FEATURE — Spring 2008


Eco-Business Gets the Green Light

Five alumni represent a growing number of entrepreneurs interested in environmental sustainability, and the challenges and opportunities a more “green” world offers.

By Terri Nappier

St. Louis now boasts a LEED Platinum home. At press time, it is one of 19 or so in the country and the only one in the Midwest. With this prototype, two young visionaries hope to spawn a movement. • In Winchester, New Hampshire, one couple takes a leap of faith and starts a Community Supported Agriculture farm in a rural area that recently has seen farms only decline. Their focus is on building community. • In Olympia, Washington, an ice storm becomes the impetus for a lumber company that turns salvaged wood into flooring, molding, and countertops. The owner focuses on adding value throughout the production process. • On the shores of the Copper River Delta, in Cordova, Alaska, glacial mud is plentiful, and it is good for the skin. One young industrious alumna is now offering this Alaskan facial experience to women and men of the “lower 48.” • These “eco-entrepreneurs” are just a small sample of alumni who are making environmental changes as well as opportunities their business.

Nate Forst, A.B. ’01, and Jay Swoboda, A.B. ’02, are two of the fresh faces of EcoUrban Homes, whose brand espouses “Live Green, Live Urban, Live EcoUrban.” Swoboda, an economics major, is project manager, and Forst, an English and American literature major, handles project development for the young company. Along with Amos Harris, EcoUrban’s president and owner, Swoboda and Forst hope to change the landscape of St. Louis.

Nate Forst (far left), A.B. ’01, and Jay Swoboda, A.B. ’02, work for EcoUrban Homes, which has built a LEED Platinum status home in St. Louis. The two hope to spawn a movement, filling in empty lots throughout the city with energy-efficient, pre-fab construction.

EcoUrban Homes wants to fill in the many empty lots in the city, numbering in the thousands, with environmentally friendly, energy efficient, yet affordable housing. The two dream of furthering a resurgence, bringing back more people, especially young professionals, to live and work in a dynamically revitalized city. But, just as important, they want to build in a way that consciously addresses a growing concern in the United States: that, according to the Energy Information Administration, households use more than 20 percent of the total energy consumed in this country.

Their first effort in the Benton Park West neighborhood received a major distinction last fall: the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes Platinum status. LEED Platinum status is the highest rating given by the U.S. Green Building Council.

“When we received LEED Platinum certification, we were the ninth builder in the country to do so,” Forst says. “And we’re the only developers who have made such a home affordable. To top it off, St. Louis has a LEED Platinum home before Chicago, New York City, Denver, and San Francisco.”

Getting affirmation from those leading the green movement is huge for the company. Yet reaching the average citizen in the St. Louis region has been a challenge.

Communicating the importance and possibilities of the building technology has made Swoboda and Forst educators as much as home developers.

Luckily, Swoboda and Forst have backgrounds that lend themselves to this challenge. Both are alumni of AmeriCorps, where they gained important environmental leadership experience early in their careers. While still at Washington U., Swoboda created Whats Up Magazine, a newspaper dedicated to homelessness issues that is still published quarterly. As a Coro Fellow, he worked with a local housing corporation on the need for affordable housing in the city. This led to work with Brady Capital, which owns EcoUrban Homes.

Forst’s path led him to Colorado and several years working for a public trust fund dealing with large-scale land preservation issues. When Swoboda continued sending him e-mails in 2007 about a start-up company dedicated to green building, Forst, who is originally from St. Louis, decided to come home to dedicate himself to marketing and developing what he sees as the future of building in this country.

“We are using modular, pre-fab construction versus traditional construction,” Swoboda says. “Modular construction is volumetric: It comes in four-sided boxes, with sub-floors, ceilings, and drywall in place, as well as the insulation and plumbing.” Acording to EcoUrban Homes’ design, one of the few­ additional steps that needs to be taken after the modules arrive on site is putting down bamboo flooring.

“Modular construction also is stronger because it uses two-by-sixes,” Swoboda adds. “And the factory is very attentive to the amount of waste it incurs before delivering the product, which translates to less waste in landfills.”

EcoUrban Homes built the first LEED Platinum home in the Midwest in St. Louis.

Forst says educating people about pre-fab housing is paramount. “In fall 2007, The New York Times published an article about choosing pre-fab as your second home, and the LA Weekly recently featured pre-fab as well,” he says. “Warren Buffet also recently invested $750 million in the pre-fab industry—it is really gaining momentum right now.”

EcoUrban Homes is dedicated to single-family housing in St. Louis, but in the current tight real estate market, the company also is working on multi-family housing and reaching out to other markets around the country.

“The house in Benton Park West is just one home,” Swoboda says, “and others are coming. But it’s more [about] that this can happen here in St. Louis, and an example has been set.”

Visit: ecourbanhomes.com.

Jenny (Hausman) Wooster, A.B. ’92, recently read that Vermont and New Hampshire lose 35 acres of tillable agricultural land to development a day, and that in Massachusetts the number is even higher. Concerned about the decline in farming communities, Jenny and her husband, Bruce Wooster, are doing their small part to preserve an agricultural way of life. Two years ago, they moved to Picadilly Farm, 70 acres near Winchester, New Hampshire.

Bruce and Jenny Wooster, A.B. ’92, pictured with daughter Beckley, own Picadilly Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture operation in Winchester, New Hampshire.

The Woosters also are concerned about the many issues, such as food safety, surrounding global food production these days. Therefore, they are dedicated to building a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm that provides freshly harvested produce to those in their surrounding area.

“We like the Community Supported Agriculture model because it’s really a partnership arrangement,” Jenny Wooster, an anthropology major, says. “Our customers are called shareholders. And basically we figure out our cost of production for the year and divide it by the number of shareholders we have, and this determines the cost per share. We also try to make the value of our share less than retail value for organic produce.”

In the farm’s first year, and growing on 20 acres, the Woosters had 80 shareholders on the farm, and several hundred at off-farm sites. Their five-year plan suggests growing on 30 acres to accommodate 600 shares in all.

While each CSA is run a little differently, Picadilly Farm offers shareholders during the growing season (April through November) 8 to 10 items of their own choosing of what’s been harvested that week. For shareholders who come to the farm, they can select everything from carrots, potatoes, and tomatoes, to watermelons, broccoli, and peppers. They also can choose from a pick-your-own garden of such staples as green beans, sugar snap peas, and strawberries, and selections from herb and flower gardens.

Some CSAs choose which items shareholders get each week, but Wooster says Picadilly Farm is cultivating long-term customers, and she wants them to be happy with their selections.

“Bruce and I do a lot of crop planning in the winter, and we’re constantly trying to improve, considering what our particular market here wants.”

The Woosters also are mindful of their farming methods and use only those that are sustainable. They are working toward USDA Organic Certification.

To their enterprise, they both bring 10 years of CSA farming experience. In particular, the two spent five years managing a 500-share CSA of The Trustees of Reservations, an old land trust in Massachusetts. There, the Woosters learned all aspects of starting a farm: from acquiring equipment, building greenhouses for propagation, putting in irrigation systems, and teaching apprentices, to marketing and building relationships with shareholders.

“We had a great opportunity to do what we’re doing now, in running our own business, without taking the financial risk ourselves,” Wooster says.

After such good preparation, the Woosters felt ready to operate their own farm. They found support for their business plan from Picadilly Farm’s previous owners, who were aging dairy farmers. And although the Wooster’s CSA mission is daunting, especially in an age of the industrial farm with overvalued land prices, they are determined.

“The CSA model has been around for about 20 years in the United States, and it has gained momentum in the last five years,” she says. “Several thousand operate around the country, with many of them in New England.”

Speaking to the growing trend, Wooster says: “We are seeing two demographics: families with young children and older people. For the older folks, I think they’re trying to stay healthy or trying to stay connected to farms in their communities, which are fewer and fewer. And for the young families—and we have a 2-year-old so we’re especially close to this group—I think they’re trying to stay connected to food production and also to each other.”

Although the high cost of the land is Picadilly Farm’s greatest challenge, Wooster is hopeful. “The local food initiatives are skyrocketing; we are seeing that with CSAs, farmers’ markets, and local food co-ops here in New England. So as a small farm right here right now, we’re well-poised to fill a growing need for local food.”

Visit: picadillyfarm.com.

Corporate America had Scott Royer, A.B. ’88, for 10 years before he realized he could build and sustain his own dream.

Scott Royer, A.B. ’88, is owner of Windfall Lumber in Olympia, Washington. Using salvaged wood or timber from forests managed in environmentally sustainable ways, Windfall Lumber produces flooring, molding, countertops and islands for kitchens, and timbers for building.

After graduating from the University, he worked in the mapping software industry in Boston and Chicago. Taking a job with a competitor a few years later, Royer transferred to Olympia, Washington.

In 1996, life and family circumstances caused Royer to re­consider how his work could become more significant in the short and long run.

“I looked at my corporate job and said, ‘I don’t want to wait around any longer to have fun and make a meaningful impact on society, as well as make a living.’”

So Royer, an economics major with a love of woodworking, quit his job and, after caring for his parents a few years, started a building salvage business in Olympia. His main focus was reducing waste and decreasing building materials in landfills.

He also helped Ian Hannah sell salvaged lumber, all while watching Hannah struggle to grow a business.

“Ian founded Windfall Lumber in winter 1996 after an ice storm felled numerous trees in the area,” Royer says. “He milled up the timber and sold it on a salvage basis.”

Hannah also had products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which guarantees a sustainably harvested wood product’s authenticity.

“Getting an FSC certification for a company was at the leading edge of the environmental movement in 1997,” Royer says. “Ian had a great idea and a great reputation, but he was ahead of his time and, unfortunately, ran out of capital.”

So when Hannah was ready to sell Windfall Lumber, Royer, a kindred spirit, was ready to buy.

“I thought, ‘OK, it could take another 5 to 10 years for the market to catch up, but if we capitalize correctly, we could turn this into something,’” he says. “So basically I bought a good idea, a name, a Web site, and contacts for $5,000.”

Today, Windfall Lumber is doing $1 million a year in business, manufacturing all its own products, and has 10 employees.

“We manufacture our own molding, flooring, and countertops, and we sell timbers for residential construction, largely from FSC-certified and reclaimed wood,” Royer says.

In the green building arena, he says, builders and customers want to know where the wood comes from—whether it is from a salvaged or reclaimed source, or whether it is from virgin timber that comes from forests managed in environmentally sustainable ways.

Windfall Lumber’s staples are flooring and molding, but the fastest-growing part of its business is custom wood countertops and kitchen islands.

“If you look in home magazines, all the talk is about wood countertops and wood islands,” Royer says. “And we make these not only architecturally beautiful, but with wood that is sustainably harvested.”

Windfall sells the countertops, which are designed and built in Olympia, to a wholesale distributor in Seattle.

“Another great thing is that we have the Windfall Lumber brand on every countertop,” he continues, “so that is helping us build brand recognition.”

With a burgeoning national demand, Royer is concerned about the company’s higher carbon footprint when using lumber from outside the area or shipping products across the country. And he considers such challenges when making business decisions, always keeping in mind more than just the financial bottom line.

“I need to run a business that adds more value than just economic value,” he says. “It needs to support, for example, family forests, and it needs to create good jobs, and it needs to exercise environmental stewardship.”

Asked about the future of “green” industries, he grows animated: “Green products—building products, food, houses—are no longer part of a niche industry. They will become, if they haven’t already in your community, an inherent part of what you buy. Within five years, sustainability will be incorporated in most consumer products.”

Visit: windfalllumber.com.

According to Lauren Padawer, A.B. ’00, she’s always done things differently, yet she also can be very down-to-earth. So much so that as founder of Alaska Glacial Mud Co., she actually collects mud from the Copper River to make her mineral-rich facial products.

Lauren Padawer, A.B. ’00, is founder and president of Alaska Glacial Mud Co., a mineral-rich facial products company in Cordova, Alaska. The St. Louis native caught the entrepreneurial bug while on a rafting trip down the Copper River.

How does a young alumna, who majored in both art and biology and who is originally from St. Louis, end up an entrepreneur in Cordova, a remote Alaska town? The answer: activism and a love of nature.

While an undergraduate, Padawer worked for such groups as the Student Environmental Action Coalition, the Jewish Environmental Institute of St. Louis, and the Blueprint for a Green Campus. She also created her own double major: sculpture and a self-initiated major in biology with an emphasis in ecology and evolutionary biology. Days after graduation, while considering graduate work in natural resources management, she joined with the Center for Environmental Citizenship, now called EnviroCitizen.

In Seattle for two weeks, she learned about running a referendum campaign. After training, Padawer surprisingly was assigned to work on an Alaska Conservation Voters initiative in Anchorage. The mission was to refute a ballot initiative that would have changed the way wildlife management policies are determined. So just weeks after graduation, Padawer was knee deep in Alaska wildlife politics.

During the internship, she worked with Glen “Dune” Lankard, founder of the Eyak Preservation Council, which works to preserve the cultural heritage and ancestral lands of the Eyak Tribe of the region. Lankard was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Planet” in 1999.

Padawer also joined the Eyak Preservation Council on a rafting trip. On this fated journey down the Copper River, she saw bear tracks and wild eagles, bathed in clear glacial water, and heard more times than she could count how “somebody should bottle this stuff”—“this stuff” being the plentiful glacial mud, which the Eyaks have bathed in for thousands of years.

The expression lay dormant in Padawer’s subconscious for some five years before finally taking root.

In the interim, her path was circuitous: After the three-month internship, she left Alaska for a year and lived in Massachusetts as an environmental camp counselor and as a fellow with the Jewish Organizing Initiative. She then returned to Cordova to work as a grant writer with Lankard at the council, still thinking that she’d go back to graduate school after a few years.

“I thought I’d get my master’s,” Padawer says, “because I’d come from a place of adjusting and fixing environmental problems. Then, here I was in a setting that is about preservation and about community—and I decided this is where I want my home to be.”

Padawer worked for the nonprofit a few years before taking a two-year position as a salmon biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and hanging fishing nets on the side.

“Government jobs can be great, but I kept thinking about this business idea,” she says. “I’d been doing research and working on a business plan, yet it took another few years before I was ready to take the plunge.”

In December 2005, Padawer entered a rural Alaska business competition and won some seed money; adding this to personal savings and a family loan, she incorporated Alaska Glacial Mud Co. in March 2006.

“I decided to start this business rather than use my savings to make a down payment on a house,” Padawer says. “My processing, warehousing, and distributing are all done below my apartment in a garage.

“And I’m resourceful: A friend of mine, a talented graphic designer, helped me with my logo. Another friend and a sister help with public relations. Another sister is a copyright attorney, and a young cousin helps with technical aspects of my Web site.”

So why Alaska Glacial Mud Co.?

“When I stepped into my first clear glacial pool, my feet just sank and sank. I thought it was extremely decadent,” Padawer says. “Our product is a very rich quality of mud comparable, or very competitive, to what is out there in the market or in the spas.”

And thinking about a growing spa culture combined with a trend toward organic products made a light bulb go off.

Never forgetting the activist in her, nor the supportive people of Cordova, Padawer pledges 10 percent of profits to the Copper River Delta area and to organizations working for its protection.

Visit: alaskaglacialmud.com.

Terri Nappier is editor of this magazine.