stories of sustainability: American Clay


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An interview with American Clay founder Carol Baumgartel.

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stories of sustainability: American Clay

  1. 1. american clay 1 stories of sustainability: American Clay On July 27, 1976 members of the American Legion gathered at the Bellevue Strattford Hotel in Philadelphia, PA to celebrate the American Bicentennial. Within just two days, veterans began falling ill with an unidentified ailment similar to pneumonia. By the end of the event, more than 220 attendees were treated for similar ailments and 34 eventually died. A six month investigation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finally discovered the culprit - a bacteria breeding in a hotel cooling tower. As a kid growing up in New Jersey less then 60 miles from Philadelphia, I vividly recall the excitement of the Bicentennial summer and the 1976 American Freedom Train, along with the shock and horror of what would later be known as Legionnaires Disease. For more than six months, no one had an answer for what had mysteriously killed so many. It also had a profound impact on Carol Baumgartel, the founder of American Clay. During a recent interview she told me how this event initiated a radical shift in her thinking and a greater sensitivity to the presence of toxins in typical indoor environments. In 1999, Carol’s oldest son Croft had developed skin reactions, headaches, and respiratory conditions from prolonged exposure the caustic chemicals he was using in his fine interior finishing business. Around the same time, a colleague introduced Croft to a European clay plaster product that was free of the potential toxins effecting his health. It was better than the materials he had been using, but he thought it could be better. He enlisted Carol, who is an interior designer and has a fine arts degree in ceramics, to look at the plaster and determine how it was made. With her understanding of clays and aggregates and his engineering background they were able to reverse engineer a comparable product. We shouldn’t underestimate how powerful maternal instinct can be when amplified by entrepreneurial spirit. It’s common in our interviews with product manufacturers for them to describe how underlying consideration of future generations drives business decisions. When I raise this issue with Carol it brings her to tears. It’s not difficult to see how deep her passion runs for merging business skills with efforts that contribute positively. Isn’t it the best kind of free market capitalism? Who wouldn’t want to make a product that makes money and doesn’t diminish the potential of others? A year later, Carol used a new house under construction in New Mexico to test their new formulation. In the beginning, everyone but Carol was thinking small. But she knew right from the start that the product had greater potential. By 2002, a refined product was ready ➜ threadcollaborative 11250 morrison street no. 201, north hollywood ca 91601
  2. 2. american clay 2 for introduction to the building materials market. Even though everyone thought she was crazy, Carol felt it was important to legally protect what they had developed. In my interview with her, she humorously described the situation with full theatrical reenactment, “we went to see this patent attorney, she’s this tiny little lady, and she said - oh, I think we can get this patented, and would you put this in my house?” Everyone who saw the product was convinced they were on to something special. Natural plasters have been around for thousands of years. And this posed a real problem with the patent office. Carol and Croft would have to demonstrate how their product was significantly different than previous ones, something unique, and worth legal protection. The process required more work than they anticipated, and took seven years to complete, but American Clay was eventually awarded the first patent for a natural building material since 1932. Carol’s company manufactures a number of beautiful, natural, interior wall finishes made from 70% recycled and reclaimed sands, aggregates, and shells. We’ve posted about their products in the past, so I won’t go into detail here. But Carol pointed out a number of interesting facts that set her product apart from other wall finishes. “Clay is a phase change material,” she tells me, “the molecular structure of the clay particles actually interacts with vapor within the interior environment.” That means the finish is not inert, it’s still alive. It‘s been shown in a year long study that American Clay helps to moderate temperature and moisture content. In warmer weather, spaces will stay cooler, and in cooler weather, spaces will stay warmer. Other typical wall coatings, such as paint, do not have this property. In fact, most paints off-gas harmful volatile organic compounds as they dry. There’s nothing toxic or harmful in any American Clay products. Eight years have passed since the company founding and growth continues steadily even while other sectors of the building industry have experienced significant declines. Carol is in inspirational leader. Have you ever used American Clay products? If so, what has your experience been? We would love to hear about it. A special thank you goes to our good friend Joseph Treves who volunteered the use of his beautiful LEED Platinum Certified home as our interview location, and Julie DuBrow for helping to facilitate and schedule the interview. It could not have happened without you. But we are especially grateful to Carol for her time, passion, and dedication. We’re all better off as a result of her maternal instincts and drive for business success. By the way, Croft no longer experiences any ailments from the materials he works with. ➜ threadcollaborative 11250 morrison street no. 201, north hollywood ca 91601