I grew up in Vermont where my parents never bought anything expensive. They were frugal Vermonters and abhorred debt. They bought things used when possible. They often found things cast off by others that were free. Our home was filled with things that were recycled. These things were not as shiny and beautiful as the new store-bought items would have been but in most cases they had stood the test of time. I must add a cautionary note here as you start reading about being "green." First it is not easy. With fossil fuels and new materials you just make a phone call, hit the switch, and pay the bill later. With alternative energy and recycled materials you work before, during, and after the process. Second, being "green" is not esthetically pleasing. Things are usually blemished. Dirt is part of the program. When heating with wood like we do, scrap wood, broken pallets, and mud are all part of the program.
My parents' home was filled with beautiful wool carpets that came from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in NYC, simply because my father asked one of the managers who vacationed in our little town, how often they changed the hotel carpet. The conversation lead to huge rolls of carpet that I picked up with my father at the train depot. My parents had no idea we were being green.
Before Robrick Nursery came into being, Mary and I had very little money. My primary work was training dogs. Needing to eat, we grew a garden which supplied 90% of our food, using mainly organic inputs. We were not organic growers because of some belief system but because this sort of material was available — cheaply or for free. A frugal way of life had been passed down from my parents. We had no great desire to be green or to save the planet. We just needed cheap food. We were being green but didn't even know it.
When we stumbled upon the Robrick Nursery property it came with an old mobile home, which we soon realized was not a suitable living space for us. Instead we constructed a Chiquee similar to those lived in by the Seminoles. We collected thousands of palm fronds and built a thick thatched roof that protected us from the elements. We found cypress hearts in our back pond that had been left behind by a logging operation long ago. These poles supported our new home without the use of pressure treated lumber.
For several years we enjoyed life in our thatched hut, but when our daughter, Robyn, was born we knew we needed more space. So we set out to build a larger shelter for our growing family based on the design concepts of the Chiquee. The shape of our new home was octagonal and the roof high, much like the Chiquee, allowing us to add vents to let heat escape. The walls and roof were thickly insulated with Styrofoam sheets similar to the insulation the palm fronds provided on the Chiquee. Our rafters were made of pine cut as we cleared a spot for the new home. Structural lumber was sawn at a local mill. The interior paneling was heart pine bead board salvaged from an old farm house and the exterior siding was slabs from the local mill. The windows came from the local VA hospital where they were discarded because they had weld spatter on them. Inside and out our home was built with salvaged parts…not much was new except for the nails. We never would have been LEED certified but we were truly GREEN. Because of our savings (both economically and environmentally), we were able to pay off the land and start Robrick Nursery.
As Robrick Nursery developed over the years a number of things happened that made the operation more GREEN than most. The nursery was not planned out from the start but rather it grew in response to customer demand. The growth was incremental and the structures were built as we needed them and could afford the time and money to build them. As a result of this haphazard growth there is green space between the buildings and there are detention ponds scattered about the property. The roads are permeable gravel rather than impervious asphalt or concrete. The gravel has all come from a plant that crushes used concrete so all our roads are recycled material. How GREEN is that?
A well planned modern greenhouse facility would be built on a cleared piece of ground that has been leveled and paved but Robrick is not like that. We have trees and palms scattered among the greenhouses. In fact there are a few persimmon, mulberry, and fig trees that yield fruit that the employees enjoy on their breaks. Most of the employee parking area as well as our truck and trailer parking area is grassed. Over the years these grass parking areas have been carefully graded so they do not retain water and become muddy. There is additional green space retained where we graze cows and horses.
As the number of greenhouses grew so did the need for ways to move material around the nursery. We considered a monorail system but because the houses were at slightly different elevations this didn't seem like the best idea. My old friend, Jimmy Hylton, a very creative guy who usually directs his creative juices into street rods, came by and said "why don't I build you some carts that you can push from house to house?" He built a couple of carts that were narrow enough to go down any aisle and which could pivot in their own length. These carts were light weight but we needed something for the shelves that was tough, moisture, resistant, and light weight. The Pepsi plant was right across the street from Jimmy's shop and the guy that repaired the Pepsi vending machines would hang out with Jimmy. He said "why not use drink machine fronts?" Drink machine fronts are Lexan. They are incredibly tough to withstand vandals and thieves trying to smash their way to the coin box. In addition, whenever the Pepsi company rolls out new product they change the entire piece of Lexan because the graphics are printed on the inside and cannot be removed. We had our shelf material and we were keeping it out of the landfill. Before we were done I went to the main Pepsi repair center in Tampa and got a couple of TONS of drink machine fronts. We used them for all sorts of things from work table tops to stop signs around the nursery. The Pepsi logo has been much in evidence around Robick Nursery but better there than in the landfill. Pepsi drink machine fronts don't look very GREEN but when they are re-used it is VERY green.
Over the 20 year history of Robrick Nursery a number of structures have been built but all the old ones have been kept up and reused in various ways. It might make more sense to tear down and build new but not from the standpoint of being green. It is never green to destroy building materials and then consume new materials. Even the nasty old mobile home that we first lived in when we bought the property is still in existence. It is in rough shape as you might imagine but it been moved out of sight and is used to store frost cloth. The Chiquee and the Octagon have served along the way as our office and more recently they have housed various family members and key nursery employees.
The most recent example of salvage and reuse of a building is the Church Barn. We actually saved a church in Gainesville from the landfill and reconstructed it as a horse barn on FloridaSun Farm. It took me and 2 helpers 3 weeks to dismantle and move this 8000 square foot structure. Fourteen soaring laminated wood arches and 9000 square feet of double tongue and groove roof decking were saved. The construction of this beautiful barn is certainly the crowning achievement in our many years of conserving and reusing materials.