Startup ShelterWorks

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The beginning of the Great Recession wasn’t exactly the best time to launch a startup tied to the construction industry. But how were Thomas Van Denend and Paul Wood, co-owners of ShelterWorks Ltd. in Philomath, supposed to know that Oregon’s building industry would crumble only a year after they opened for business? Pursing niche markets, creating new products and nurturing a friendship that has endured since the 1980s helped them move from lean times to what looks like a period of real growth.

ShelterWorks Ltd. makes a green building product called Faswall, which was developed in Europe and brought to the United States by a Swiss architect in 1987. The technology mixes concrete with shredded wood and pours it into molds to form blocks. The two-foot-by-one-foot forms look similar to cinderblocks but have interlocking ends that can be put together like Legos. Concrete is poured down the centers to help with insulation.

photo by Dave Bassett

The result, Wood says, is extremely well insulated but still breatheable buildings, providing excellent energy efficiency as well as good indoor air quality. Faswall is nontoxic and made with 60 percent recycled materials. If cinderblock-chic isn’t your thing, buildings can be finished using traditional materials. Stucco is a good choice for the exterior, while the interior can receive coats of plaster. Faswall is most commonly used in homes, but the blocks can also be used for warehouses, retail centers, even wine cellars.

Wood and Van Denend’s relationship goes back many years and miles. They met in 1982 while living in Maine, where they worked together on the state’s first Habitat for Humanity house. They went their separate ways but kept in touch over the years. The next time they saw each other was on the opposite side of the country, in Oregon, where Van Denend was living and Wood was on a business trip. They met and discovered they were both thinking about quitting their jobs. They didn’t talk of a joint venture while they were together, Wood says, but as he was driving to the airport, he called his friend and said, “I’ve got a crazy idea. Let’s start a business.”

Van Denend was all for it, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He’d been fascinated by alternative building materials since he was a teenager and knew Wood shared his interest. “We agreed that we would research and go after a very good green building product that we could believe in,” Van Denend, 57, says.

They looked into several products before finding Faswall. ShelterWorks purchased the technology in April 2006. An Oregon Department of Energy loan for companies working to reduce energy consumption helped with startup costs. By April 2007, they were shipping their first blocks. Orders were steady that first year, and Van Denend and Wood were certain they’d found a real winner.

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photo by Dave Bassett

Then the recession hit, and the construction industry came to a halt. “We spent the next six years treading water,” Van Denend says.

Two things saved them. Interest in do-it-yourself projects picked up during the recession, and the home building market was no exception. They continued to see steady business from people interested in building their own homes even though the commercial market had dried up.

Van Denend also decided to go after another sector that thrived during the recession. “I told Paul, what’s hot right now is gardening,” he says. “People are gardening like there’s no tomorrow.” He created GreenBeds, which are raised garden beds made from Faswall’s concrete-wood mix. The easy-to-assemble kits are long-lasting, and the nontoxic building material won’t leech chemicals into the soil.

“GreenBeds is a great example of the saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention,’” Van Denend says. “If we hadn’t had a recession, the product wouldn’t exist.”

This year looks to be ShelterWorks’ breakout. The company plans to add three temporary staff members to a staff of seven this summer. Even though things are looking up, Van Denend says they are still growing cautiously. “After everything we went through, you wonder if your success is self-sustaining, whether it’s a trend or a blip,” says Van Denend.

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photo by Dave Bassett

Still, he and Wood have no regrets about their decision to venture into the entrepreneurial world of startups together. “We trust each other and know we’re both hard-working people,” Wood says. “That’s been key to our success.”

Van Denend also attributes ShelterWorks’ success to working with a product he believes in. “Homeowners call us up all the time and tell us they love the feel of their homes,” he says. “It’s very satisfying. I feel like we’re contributing to the greater good.”

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