Women in Building Performance: Cynthia Adams
Cynthia Adams is the CEO of Pearl, a national home certification company, which certifies home features that contribute to its comfort, energy performance, and indoor air quality. As a third-party certification company, Pearl provides independent documentation for refinance or resale (think Carfax for homes).
Macie Melendez: How did you get started in the home performance industry?
Cynthia Adams: My husband and I started a green construction company back in the mid-90s. Initially it started with us renovating a house we bought for ourselves—a 1770’s brick home where everything was buried under terrible carpet and popcorn ceilings. That home was my first foray into home performance. We had indoor air quality issues, in part due to lead paint and moisture issues, and it got me thinking about a lot of things…particularly, what are the kinds of homes that we want to live in? That we want to save from 200 years of bad renovation? This idea of utility and performance got an early start with that project.
Next, we built a house. At the time, there was no US Green Building Council, no LEED accreditation, and so on, but there were people talking about how to build efficiently and source locally. Again, it got me thinking about, what kind of home is a sanctuary that you want to hold onto? And what makes it worth holding onto? That line of thinking informed how we built our home. And out of that came a desire to build for others with those principles in mind. First we started with remodels, then got into general contracting.
For a while after, my focus was new builds. And I built with the mindset that, if you have a blank slate, make sure to do it right.
MM: How has your career evolved?
CA: With a couple of folks from our construction company group, we started a design/show room and a green building consulting business. We were working with mixed use and development projects, and then the market crashed in 2008. And it crashed especially hard in the resort community where we were living. We were able to sell our businesses at that time, and I moved back to Virginia.
After building my own home, starting a company to build others’ homes, and then working with multiple builders, I thought the next step was working at the community level. I got an opportunity to take a position with the City of Charlottesville as the Climate Protection Program Coordinator. The purpose of that position was set up energy efficiency and renewable energy programs to help the city meet its CO2 reduction goals. I was used to working with contractors, so it seemed like a natural fit.
While at that position, we applied for a SEEA [Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance] grant, which we won for a half a million dollars. The grant was to fund the set implementation of a nonprofit to work in partnership with the local government The nonprofit was supposed to function independently of political swings and municipal budget constraints, and the organization formed out of that grant award was LEAP [Local Energy Alliance Program]. I decided to apply for the Executive Director position, and from a national search, I won the position. I was there for five years and secured $7 million in grants tied to multifamily, commercial, and residential energy efficiency. We worked in multiple areas of the state.
I also founded the Virginia Energy Efficiency Council, a member organization which is the voice for energy efficiency in the state, and then became involved on a national level when elected to the national board for Efficiency First.
At that point, I realized that the problems I was seeing in the industry weren’t going to get solved in my nonprofit work. The areas I wanted to focus on required a different funding and execution strategy. I had made a lot of connections along the Stimulus road and decided that, along with Robin LeBaron, formerly of the National Home Performance Council, to start Pearl Certification. Robin and I began full-time with Pearl in May 2015.
MM: When you started out, what was your biggest obstacle? How did you overcome it?
CA: One was being taken seriously in the industry, in part because I was a woman. Construction is still largely a guy’s sport, and even more so seventeen years ago. At that time the women I knew all did interior design, and so I immediately learned a trade: how to tile. I was laying out bathrooms and kitchens and managing a crew. It was interesting. People frequently thought I was there to bring the food, not running the tile crew for these projects.
Once I had proven myself, people would get to know me and then recommend me. But before that, it felt like it was an uphill battle being a woman in a “man’s” trade.
MM: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
CA: Being able to do good everywhere. The thing I really like about Pearl is that we help homeowners recoup value, contractors sell energy efficiency, and real estate agents be more profitable. In turn, buyers get a better product. They get a healthy, efficient home, and they learn how to take care of it. No one loses in that equation, and that is one of the best feelings ever. My job is ethical and positive, and it feels good to help foster the success of others.
MM: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges for women in this industry?
CA: I’m at a stage in my life where this is less relevant (my kids are in college), but I think the biggest challenge is balancing family life with a career. When I had my kids, I learned that it’s hard trying to manage schedules with school and summer and sick days, and there’s an expectation that you, as a mom, have to manage that. It’s difficult for women to balance family life and work life, and there’s not much sympathy for that.
MM: What advice would you give to a woman starting out in the home performance industry?
CA: Don’t impose any artificial limits on yourself but be smart about what you commit to. If you have a vision and a passion to get there, then go for it. Generally speaking, I’ve found people don’t work too hard to get in your way if your goal is to take on more and get things done. And with that in mind, it’s quite possible to take on more than you can deliver. So learn early how to prioritize and structure your days to get the most out of them. And then really go for it—whatever it is for you.
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