I want to share with you the story of two men, who grew up across an ocean from each other, randomly met as teenagers and ended up starting a business together founded on good design, health and sustainability. Johnny Hartsfield and Swen Grau (along with partners Joe Mitter and Dirk De Pree) make it their mission to provide well-designed, non-toxic, and earth-friendly homes to as many people as possible at Greenfab in Seattle.
Johnny, the founder along with his co-founder Swen, have created a business that provides all of these things to homeowners through modular, pre-fabricated homes. Making homes in their local, Washington-based, factory allows them to keep their clients' homes dry and mildew-free, which building outside in the Pacific Northwest elements can rarely provide. This improves the health of their homes, as does the use of non-toxic materials throughout their structures.
Building inside a factory allows them to make homes more affordable, and to properly re-use and recycle materials. Most all of the excess in supplies from one of their projects gets saved for use in another project. The factory setting makes it easy to find all discarded pieces, which would normally either get buried on the construction site or be taken to a dumping facility.
Additionally, pre-fabricated homes need to have much more intense state-inspections than houses built on-site to make sure that they won't collapse during transportation. So, the construction is of much higher quality because they are legally required to be!
Greenfab works with you to find the best design that will save energy and money, help you find your land, figure out your costs, build your home, and install it. The building process takes about half the time (about three months for 2,000 square feet) as building a house on-site and they give you a neat app to check on the progress of your home being built in the factory! You get to visit the factory, meet the people who are working on your home, and the workers get to see whom they're building for.
Needless to say, I'm really excited about this company and got to sit down to chat with co-founder, Swen Grau, about how this amazing idea started and developed into what it is today. I asked Swen how he and Johnny met since Swen grew up on Lake Geneva in Switzerland and Johnny grew up in the small city of Snohomish, Washington.
"That's an interesting question," he says with a pause before telling me the serendipitous story of how they met when he was 16 years old. His parents recommended that he get out of Switzerland for a bit while they went through a divorce and gave him a choice of Germany, England or the U.S. to practice a secondary language. He ended up choosing the U.S. based on his exciting perceptions of Los Angeles and New York, being bored with the German language and what he knew about England's food. He thought he would get to go to LA or New York...
Swen: "And then my parents were like, 'you're going to go to Snohomish.'"
Me: (Laughing) "How did they choose Snohomish?"
Swen (in a very dry tone you could hear him using as a teenager): "Because we had some friends over there."
After laughing over the fact that his parents basically duped him, we talk further about how he had no idea where Seattle even was, let alone, the very small city of Snohomish. Even worse, the people he would be staying with wanted him to meet the kid down the street like one of those awkward, arranged friendships that parents try to set up that never work out. Apparently, Johnny felt the same way about being forced to hang out with the new kid from who-knows-where and to drive him to school in the morning.
Swen: "I stepped into that car, and since that day we became best friends."
When Swen moved back to Switzerland, they would take turns visiting each other over the years and always wanted to do business together someday. He explained how Johnny's passion for sustainability and taking care of the Earth was fostered during his upbringing in Snohomish as he grew tired of seeing "a whole bunch of forests, trees being cut down just to accommodate large-scale development" in his neighborhood. Johnny had a passion for design and nature and wanted to find a way to implement good design in order to take better care of nature. While Swen was living in the mountains of Switzerland getting a degree in architecture, Johnny went on to study environmental science and then get a Masters in landscape architecture at the University of Washington. Living in the city of Seattle during school he became frustrated with large-scale development taking away parts of nature and replacing it with "cookie-cutter" homes.
After school in Switzerland, Swen was the "director of the largest real estate marketing company in Switzerland," where they printed a ton of magazines and he came to a point when he was feeling really bad about the amount of waste that they were creating. Swen: I was talking with my wife and we were at the time where we felt like... it might be time to do something different. Do something that we feel better about and trying to have as minimal impact on our future as we can (that was the time where we had our first son).
So he and Johnny began talking about housing and how the modular home concept would improve the effects of housing on the environment. Through this concept, they wanted to "diversify what was available in terms of housing" for people. Something that "will be more respectful" to nature and the environment. Swen explains that this was probably the worst time to start a business (when the economy crashed around 2008) but that they were determined to "make some something happen" for the betterment of the world and their own peace-of-mind.
Swen and his wife, Lauriane, decided that if they were going to move overseas, it would be the best time to do it with their kids still being little and not in school yet. With the loving support of their family and friends, they took the risk and moved to Seattle so that Swen could start Greenfab with Johnny. Through the struggles of the crashed economy, being ahead of the area and times in thinking about the earth, they've come to find clients who understand the importance of having a non-toxic home that creates a minimal impact on the earth's resources.
Swen: "People care about what they eat because they know it's gonna have an effect on them, so now people understand the way you live... if you spend 8, 10, 12, 14 hours per day in a specific environment... it can cause damage to you."