didn’t see it,” Paul Yankie said. “It’s the best wrong I’ve ever been.”
As a financial planner and small business advisor, he didn’t want to discourage his mother’s ambition, but she was leaving a successful career in computer programming and training in her mid-50s to start a business he couldn’t see prospering for another 20 or 30 years.
Then she told him about her infrared camera purchase, her investment in $10,000 worth of training and another $7,000 of equipment she’d bought within the first six months of operations.
“He about died,” she said, laughing.
She recalled the “perfect storm” of circumstances he said it would take for early success: a major economic downtown, a dramatic drop in housing costs, a Democratic-leaning government for eight or so years. While none of that seemed very likely in 2006, Barb Yankie kept working, convinced of the inevitability and necessity of the green movement.
“It needs done,” she said. “I don’t care whether you agree with climate change or global warming or whatever you want to call it, it is here. Even if you don’t accept the fact that it’s worse than it used to be, you should be able to accept the fact that we can alleviate some of the issues that cause it to make it better than it used to be. And that’s what we are trying to do.”
Her son describes her succinctly. “There is no fear of the unknown.”
From Computers To Construction Sites
Yankie’s determination to chart her own course started early. The Cincinnati native grew up in Pittsburgh, which opened its first vocational high school in 1963. She fought to leave her college-prep school and enroll. She wanted to learn about computers, a field with good job prospects that she could enter without the expense of college.
“In a ninth grade civics essay, I said I was going to be a computer programmer,” she said. “I got a ‘D’ on it because my teacher didn’t know what it was.”
Decades after Yankie was the 5-foot, 2-inch token female in IT departments, she became the 5-foot, 2-inch token female on construction sites.
“She had to go in more prepared than anybody else,” Paul Yankie said.
She’d gotten a start working as a builder’s salesperson, helping homeowners select options for their new homes and then working with draftsmen and construction workers to make sure sketched plans became realities. That didn’t compare to entering sites as an inspector.
embarked on an alphabet soup-like journey of training. First, she learned about the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Program for Homes . “I was the first Energy Star rater in this area,” she said.
She trained in HERS , the industry standard for nearly all other efficiency-rating programs, including LEED. She can also rate and certify homes through the Residential Energy Services Network , the U.S. Green Building Council and the Building Performance Institute .
See Storify here or below for various residential energy efficiency ratings and organizations.
She traveled to Atlanta, San Antonio, Buffalo and all around the country, accumulating expertise rare in Cincinnati at each stop.
“When I got into this business, there were a whole lot of naysayers,” said Yankie, who now carries certifications in nearly 30 programs . “I had to prove them wrong.”
Establishing her authority with builders took more than training sessions and certifications, she said. It also took plenty of trips hauling 40-plus pound machinery on and off construction sites.
“I would go on site to do an inspection and I would be actually ignored,” she said. “They would pretend I wasn’t even there.”
She still remembers when a site foreman helped her carry her equipment back to her car and saw the back filled with her power tools. “Are those your husband’s?” he asked. “No, they’re mine. And they are well used,” she told him.
“Word got out,” she said proudly.
Sharing Expertise In A New Green World
Builders rely on Yankie to explain new code requirements, offer advice on high-return-on-investment updates and guide them through complicated certification processes. Her ability to discern the biggest-impact updates and detail every element of the LEED process makes her an invaluable ally for Carolyn Rolfes, president of Potterhill Homes.
“She is cutting-edge,” said Rolfes, whose family-owned business works with GBC on every new LEED-certification project. The tax abatement program attracted Potterhill to build inside city limits, where Rolfes estimates 20 percent of their new construction is LEED-certified, including developments in Northside, Bond Hill and Columbia-Tusculum.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do what we have done without them,” Rolfes said.
For her part, Yankie enjoys work with production homebuilders like Rolfes and custom builders like John Huber Homes , the company that built the first four LEED-certified homes in the state of Ohio.
She serves as one of four women and the only residential construction representative on the 20-member board of the Cincinnati Green Building Council , which she calls “a good old boys’ club, but not quite as bad as it used to be” when it comes to gender.
Her biggest frustration with that group lies in its emphasis on commercial versus residential construction. While residential LEED didn’t exist until 2006, she notes it’s been bringing in more money and more projects nationally than commercial construction for the last two years.
“To get people to change their thinking is like beating your head against the wall,” she said. “But I’ve done it before.”
Case in point: In her eight years on the national board for the Residential Energy Services Network , there was never more than one other female member in the group of 24.
“I’ve learned how to work on that type of a board and get things done,” she said.
Looking Forward, Giving Back
With five full-time employees, three part-time employees and dozens of independent contractors who work on projects around the country, GBC now takes up two storefront spaces on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine.
When she was on her own, she could deliver HERS ratings on 40 or 50 homes a year. In 2013, the company completed 500.
As she ages alongside her company, Barb Yankie spends more time training others than out in the field. “I basically just work on what I want to work on,” she said. “I do a lot of sessions at conferences and classes.”
GBC also offers its own training and consulting programs. “We can train the people just getting started,” she said. “There is plenty of work out there. When it comes to LEED, there is only one other company in the area that does anything similar to what we do, and they do about half of what we do.”
At conferences around the country, she’s often approached by other women she’s inspired.
“It means a lot to me to watch what she’s done and see other people notice it,” her son said.
He also understands that for her, the challenge of defying expectations is always part of the fun. “I think she revels in it,” he said.
These days, as teaching offers Barb Yankie her biggest return on investment, she sees energy-efficiency lessons behind every wall.
Sitting in her approximately 1,200-square-feet of historic office space, she points to a wall display of insulation materials. She talks about recently completed updates to the office space, which resulted in a reduction of monthly utility bills by more than half, from roughly $600 to typically less than $150.
Then she repeats what could
be her personal mantra.
“It can be done,” she said.