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Stars of Sustainability

Reacquaint yourselves with nine of Alabama’s outstanding leaders in sustainablility—from land conservation to haute couture.

Art Dyas, a founder of the Coastal Land Trust.

Art Dyas, a founder of the Coastal Land Trust.

Photo by Dan Anderson

Steve Richerson: Teaching & Talking Trash

Amid the smell of sawdust and cotton candy at a fairground, a bearded man in patched blue jeans and a top hat shuffles a deck of improvised playing cards cut from a discarded poster. He fans them out before a knot of spectators, stacks them, folds them in half and unfolds them. The worthless paper is gone, replaced by a stack of crisp dollar bills. For more than 25 years, Steve Richerson—better known as Steve Trash—has traveled the world, entertaining crowds while educating them in his mantra of sustainability—reduce, reuse, recycle.

“I love thinking up tricks that illustrate sustainability,” says the self-styled Rockin’ Eco Hero. “I simplify the concept so that someone who doesn’t care not only gets the point, but ends up laughing till his tummy hurts.”

Richerson always wanted to be an illusionist. The day after receiving his degree in theater from the University of North Alabama, he headed to New York City and spent the next few years as a street performer. Always interested in ecology and the environment, Richerson transformed himself into Steve Trash and now takes his eco-oriented act from Greenland to Australia.

“I spend 200 days a year on the road performing in schools, theaters and fairs,” he says. “It’s my passion to get the word out any way I can. The premise of everything that I do is that garbage is just a natural resource. The earth provides all the resources we need to live, as long as we use them wisely. That’s what the whole sustainability movement is about.”

One of his gags is the Magic Recycler, which turns old rags into new clothes. In his Ted the Tennis Ball routine, a beat up tennis ball comes alive and flies around the room. To dramatize the water cycle of nature, our Eco-Hero conjures up water from thin air, fills a can, then makes it vanish and fill another can. The Environmental Education Association of Alabama recently recognized Richerson’s efforts at spreading the word on sustainability by giving him its Best Environmental Education Program award for 2011.

Besides his touring show, Richerson has other ways to promote sustainability. He markets the Official Steve Trash Green Magic Set and has a Trash TV series in the works. Living in an energy efficient, earth-bermed home in Frog Pond, Ala., population 76, Richerson is a founding member of Keep the Shoals Beautiful, an organization dedicated to waste reduction and litter prevention. When it comes to sustainability, Steve Trash not only talks the talk, he lives it.

Art Dyas: Wetlands Preservation

Mention wetlands to some people and they envision snake-infested, mosquito-ridden wastelands that ought to be filled in. Not so for Art Dyas, a founder of the Coastal Land Trust, an organization promoting the conservation and preservation of the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta wetlands.

“What we have come to understand is that they play a massive part of the economic health of south Alabama,” he says. “It’s the driving force to our seafood industry, the nursery ground for the fish and shellfish.”

The turning point for Dyas came in 1981, when he saw a slide show presentation by his friend Dave Morine, a Boston based conservationist, on the devastation of the Hackensack Meadowlands in New Jersey.

“At the time, I was president of the Mobile County Wildlife and Conservation Association,” Dyas recalls. “It really made an impression on me. The Corps of Engineers was attempting to fill in one of our smaller bays, called Polecat Bay, and use it for a soil disposal site for dredging. After a number of meetings and a tremendous amount of effort, we finally came to a settlement whereby they would reclaim some of their existing soil disposal sites so that they did not have to fill Polecat Bay.”

Not everyone responded as Dyas did to this issue.

“When Dave Morine went to Baldwin County and made a similar presentation, they all but ran him out of town on a rail,” Dyas recalls. “They thought this was going to be some big government program that would take the land and nobody would be able to use it. That was never the intent, but we realized that if we were going to be successful conserving wetlands, we would have to have local people pull the wagon. That was the beginning of the Coastal Land Trust.”

To date the trust has acquired about 40,000 acres of wetlands and adjoining land. Most of the wetlands are set aside as a preserve in the Forever Wild program, but much of the higher ground is managed with controlled burning and selected timber harvesting.

“We’re not anti-development in any form or fashion,” Dyas says. “Our philosophy is only to limit to some degree the development in critical habitats that are beneficial to the health of the entire Mobile-Tensaw Delta. For example, the delta acts as a filter for water coming from upstate. Clean water in Mobile Bay and the Gulf is important to our seafood industry and our tourism industry. Without clean water, we cannot have sustainable, long-term development.”

James Byrne and Wayne Sisco: Preservation Development

In 2007, James Byrne and Wayne Sisco began the ultimate recycling project in Huntsville—turning an abandoned, 200,000-square-foot textile mill into the centerpiece of a sustainable neighborhood. For owner James Byrne, the Lincoln Mills development came about unexpectedly. “I was looking for an investment and thought this was a cool building,” he recalls. “My initial plan was to gut it and fill it with condominiums. Then Wayne came to me with a different idea.”

Sisco was a Huntsville native and UAB graduate who had been working in Atlanta revamping old buildings, until he tired of the hectic pace and returned to his hometown. Instead of tearing out much of the old buildings, he suggested retaining as much as possible and converting it to mixed use rental space—residential units, offices, businesses, schools, even a theater.

“This is a dream project for me,” Sisco says. “The concept is to create, as much as possible, a village with a little bit of everything. I told Jim that I knew how to do it and could do it for half the cost he was considering.”

The Lincoln Mills project embraces the idea of urban agriculture. “We are planting Asian pears around the perimeter,” Sisco says. “They are just as pretty as Bradford pears but give you fruit. We have a hydroponic garden in the back that we irrigate with collected rainwater.”

The parking lot in front of the old dye house is a good example of Byrne and Sisco’s philosophy on sustainable development, being green in more ways than one. Instead of asphalt, a thick layer of grass covers the surface. Interspersed in long rows are raised bed planters constructed from recycled “urbanite,” broken concrete recovered from the buildings’ renovation.

In some ways, Sisco’s idea is a revival of the original Lincoln Mill community where workers lived near the site, shopped locally and had their own gardens and milk cows. Lincoln Mills has no plans to start a dairy, but it does have several chickens and a pair of goats on site. A number of tenants already have joined the development, including Greengate School, Straight to Ale Brewery, and ADS Corp.

Mac and Gina Walcott: Showcase Market

The name The Windmill Market brings up images of an old fashioned Dutch windmill in the countryside. But Mac and Gina Walcott’s market is located in Fairhope, Ala., and their windmill is a high tech wind turbine generating electricity for a unique market that is part general store, part mini-mall and part demonstration piece for sustainable living.

“We have a grocery, a restaurant, and an odd eclectic mix of venders,” says Mac. “All inside a building based on sustainable principles.”

One component of those principles is the market’s location. “We’re one block off the beaten path in downtown Fairhope,” says wife and business partner Gina. “We want to be part of a walkable community where you don’t have to drive 10 miles to buy a gallon of milk.”

As architects and green building consultants, the Walcotts put their training to good use in the design of The Windmill Market, but they did not originally intend to build a showcase for sustainable living.

“We bought the building to use as our architecture office,” says Mac. “But when we started the renovation, we decided it was too small. We found another building for our office and put the first one back on the market. It didn’t sell.”

Remembering that friends had often told them about how they would like to have an open-air market, the Walcotts took the idea and combined it with their interest in sustainable living to turn the empty building into The Windmill Market, incorporating principals of sustainability.

To lower energy use, they extended the roof with awnings to give shade in the summer but still allow light through the windows. The wind turbine and solar panels provide power, while heating and cooling is furnished by a variety of eco-friendly means—geothermal HVAC system, oversized fans, and recovered waste heat from appliances. In the bathrooms, sensors cut off electric lights when no one is using them and captured rainwater is used to flush the toilets. Water from the hand washing sinks is treated naturally by percolating through a “gray water garden.” The building itself has become an educational showpiece for sustainability.

“We host about one field trip a month,” says Mac. “We had 250 fourth graders come through a couple of weeks ago, and we had fun explaining to them that, when they design their house 15 years from now, a lot of the things they see here will be the normal way to build.”

Chris Giattina: Efficient Designs for Finite Resources

Chris Giattina’s firm, Giattina Aycock Architecture Studio, designs structures from the ground up, combining timeless principles of energy efficiency with the latest high technology to produce a unique vision of a sustainable future.

“It’s a simultaneous high-tech, low-tech thing,” Giattina says. “If you don’t do the basic principles right, then there’s not enough high tech in the world to fix it.”

A good example of this mix is found in the Homewood Middle School, the first middle school in the U.S. to earn a silver certification from the Leadership in Energy Efficiency and Environmental Design green building rating system. A well-chosen orientation allows the maximum amount of light to enter the windows through the south and north sides, giving cool day lighting to the interior. This low-tech approach to lighting is combined with a computer system, which monitors the light levels and automatically adjusts the electric lighting to keep illumination at the proper level, producing a 40 percent reduction in power use.

Another Giattina Aycock project, the commons building at the Children’s Zoo, in Birmingham, adapts the traditional Southern dogtrot breezeway design to improve ventilation and cooling during warm weather.

Giattina is active as a team leader in an American Institute of Architects program, which offers grants to cities with serious structural problems. This work led to a local spin-off at his firm.

“We started a research project called the Birmingham Framework, to optimize city planning,” he explains. “Since the data we needed on population density, transportation, etc. was so scattered, we created a grant to bring in a graduate student to assemble this raw data and create a computer program to analyze it, so we would know where to act. It’s an ongoing program. In fact, I doubt it will ever end.”

Whether working on the micro- or the macro-level, Giattina’s philosophy is driven by the idea of sustainability. “I’m not a tree hugger by a long shot,” he says. “I am someone who believes that the strategic use of finite resources—human, natural or man-made—is absolutely essential. We are in a very competitive world, and we need to do the best we can with the few things at hand.”

Andrew Freear: Sustainability Headmaster

Since 2002, Andrew Freear has been director of Auburn University’s Rural Studio program, training students to design and build everything from churches to produce stands, while keeping within the tenets of sustainability.

“In architecture education these days, there is a lot of speculation about what we can do,” he says. “At the Rural Studio, the question we try to ask and solve is what we should do. What is the right thing to do?”

One project which challenges students to do the right thing on a limited budget is the $20 K House, which strives to provide high quality, low cost housing to rural families of modest means.

“In a nutshell, this is a small, affordable house that is durable, well built and will last a long time,” Freear explains. “It won’t fall down after 25 years. We expect that these houses will still be around after 150 years.”

Many design features are borrowed from old antebellum houses: shady porches, windows that maximize cross ventilation, and high ceilings that allow hot air to rise in the summer, leaving cooler air in the living space below. To reduce utility costs, air conditioning is avoided in favor of ceiling fans.

“We practice sustainability with a small ‘s,’” Freear says. “We think you can do pretty good things with smart, common-sense choices. You don’t have to rely on fancy gadgets and gismos.” The Rural Studio emphasizes using local products as construction materials—sometimes using old tires and tree trunks—and recycles and reuses as much as possible. In the 2002 redesign of the Antioch Baptist Church in Perry County, the Rural Studio tore down the old church, but then used 75 percent of those materials to construct the new church.

Freear’s concept of sustainability extends far beyond the structures themselves, including finding alternative strategies for financing. He also spends a lot of time educating groups around the world on how to build organizations that can efficiently carry out such projects, work that led to his nomination in 2008 as laureate of the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture.

“Programming is really important,” Freear stresses. “Understanding what it takes to run a program, how much money you need, how many people you need to hire—the sustainability of organizations. We offer an awful lot of help with things like that.”

Natalie Chanin: Sustainable Is How to Do Business

Within the textile industry, Natalie Chanin has an unusual business model. Ten years ago, at a time when companies were shutting down operations in the United States and shifting manufacturing overseas, Chanin opened a textile business in her hometown of Florence.

Instead of producing cheap, mass produced clothes, Chanin follows the credo of “slow design,” producing high quality, hand-stitched garments.

“When an entire garment can be produced from start to finish, then sold for a profit with a price tag of $9.99, there’s a good chance that there was suffering along the way,” Chanin says. “Cheap clothes often come at a very high price. The exploitation of the workers that create the garments, along with the continual poisoning of the earth with toxic materials, is horrific. I think sometimes there is a misconception that you have to sacrifice to live and create responsibly. We believe that luxury, quality, and responsibility get along quite beautifully.”

Chanin’s company, Alabama Chanin, designs its own clothing and custom manufactures them using organically grown cotton from the United States and seamstresses in and around the Shoals area. Not only her products, but also her design studio displays an eco-consciousness. Revamped from an old textile facility, “The Factory” is largely furnished with recycled materials.

“Our furniture is re-purposed whenever possible,” Chanin says. “The nine-foot ‘couch’ that serves as our studio’s center piece is constructed from tiny scraps of fabric bailed together, and most of our interior walls are made from large panels of organic fabric.”

Chanin sees education as part of her role as entrepreneur. “I lecture constantly about our unique business model,” she says. “We also host studio days and workshops where people work alongside our team to gain intimate knowledge about our entire production process. Guests spend a weekend with us here at the factory and learn every detail about the business. I encourage people to create their own garments or support local sewers in their community. I believe in our model and would love to see it implemented in other cottage industries. We also travel, talking about our business and our techniques in cities across the U.S.”

William Stevenson is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Huntsville.

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