Building Sustainable Success
“My degree enabled me to think about all of the facets of construction. Not just concrete and rebar, but energy and power as well,” says Ralph Parrott (BSCEM ’91), president of Houston-based Alternative Power Solutions LLC. His company provides alternative energy solutions to the commercial, institutional, and residential markets in Texas and Louisiana. Their services include design, professional engineering, installation, supply, inspection, and maintenance.
Experts in solar electric power generation, solar thermal heating, and wind power, Parrott and his company are poised to have an impact on the evolving energy profile of the nation. “My future plans are to build some of the many alternative energy plants that our nation will need to secure our energy future. Purdue was a great place to spawn my eco-preneurial success,” Parrott says.
They love the mountains, the great outdoors, construction engineering, and each other. So when Courtney and Ozzie France graduated from Purdue’s Construction Engineering Management (CEM) program in 2002, they headed west to Colorado to start their new life together. Both took jobs with traditional general contractor firms. They liked the work and the “high-energy” people they found in Colorado. And in no time at all—less than five years after leaving college—they found themselves with a business all their own called France Sustainable Solutions. The firm provides consulting services for all aspects of the green building process.
The Frances look back to their days at Purdue and see the beginnings of the fast-track path they are on now. One of their classes was CE 425, in which the duo teamed up with a few other students to mock-design a school building during their senior year. This was before “green” was an adjective in common parlance, at a time when the extra effort required for things like implementing recycling systems and ensuring good indoor air quality raised eyebrows, or at least left many scratching their heads. Why bother?
Undaunted, the team nicknamed themselves “Green Corp.” They joked about keeping the concept alive after they got out of school and into the real world. Something about that practical design exercise stuck with them. Perhaps it was the classroom experience translated to a real visit to the construction site, where Brookview Elementary School was taking real shape on the horizon. The Frances saw that their green ideas could grow. “Sustainability was something we knew we had to carry on throughout our careers,” Courtney says.
Purdue’s hands-on approach sets up its graduates well for their careers. The CEM program that produces success stories like the Frances is not new to Purdue. It’s been around since 1976 and can boast 100 percent job placement for its graduates over the past 20 years. Professor and division head Makarand (Mark) Hastak attributes some of that success to the strong partnership with the construction industry and a curriculum that prepares students to work in this service industry. “We strongly believe that students should not only understand the engineering and management concepts but also the needs of their clients,” he says.
Besides the senior course that so inspired the Frances, Hastak points out that Purdue’s CEM program requires its students to complete three 12-week internships. That means every summer starting after freshman year, Purdue CEM students are busy gaining on-the-job training. “A powerful partnership exists between our program, faculty, students, and sponsoring companies,” Hastak says.
Students know who the sponsoring companies are and what kind of work they do. Currently more than 55 such companies participate. Students’ interests are matched with companies’ needs, and long-term relationships begin. Each year, the job description for the intern changes a little to help round out the student’s exposure. “They emerge from the experience knowing what will be expected of them in the real world,” says Hastak.
The Frances certainly appreciated this experience. “Internships give you a head start,” Courtney says. “Having done internships, you gain higher levels of confidence and experience.” Ozzie concurs, adding that required internships expose students to more real-world angles of their future careers. “The corporate environment benefits interns by showing them the business world in which they will interact,” he says.
And that’s a world in which they are interacting at a higher level, and sooner, than the Frances predicted they would. “Before we left Purdue, we talked with our architect buddies, our electrician friends, our colleagues in structural engineering, and made up a nebulous plan for starting a company 20 years down the road,” they recall. “But five years out of college?” Courtney laughs.
“We have lived our lives together very much willing and ready to act on an opportunity,” explain the entrepreneurs. “We felt there was an opportunity [in our local industry], in that there was no one who could talk to everyone, from the owner/developers right down to the trades, like we could, utilizing our construction and engineering experiences.”
From their earliest teamwork at Purdue, the Frances have developed their interest in environmental responsibility into a marketable niche. “The question used to be, ‘Why go green?’” says Courtney. “Now the question is ‘What is the cost of not going green?’” France Sustainable Solutions consults with businesses that are increasingly looking to the promise of green, asking what the payback will be.
For instance, designing spaces with natural sunlight not only saves energy costs, but offers a return on investment in the form of higher test scores for students, higher productivity for workers, and higher sales for retailers. “There is a huge need and demand for the kind of support we provide,” Courtney says. She and Ozzie not only consult with construction clientele on projects, but they also conduct Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design™ (LEED) training, the industry-leading process that documents and validates sustainable building design and construction practices.
Now the Frances face new challenges in the interest of sustainability. How can they sustain their own ability to keep up with the business, which is growing by leaps and bounds? Without advertising or even a Web site, France Sustainable Solutions has generated so much business and interest that the Frances find themselves turning down three to six proposals per week. It’s a good problem for this young couple to have. “We are overwhelmed,” Courtney says, admitting that they are considering hiring one or two more experienced people to join the firm. “After all, we came to Colorado to go camping and skiing,” she laughs.
On the wall of their office Ozzie has posted a United States map. For every client they serve, they put a pin on the map and tie a string from there back to Denver. They call it their “Web of Influence,” and it is a point of pride for the pair. “We work hard for our company, because we constantly get to have a positive influence on each project, designer, constructor, and tradesman we work with,” Ozzie explains. “All of this culminates to benefit the most important person of a project, the end-user. Each person touched walks away from the project with a tool bag of sustainable practices they can take to the next project, and to the project after that. It makes us feel good to think about the exponential nature—our clients telling their clients—we can contribute to the sustainability movement.” The map may soon need to be replaced, though, with a map of the world.
- Gina Vozenilek