Greener by Design greening the NYC market one project at a time

In 1996, Richard Heller investedhimself 100 percent intosustainability, expressing thatthrough the design, installationand maintenance of green roofs.

In 1996, Richard Heller invested himself 100 percent into sustainability, expressing that through the design, installation and maintenance of green roofs.

How green is your footprint? Lush green sod footprints on the walkway to the train station led commuters to signage bearing that question. That sign, nestled in a container filled with flowering plants, urged readers to, “Leave a greener footprint for what you already pay for garden services. Call today for a free eco-evaluation.”

That unconventional approach is typical of the forward thinking of Richard Heller, CLP CLT, owner, CEO and CFO of Greener by Design, based in New Rochelle, N.Y. (Catch the video of the set up and commuter reactions on their website

Richard Heller (left) and senior designer Milagros Lecuona discusssustainable landscaping on radio station WVOX in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Richard Heller (left) and senior designer Milagros Lecuona discuss sustainable landscaping on radio station WVOX in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Heller developed his interest in sustainability in college. “I didn’t think the culture in America was going to make it going the way we were going,” he says. “When the U.S. Green Building Council came into creation in 1993, it became clear to me that LEED was going to be the first step towards a sustainable future. I strongly believe there’s no other option. In 1996, I decided to take a stand, investing myself 100 percent into sustainability. I found a way to express that through the design, installation and maintenance of green roofs.”

It wasn’t easy. Introduction of the green roof was not just an enjoyable oasis in the heart of the concrete jungle, but a workable component in the overall concept of sustainability, and required a whole lot of education. The process was teaching first and selling second, a formula that proved effective. Greener by Design has built more green roofs than “just about anyone else in the Northeast.”

Heller says, “Green roofs are essentially ecological mimicry, creating an environment that doesn’t occur naturally, but utilizes nature by mimicking it. Clients now recognize the sustainability concept, so it’s easier to sell.”

Spreading sustainability to the suburbs

Roof gardens bring beauty and life to both large and small roofs.Greener by Design has built more of them than "just about anyoneelse in the Northeast."

Roof gardens bring beauty and life to both large and small roofs. Greener by Design has built more of them than “just about anyone else in the Northeast.”

Five years ago, Heller took his program to the suburbs. His vision is all about working with nature to reweave the threads of the local ecosystem. It’s a science-based system centering on soil health, organic solutions and strategic plant selection, thus the tagline, “Your Natural Choice in Landscaping.”

Following years of synthetic product applications and removal of organic matter, many properties have depleted soils, along with the accompanying compaction and drainage issues. Heller says, “Many people are more invested in manicuring their property then investing in its health. That’s like putting makeup on a dead person. … We get to the heart of the problems.”

It starts with a soil test. “During the initial consultation, I can point out struggling plants, adding comments such as, ‘I’ll bet you 10 to 1 an acid test will show a pH problem there.’ When the test results prove it, they’re blown away,” Heller says.

It’s an evolution, gradually developing the soil balance for a more self-sustaining environment that needs less and less human intervention. Crews follow stringent practices that include IPM, they don’t bag grass clippings, and autumn leaves are mulched into the lawn. Heller says, “Our clients understand that if we remove organic matter in the form of leaves and clippings, they’re going to have to pay us to bring some back in the form of composted materials. From an ROI perspective, it makes sense to them.”

Still, in a culture of instant results, the time factor is Heller’s main problem, and he’s lost some clients because of it. It takes at least a year for chemical changes in the soil to become complete and/or restore microbial activity in inert soil. “We’re considering limited, strategic use of synthetics as a bridge program, similar to weaning a drug addict from heroin, for clients that find it hard to handle the evolution process,” he says.

While innovation will always play a role in Greener by Design, Heller feelshe has achieved conceptual mastery of the company's focus on every level.

While innovation will always play a role in Greener by Design, Heller feels he has achieved conceptual mastery of the company’s focus on every level.

Often, mowing is the entry to full maintenance service, though it’s the least profitable of the offerings. “It puts our crew on the property once a week, developing a relationship and observing the property,” says Heller. “Less-expensive operators with little horticultural knowledge often are doing us a favor. We pick up clients in July or August when those scalped lawns burn out. By then, the homeowner is ready to let us take care of it right.”

After working with some suburban properties for three or four years, Heller is seeing a massive difference in their usability. Once-compacted soils, that have had several years of organic material, live humus and regular aeration now absorb the runoff from neighboring properties that used to turn lawns into swimming pools.

Heller says, “In the suburban market, people don’t trust you unless you’re taking care of their property. What I really love is designing and installing. But, unless you are doing, or are willing to do, the maintenance, there’s little opportunity to design. Even then, so much of the Northeast suburban property has been developed, it’s nearly all redesign work.”

During a design consultation, the client chooses the textures and colors they like. Heller recommends native plants when possible, coaching them through the selection process on the basis of knowledge and experience. He explains the ecological functions of native plants, including how they host more beneficial insects, and that invasive plants require more maintenance to control them. With appropriate plant selection and balanced soil the client will lose fewer plant materials and their plants will be more vibrant and healthy, thus worth more.

“Some clients are committed to our natural approach,” he says. “Others just think their property looks really good and are glad their kids and pets are not exposed to chemicals. We’re all right with that. The client doesn’t need to embrace the whole sustainability picture; only what pertains to the landscape. They will have us around and we will rub off on them after a while.”

Greener By Design

Owner: Richard Heller
Founded: 1979 by Ann Roberts Levine (Heller’s mother) as a plantscaping business, Mornhurst Gardens. Expanded to exterior landscapes in late 1982, Greenroofs in 1996, with name change to Greener By Design. Interiorscape business sold in 2009.Headquarters: New Rochelle, N.Y.
Markets: New York City andadjacent suburbs
Services: Design, installation,mowing, lawn care programs and landscape maintenance
Employees: 10 peak season withtwo part-time administrators

Guerilla marketing

Heller’s suburban target clients have enough commitment to horticulture to appreciate the company’s science-based programs. He says, “The appearance of the property helps us identify which ones to contact. I can’t see those properties in the city (they are up in the air or hidden by building fronts) so that market is harder to develop. We rely more on word-of-mouth and referrals.”

He considers it much easier to develop cost-effective marketing tools for the suburban market. For example, he writes columns for The Pelham Weekly, a community-focused publication. He’s also borrowed an idea from another PLANET member, placing a plant-covered arbor in the back of a company pickup truck, parking it in the middle of town, and handing out literature.

Unconventional, guerilla marketing techniques work better, too. “Most train stations have a coffee stand,” says Heller. “We arrange to buy 100 or so cups of coffee if we can put our company stickers on the cups and talk to people as they get their coffee. We’ve found we get more work from existing clients than new people this way. We use a service ( that issues emails to existing clients encouraging them to set an appointment online to discuss their needs. Of the 40 clients emailed in one suburb, we heard back from three. Even when we try to make it easy, it’s hard for people to find time in today’s society. So, we need to adapt to their lifestyle. They’re pleased to spend that five- or 10-minute wait time in the train station talking about their property and possible new projects.”

Internal evolution

Heller initially experimented with electric mowers and trimmers, but found it a competitive disadvantage. Instead, he’s converting the company’s gas-powered mowers to propane. He is considering all-electric cars for maintenance in the city, but plans to be an early adapter, making that change only after others have proven them effective. He’s invested in the switch to liquid fertilization, installing equipment to brew his own compost tea as well as application equipment.

Richard Heller realizes that his company, Greener by Design, can't matchnature in producing a complete ecology, but it can mimic with ecologicallysound design and horticultural practices.

Richard Heller realizes that his company, Greener by Design, can’t match nature in producing a complete ecology, but it can mimic with ecologically sound design and horticultural practices.

He hopes that change, combined with a change in pay models, cuts maintenance staffing levels in half, from six crews to three. Heller is switching from hours pay to “piecework,” or an open book “ownership thinking” pay model, following the lead of a colleague, David Bender, owner of Weeded. “It’s a collaborative pay model, basically a piece work concept, setting a budget for the day for a specified body of work,” he says. “The employees determine whether they’ll finish the tasks in five hours or eight hours, thus motivating them to work more efficiently. While it will require much more ‘hands-on training’ on my part, it’s a level of ‘ownership thinking’ I view as another area of sustainability.”

Another major change, and investment, is integrating all the company’s data and processes into one system, Asset from Include Software Corporation. Heller says, “We’ve been paperless for some time, but with different aspects of our operations incorporated in different cloud-based sites, often resulting in information slipping between the cracks due to administrative and/or field error. The new software is a huge investment I’m only willing to take because of the power of networking. Many of my colleagues use it and swear by it.”

Looking ahead

While innovation will always play a role in Greener by Design, Heller feels he’s achieved conceptual mastery of the company’s focus on every level: green roofs and walls, ecological suburban property management and internal operational systems – all sustainable.

Heller finds green roofs and green walls less necessary within residential suburban areas which still have ecosystems, albeit severely impacted ones, though some communities do demand that large houses have green roofs. He says, “They’re more needed in the urban area where the footprint of the built environment has practically obliterated the ecosystem”

That doesn’t minimize their importance. As Heller says, “The green roofing part of the business will have a direct impact on the health and future of New Yorkers for generations to come. Over time, we have faith our program will spread the sustainability message into the suburbs as well, one green step at a time.”

Suz Trusty is a partner with her husband, Steve, in Trusty & Associates, Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years. Contact her at