A New Kind of Hardware Store: TreeHouse

A New Kind of Hardware Store: TreeHouse

By Sara Ost
After the Dwell prefab popup party at SXSW Eco this past October, we spent the next Saturday checking out a number of modern homes and happenings around Austin, where we stumbled with delight upon TreeHouse, the new green hardware store company with a focus on design that's already earned a local tagline as the "Whole Foods version of Home Depot." We toured the store and the next week back in San Francisco, caught up with TreeHouse CEO, Paul Yanosy, to chat.

Owing to its green credentials - and there's a whole lot more than a CFL to be had in this hardware store - TreeHouse certainly does offer that healthy Whole Foods vibe. But add in modern design and a little bit of Apple's Genius Bar concept to the mix, too.

One of TreeHouse's several experiential learning centers educates shoppers about the differences between conventional and eco-friendly toilets.

Upon entering the store, you'll immediately notice two things: First, there's nary a humming fluorescent light to feel big-box-stored by, and second, the entirety of the spacious store is visible in one airy, clutter-free glance. Instead of depressing overhead lights, narrow aisles, and precarious ceiling-high stacks packed with product, the space is defined by large windows that fill the store with natural light, and exceptionally edited, real-person-height vignettes of cool, practical, green products. There's even a modern chicken coop.

TreeHouse displays the company's product filter. Every item sold in the store must pass the litmus test for health, performance, sustainability, and social good. Will it work in Austin? It certainly seems to be. "But Texas is the great experiment," says Yanosy. "We want to show people that this isn't hippie. This is about efficiency, and healthier homes for your kids, and well made products."

Having happily adjusted one's standards for what a hardware store can be, it only gets stranger. The store is designed around playful experience centers that cheerfully inform shoppers about everything from stylish Plumen lights to the water one can save with an environmentally-friendly toilet. There's not a whiff of sustainability shaming; this is all carrot, no stick. "We don't want people to feel bad, which is something that happens a lot with the green message," says the company's head of marketing, Kane Sutphin. "We think we can do a lot more to help the planet if people feel good about what they do instead of guilty."

The paint zone. On our tour, Sutphin waved a hand towards the wall and said, "A lot of stores wanting to say they care about green will stop at paint. But having a healthy home is more than a coat of paint."

The center of the store features the piece de resistance, a Genius Bar-like idea center where people can confer with informed but easygoing experts about everything from planning a xeriscaped yard to maintaining the aforementioned coop. This is a hardware store for humans, and the execution is both authentic and, well...slick. National chain slick. (When pressed about plans for scale, CEO Paul Yanosy - a former partner in a law firm in San Francisco - demurs, saying the team "just wants to learn" and get this store, which launched in October 2011, right.)

The hub of the store, the Idea Center, functions similarly to an Apple store Genius Bar. "We really want this to be an experience," says Yanosy of the concept. "We're all on a journey, and hopefully our customers know we are on that journey with them - we think it's important to be humble. Think about what it's like to go into an REI versus some other sporting goods store. No matter what level you're at, you're welcomed and educated and the entire experience is positive," he says. "That's what a hardware store should be like."

On behalf of people interested in modern hardware products that also happen to be green, we do hope he's just modest. Skip through our slideshow to see what TreeHouse is all about.

Another look at the Idea Center.

A bit of light bulb whackamole.

Every product zone features helpful information that conveys a clear benefit. Health is touted; sustainability is implied. Word of the store has spread quickly around Austin. "We've done some social media," says Yanosy, "but mainly it's grassroots. Local builders and a lot of young, savvy families are our customers."

The flooring zone. "Retail should be a trusted partner and the ultimate consultant," says Yanosy. "And it extends throughout the entire business - employees should be treated well, too." He ticks off people, nature, excellence, belief in dreams, and community as the core values of TreeHouse. As for making that into a successful business model, Yanosy reflects and says, "There's always going to be a bit of tension between the needs of business and values. But we're running toward that, not away from it. We think it can be constructive."


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