As buildings have become more “environmentally conscious” – with better insulation and tighter construction to eliminate drafts and heat loss – and consequently better for the health of the planet by reducing energy consumption, ironically they’ve become potential health hazards for the people inside them. This is frequently referred to as “sick building syndrome” or “indoor air pollution.” In the online newsletter, Your Guide to Allergies, Judy Tidwell notes that, “Most people spend 90 percent of their time indoors.” This means increased exposure to major indoor pollutants that include carcinogenic asbestos, a once common building material that poses significant health risks once it is disturbed or begins to disintegrate with age, and molds, which cause a range of problems including, according to Tidwell, “nasal congestion, itching, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing, headaches and fatigue.”
The magazine Today’s Facility Manager points out that growing awareness of these pollutants means “billions of dollars at stake” for potential liability issues. One business’s problem is another business’s opportunity, though, as the success of PDG Environmental attests. This Pittsburgh, Pa.-based specialty contractor, with 18 full-service branch offices nationwide, employing as many as 2,000 professionals, started out as a general contractor in 1984, but soon thereafter began to specialize in asbestos abatement. The skills it developed in removing this harmful material easily transfers to mold remediation, which has the potential to equal the “boom” years of asbestos removal. In addition, PDG offers disaster response and reconstruction services, with particular expertise in drying out buildings that have been deluged with water in hurricanes.
According to Shawn Regan, director of business development, an abatement project can range in size and scope from a one-day job involving two people to a multimillion-dollar, yearlong commitment of a dedicated crew. Client sites include schools, hotels, office buildings, shopping centers, multifamily complexes and industrial facilities.
He adds that the current opportunities for mold remediation echo the situation faced by industrial and commercial building owners when asbestos concerns first emerged in the 1980s.
“This was something that no one thought about until the effects became known,” Regan says. “Building owners are wondering what they need to do and how fast can they do it. And, most importantly, how do we get it done right.”
A Growing Business
While asbestos was regularly used in construction primarily for insulation and fire protection from the 1940s until the 1970s until its health effects were identified, mold is the natural consequence of damp conditions exacerbated by energy-efficient building practices that provide tightly contained conditions and employ a greater percentage of organic construction materials ideal to promote fungal growth. “This isn’t the kind of thing where you hire a person off the street and give him some quick instructions on what to do,” Regan says. “This is highly specialized work that requires specific kinds of knowledge on how to properly remove and dispose of material without doing damage to the building occupants or themselves. Using our own highly experienced people assures our clients and us that all remediation is performed in the safest, professional manner. By being national in scope, we have the flexibility to draw upon resources throughout the country if they’re needed somewhere else.”
Widespread geographic presence also provides building owners with what PDG likes to call, “a national contractor with a local presence.” As Regan explains, “Each branch has its own management staff and operates more or less independently. That said, we also have a standardized set of practices and software systems that provide consistent and on-track project management that all our branches follow.” Regan points out that while public government projects are awarded to the low bidder, in the private sector contractors must first qualify to be on a company’s “preferred list.” To do so, Regan says, “The company has to be convinced of your expertise and capabilities. Once you’re qualified to bid, then it becomes a case of offering the lowest cost for your services.” He notes that there are relatively few national contractors that provide
these kinds of specialized services. While PDG does have a small traditional sales force, it primarily gains the trust of its
clients through execution. “Some projects may be one shot deals, but we also have clients that use us on multiple locations for ongoing services.”
An Abating Business
While PDG continues to remove asbestos – it’s Los Angeles office, for example, was recently was awarded a $1.75 million contract for asbestos and lead paint abatement at the historic Ambassador Hotel, which first opened doors in 1920 and has been the site for several Oscar Award Presentations as well as the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy – Regan notes it is a flat to gradually declining market. “There are still a lot of old buildings that have asbestos problems, but obviously remediation over the years has greatly reduced that number.” He adds that the same skills required to remove asbestos are immediately transferable to the treatment of mold.
PDG has performed over thousands of mold remediation projects since 1999 and expects it to be a growing part of its business. Regan points out that there is misconception that mold problems are more characteristic of parts of the country that tend towards more rainy and humid conditions. “I haven’t seen a difference in the number of contracts we’ve received in Seattle versus Phoenix,” he says. “Anytime water gets into a building, it’s a potential mold problem. Whether it’s a sprinkler system that went off on the third floor, or a leaky pipe that no one knew about until sheet rock was ripped out during reconstruction, mold can be a problem in any building regardless of outside weather conditions.”
The weather does make a difference during hurricane season, though, and the same drying techniques to remove moisture in water swept buildings help ensure mold doesn’t become a future problem in addition to the damage already inflicted. “Nobody likes to capitalize on other people’s misfortunes, but recent strong hurricane seasons have accounted for a growing part of our business over the last two years. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we had over 600 people working in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama performing mitigation services including structural drying, temporary enclosures, interior demolition, asbestos abatement and water extraction.
A natural outgrowth of restoring wet buildings hit by hurricanes is reconstructing them. To enhance its capabilities in this area, PDG recently acquired Flagship Services Group, a leader in both repair and reconstruction of damage caused by windstorms, fires, and floods. “Because of its widely recognized brand identity, we have maintained Flagship as an operating company name,” Regan says. He adds that PDG will continue to supplement organic growth with acquisitions that provide or strategically enhance its existing services. “We realized $60 million in revenues for fiscal 2005, which represented an almost doubling of our previous 2004 revenues of $36 million,” Regan says. “For the immediate future we’re gong to concentrate on the areas that have defined this company – asbestos and mold abatement, disaster restoration and reconstruction. The environmental concerns of property owners are the concern of our business, and our continuing and expanding ability to alleviate those concerns accounts for our continuing and expanding success.”