By George Harvey
Eli Gould, founder of PreCraft, embarked on an unusual career path while he was a student in college. His decision to do a dual major in architecture and forestry was met with an incredulous question from the administration at Yale, who asked, “What do they have to do with each other?” Nevertheless, Gould prevailed on the issue, and got the specific educational foundation he wanted.
It is noteworthy that the combination of architecture and environmental studies has been established as a standard field since his time. In fact, Gould was invited back to Yale to address students who had followed in his footsteps.
After graduating, he returned to his hometown of Brattleboro, Vermont where he quickly started working with architectural woodworking. He started Ironwood Brand in 1994, as a sawmill and woodworking business.
“We began returning to the idea that your whole project should represent the consistent values that are most important to you,” Gould says. Though Ironwood Brand has specialized in custom built residential envelopes, the underlying philosophy implies looking at a bigger picture. From land, site and forestry planning, through residential design and architectural millwork manufacturing, the operation has focused more on management services that help people to make good choices.
In time, Gould went more and more into custom prefabrication, manufacturing building components in a shop, under controlled conditions, so they could be assembled into homes in the field. This was because of the large part of the costs of a well-made building are in carpentry.
As prefabrication became more important, Gould decided to open PreCraft, as vertically integrated, focused and specialized division of Ironwood. Gould loves working with wood, partly because it is much better for the environment than other materials. Prefabrication allows improving construction standards without cutting corners while paying good wages to employees. PreCraft is focused on prefabrication of unique, custom modules, as opposed to panelized or modular.
One of the more widely known residents of the Brattleboro area is Alex Wilson, who is the founder and executive director of Building Green, publisher of Environmental Building News (EBN). Recently, he decided to renovate an old farm in Dummerston, Vermont. The project involved a “deep energy retrofit,” and since the work was followed by EBN’s readers, it was performed under close scrutiny of as many industry peers as cared to be involved. They commented on just about every choice made, from construction methods to the specifications of components. Since the retrofit was very extensive, they had a lot to say.
Wilson chose Ironwood and PreCraft to work on the project, and so they got a lot of national attention from people in the trades. The attention began before work started on the project; because energy use results continue to be compiled, it will doubtless continue after the project was completed.
Alex Wilson also started the Resilient Design Institute. It has brought together a number of people who contribute to continuing work in related areas of resilient living. Commenting on this and the nature of other businesses in and around southern Vermont, Gould points out the extraordinary importance of the region as a hub and model for development of new ideas. Certainly, Ironwood Brand and PreCraft have achieved a level of national acclaim as green builders.
One goal Gould wishes to keep in mind is to create local jobs. His businesses won top private ranking from Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies to recover lost jobs in Vermont. The use of native lumber in engineered structures is potentially a great employment opportunity.
Thinking of increasing area employment, and also noting also that national companies need to know how their products work with those of other companies when they are used together, Gould has seen an opportunity. He is thinking about a rapid prototyping center for well coordinated systems. This has great potential to bring about its own improvements in a well engineered whole house system. He says one thing he would like to work on is tapes for air barriers in buildings. Another is testing different cold-climate heat pumps.