Foodies have taken up the locavore movement. Could homeowners do the same with building materials? As she embarked on her own home-renovation project, one New Hampshire resident decided to find out.
A DOWN-HOME KITCHEN Birch flooring and maple cabinetry are made of wood logged in New England. Slate countertops and cherry and maple stools all hail from Vermont. (Photograph by Cheryl Senter)
The driver hands down a hard hat from the cab of his pickup truck and chuckles. “You came to the quarry in sneakers and a dress? Well, hop in.” Mike Blair, superintendent of the largest underground marble quarry in the world, noses the truck into a hole in the side of Mount Dorset. We leave the daylight behind. The truck’s headlights illuminate glittering walls of towering white stone.
“We can drive almost a mile and a half into the mountain from here,” Blair says as the truck bumps forward in low gear.
“Is that so?”
No wonder most people shop for their countertops in climate-controlled showrooms.
The reason I’ve descended into the depths of Vermont Quarries, under Danby, Vermont, is that I’d decided to “go local.” Renovating my home in Hanover, New Hampshire, I’d become confused by the overwhelming selection of “green” choices. So instead of teasing apart the pros and cons of each new high-tech product, I would furnish my home with ordinary things that had been mined, logged, and finished nearby. My theory was that if local sources were good for the neighborhood, I’d be able to see for myself. And with the New England economy in the doldrums, why wouldn’t I want to shop at home?
As a fan of local foods, I’d hoped it would be as simple as pushing a cart through Whole Foods and reading the labels. I would quickly learn that in the world of construction, the “organic”-versus-local debate had barely begun.
“We’ve been mining this same quarry – about 40 acres – since 1902,” Blair says with evident pride. Since the quarry is underground, diners down the road at the Country Kitchen may not even know it’s there.
Deep inside the main shaft, Vermonters on two shifts slice 20-ton blocks into slabs and polish marble tiles. The result is a high-quality product. Danby marble appears in the US Supreme Court Building, in Senate office buildings, and on headstones at Arlington Cemetery. It’s on buildings at Yale and Princeton.
Where you won’t find Danby marble, however, is at your local big-box home store. The marble for sale in those places is all imported, usually from Brazil. Marble is not the only local product to keep a low profile. I fell in love with Vermont slate. It’s common enough in the form of tiles, but few people know that it makes beautiful and sturdy slab countertops. And although I live in the Granite State, I have yet to find a tile showroom displaying New Hampshire granite.
As I made my way through my renovation shopping list, I found the same disconnect everywhere. Flooring showrooms carried a complete alphabet of wood choices: ash, birch, cherry, and on, down to zebrawood. But they were silent about its origins. Yet any 5-mile drive down our highway meant passing trucks loaded with timber. I began to have the urge to tail them like a spy.
Architect Pi Smith, of Smith & Vansant Architects in Norwich, Vermont, is familiar with the problem. “It used to be that ordinary people made do with local materials, while the rich and powerful imported exotic treasures. Think of Isabella Stewart Gardner and the Venetian windows she built into her Boston mansion.”
A hundred years later, the opposite economics apply. Cheap imported goods fill our showrooms. Discounters advertise flooring “direct from the jungle to your home!” But the local goods I sought tested my pocketbook as well as my patience. The retail establishment was not ready for me, or for my lengthy questions about the origins of cabinetry and ceramic tile.
“Locatecture” has not yet caught on.
Yet there’s hope that the winds of change might finally blow in my direction. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification – the gold standard for green buildings – is on an upswing. And one way to earn LEED points is to use materials from within 500 miles of a building site. That distance is too far for my tastes, but it’s forcing companies that want to compete in the green market to acknowledge that distance matters. Organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council have implemented track-back protocols that help customers learn the origins of lumber goods.
If you want to buy locally, it helps to be willing to experiment and to work with smaller companies. Eventually I found a manufacturer of birch flooring in nearby Western Massachusetts. And my floorboards are finished with a new Vermont product made from repurposed dairy whey instead of petroleum.
Reclaimed materials can be another boon in the Northeast, where we have less old-growth timber than exists out West. My dining table was built in Vermont of wood reclaimed from a barn.
“To find the best local products,” says Niko Horster, a project manager for builder O’Hara & Gercke, of Wilder, Vermont, “you have to get to know your community. Talk to the old-timers; it’s the only way to find out who has what. Maybe there’s a guy with beautiful old butternut boards lying in his barn.”
And you’ll need to be a little flexible with your color palette. Rob Malz, owner of Shaker Hill Granite Co. in Enfield, New Hampshire, has had clients change their minds about local products when they find the palette too limiting. “They’ll say, ‘That’s nice . . . but I wanted to go with black.’ ”
Yet when I laid out all my hard-won samples together, a gorgeous earthy color range emerged. The gray veins in the white marble were a nice complement to the gray-green slate. And abundant northeastern maple and birch provide a warm contrast to the stones’ cool tones.
“It’s the same as with food,” Horster explains. “Certain things do not grow locally. You have a good selection here, but you can’t have everything.” He makes the point that New England materials are already well adapted to this locale. Stone and wood that have survived the climate for centuries will likely continue to perform in your home.
To find these gems, be prepared to ask a lot of questions. The more frequently vendors are forced to identify their products’ origins, the faster those labels will appear in the store. In a few years’ time, it might be just as simple as choosing locally grown tomatoes.
Sarah Pinneo Boston Globe June 27, 2010