BRATTLEBORO >> By spring, Ironwood Brand president Eli Gould hopes to be assembling buildings in his new facility.
"It's been a real community effort to make this happen," he said of the project aimed also at bringing in companies to learn about high performance building. "Because we're not really a high margin business. We do a lot of business but we're definitely stretching to do this."
Ironwood is known for its prefabrication and value-added timber and engineering. The company has always used native lumber, starting out mostly as timber framers. They still use local tree species. But in recent years, they have gotten a reputation for green or energy efficient building.
At a ribbon cutting ceremony Monday, Gov. Peter Shumlin and local officials met with Gould at O'Bryan Drive in Brattleboro to celebrate the purchase of a facility where prototyping and testing for the green building industry will take place. Planning and permitting is currently underway.
"This is exactly the type of private sector project the Windham County revolving loan fund is meant to assist," said Shumlin, according to a press release. "(Gould) will create new jobs in the green building sector and when his loan is paid back, funds will be available for future job creation projects in Windham County."
Ironwood's Advanced Practice, Testing, and Integration Shop is being created with assistance from the Windham County Economic Development Program, which came about with the closure of the Vernon-based nuclear plant Vermont Yankee through an agreement between its owner Entergy and the state. Ironwood was given one of the first loans through the program in the amount of $200,000, which will be paid back in full.
"It's a mixed loan package to help us stretch into a building that needed some work, too. We also leaned on our good clientele and our good reputation so we'd have a little bit of money to renovate the building and make a showroom and an office, and do some manufacturing setup," said Gould, who had past clients assist with extending his line of credit and borrowed from his prime lender Brattleboro Savings & Loan. "In our case, it helped us actually buy a facility. We call it the first phase because buying an old warehouse doesn't make this whole thing work and we're not patting ourselves on the back. We know we have a lot of work to do."
The money was "key and super helpful," said Gould, who wants to make other local businesses aware of the opportunities available through the program. The process has become easier since the program was first established. A letter of intent will let a business owner know whether their qualified to move further in the application process. And R.T. Brown at Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation is out looking for projects for the program.
The Ironwood shop was listed as the top ranked private sector project in the Windham County region's Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies, a federally recognized document completed in 2013. And it's seen as a way to keep highly trained people in the area given the job losses associated with Vermont Yankee's closure.
"With the way that mechanical systems and engineering and technical services within home building is going, some of our most valuable employees have come from a background that was more technical than home building," said Gould. "It's not going to be easy to say we're going to be able to pay them what they were making at VY but they can build a career and be part of something incentivized and not have to travel far."
Bonuses are available to the Ironwood team made up of as many as 12 people. Gould said he likes to offer employees the opportunity to grow and have a career.
Ironwood will reach its highest payroll amount this year, paying out close to $500,000. But Gould has not yet been able to offer health insurance.
Gould left Brattleboro to go to "a fancy school" — Yale University — where he obtained an architecture and forestry degree. He said he had to fight to get that approved because school officials felt the two areas had nothing to do with each other. They've since called him back, saying they have a mainstream track now. He's visited with students going down the same path and Ironwood is assisting with building there.
Gould ultimately returned to the area although he never planned to and he is involved in civics.
"I have probably made more choices to keep my business here even in the face of some long odds," he said. "Because we're known as problem solvers, we like to joke that we always get plenty of problems but we actually get the most challenging jobs."
Ironwood always tries to find at least some portions of a job to do in a shop rather than on site, said Gould. His team will look at a particular project or site before making the decision on how to proceed, sometimes using a mix of items such as kits, panelized walls and modular rooms.
By working this way, Gould said Ironwood is able to have a lot of different pieces of a larger job work well together while reducing insurance risks. This has helped the company grow even as construction jobs got tougher to find.
"We usually end up doing a lot of building for a fairly small group of guys. Even on our local jobs, we bring in some prefab and we design things with a 3D CAD/CAM software," Gould said, referring to computer design programs. "It's not especially profitable but it keeps a great group of guys employed year round and makes our buildings more affordable and have more quality."
Then there's the range of projects.
Local jobs see Ironwood developing their systems and processes or creating new ones. Helping neighbors, Gould said, keeps the company humble too.
Ironwood will do prefabrication for the larger regional market. Being here rather than Northern Vermont allows them to more easily export to places in Cape Cod, Mass., or New Haven, Conn.
"We're using Vermont materials and talents to build things that are really valuable and taking them into markets where they can pay that premium," said Gould. "I think that's a bigger growth market for us than thinking we're going to fill Southern Vermont with houses."
Window trim kits were introduced as a new line this year. Ironwood will prefabricate everything around a window then put in high performance windows from the inside. Their process only takes a few hours, said Gould, where others' may take days and weeks.
But Ironwood is not so much a product vendor as a system developer, and it can offer a learning experience. That's why the new facility will include training space in addition to the office and shop.
"We feel there's some national manufacturers who may want to send people here to work on multi product system development," Gould said. "We think that would be great for the region. I think business tourism and business conference travel is really key here."
Since Vermont is not overregulated in terms of building codes, Gould has what he calls the freedom to innovate. He has built "super insulated" walls, roof assembles and mechanical systems that would not be possible in more conventional homes or places with heavier codes like Massachusetts.
"We need to be proud of our freedom to innovate here and use that as our draw for companies who may have great products built to higher standards that are being blocked," said Gould, noting big challenges for businesses in Vermont include high prices for building and insurance but also the lack of high earning power.
Years ago, his company won a business plan contest hosted by the BDCC. The blueprint is still relevant, said Gould, whose company uses small business counseling services offered through the credit corporation.
With a hand from the Vermont Procurement Technical Assistance Center, Ironwood was able to win a contract with the state. The company is serving as a wood products consultant on a $20 million lab project in Randolph.