UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Spring 2009

Sustainable Style
Make your home greener—warmer, brighter, and prettier, too—with help from innovative alumni
Patricia Sullivan photos by John Solem

Katherine Ahern
Katherine Ahern ’77 connected her interests in business and art through the UMass Amherst University Without Walls.

Nature Illuminated

“I’ve always loved light. I despair when it goes away in winter,” says artist, designer, and entrepreneur Katherine Ahern ’77. She also loves the outdoors, so fittingly her business creates lamps and luminaries from saplings, vines, twigs, stones, and other natural materials.

Ahern launched Birch & Willow from her Boston studio in 1997. She works with organic recyclable supplies and environmentally conscientious manufacturing processes. Her one-of-a-kind pieces appear as if they have woven themselves through an interplay of light and shadows and the varied colors, textures, and thicknesses of the plants and hand-made paper she uses.

Birch & Willow pieces (aptly named for pods, roosts, and nests) light up fashionable restaurants, chic spas, and homes. The business has expanded considerably with the surging interest in green products, yet Ahern still harvests much of the materials herself. The bittersweet and grapevine in that striking sconce? It may have once grown on the unsightly edge of a Stop & Shop lot near you.

Alex Sajkovic
Stone stands the test of time better than any other building material, says Alex Sajkovic ’80, in his Northampton showroom.

Rocking Your World

Alex Sajkovic ’80 wants to raise the profile of stone as a green building material. “Stone is not a scarce resource,” he says. “We live on a blue and green spinning rock. It is not manufactured and it is minimally processed.”
Sajkovic’s passion for natural stone grew out of a serendipitous meeting with an Italian stone distributor and fabricator. (They were both driving Fiats.) He went to work as a stone salesman and eventually began importing. His San Francisco business, currently run by his wife, Rose M. Garcia, supplied stone for the homes of Nancy Pelosi, Robin Williams, Chris Isaak, and for the Galleria Dallas mall, Four Seasons hotels, and San Francisco’s deYoung Museum.
When Sajkovic returned to Massachusetts in 2005 to care for his ailing parents, he expanded ASN Stone to include a Chicopee warehouse and a Northampton showroom. For the most eco-friendly stone choice in New England, he suggests a dark green Vermont-quarried serpentine marble. “It’s harder than many granites and classically beautiful.”

Michelle Roberts '90

Healthy Homes

The key to a greener and healthier home, says Michelle Roberts ’90, is to build it tighter with proper ventilation. Some of the tightest homes around are modular houses with structural insulating panels (SIPs). “SIPs have two skins and a foam core and work on the same principle as a picnic cooler,” Roberts explains. “They keep you warm in winter and cool in summer.”

Because modular homes are built in sections in a factory and assembled on site they can be built tighter with less construction waste than standard wood framework houses. Roberts designed her Ecohealth homes in partnership with a modular manufacturer, a SIP manufacturer, and the National Center for Healthy Housing. Ecohealth homes are designed to be formaldehyde free with no or low-VOC (volatile organic compounds, which emit harmful fumes) adhesives and paints.

Roberts is a member of the Massachusetts Zero Net Energy Buildings Task Force, which is working on new greener construction standards. Her first Ecohealth home is now going up in Concord. “A lot of eyes will be watching this project,” she says. “It’s important to keep the eco-friendly home movement going even during difficult economic times.”


Cornering Warm Ideas

An interest in green building germinated for Mike Pepin ’97 during classes on energy-efficient construction. As an executive with Structural Systems, Inc., near Washington, D.C., he has integrated green standards into his company’s general line of building materials. “I’m the internal champion of green building,” he says. “We’ve seen our clients’ interest in using greener building materials grow as their residential customers request more sustainable and energy-efficient construction and as building codes change.”

Pepin pushes to promote SSI’s energy-saving home-building products. One such product, the “WarmerCorner,” is an innovative way to frame and pre-insulate building corners, notorious heat leakers. A second SSI product pre-insulates another cold spot, the walls behind bathtubs and showers. These are typically not well insulated because they must be framed early in the construction process to allow for installation of large tubs and shower enclosures. These two products can help homeowners save significant energy, says Pepin. More building improvements are in the pipeline.


The Kind of Power We Need

Dan Leary ’06G wrote his Isenberg School of Management master’s thesis (a plan for a green energy company) sitting in the middle of the desert in a tent while serving in the Army in Kuwait. Today, that company, North Andover-based Nexamp, has 25 employees and is expanding quickly. Nexamp’s clients “become their own clean utilities,” Leary explains.

The company has a broad scope: its employees design, build, maintain, and even find financing for the most energy-efficient and least polluting systems for commercial and government buildings and for homes. These include solar, wind, and geothermal energy systems as well as advanced LED lighting. Nexamp also supplies air source heat pumps, which can draw heat from the air, even at 10 degrees below freezing. For residential projects, Leary says, the greatest demand right now is for solar photovoltaic panels and geothermal heating systems.

Leary believes three criteria must be met for renewable energy systems to go mainstream. First, they have to work; second, they must be aesthetically pleasing; and third, they must be financially viable. “We have to prove why clean energy is a sound investment,” he says.



Life, Science, and Who Does the Dishes
The fine art of being a professional family.
From Wax to Wool
Life on the farm can humble even the most driven corporate executive.
French Connections
New documentary brings WWI ambulance drivers into sharp focus.
Sustainable Style
Make your home greener—warmer, brighter, and prettier too.
Staying in the Green
UWW to teach adult learners the new art of sustainable entrepreneurship.
Finishing Touches
Tales of an undertaker’s apprentice.
Horse Sense
Holding the reins at W. F. Young.
Nifty at Fifty
Highlights from “Nowhere Else But Here: 1958-2008.”
Saving Graces and Savvy Economics
Grateful alumni couple make a generous planned gift.
zip 99508
Jim Lavrakas ’74 spends three decades as a photographer for Alaska's biggest newspaper
UMass Clicks
Check out the amazing range of UMies online

UMass Amherst

© University of Massachusetts Amherst. Site Policies.

This site is maintained by University Advancement Communications.