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Since acquiring the Adventure Inn six years ago, Mark and Sue Edgington have been tireless in transforming the property into the greenest retreat possible, right down to the individual room furnishings.
Says Sue: "I'm working with someone who is tearing down an old grain elevator from Duluth that was built in the 1880s. It is made from old growth white pine and I am hoping to have the lumber reused into beds. Each bedroom will have a Japanese wabi-sabi feel from re-using old materials and finding beauty in the simplicity of it all."
The new building that will house these beds represents an even grander project for the inn. Mark and Sue have been working on a new super-energy-efficient building, which follows Green America's challenge for each of us to reduce our energy-use 50-percent in the next five years. We asked them to tell us more...
Green America: What does your business do?
Mark and Sue Edgington: We are the owners and proprietors, along with our two sons Sasha and Andre, of small Inn in Ely, Minnesota.
What makes your business "green?"
Mark and Sue Edgington: We brought our simple lifestyle with us to Ely when we bought the Adventure Inn, and we put green practices to use in running the inn.
Our rooms are cleaned with baking soda and vinegar. We use very little bleach, about 1 gal per year if that much. The laundry detergent is a very mild hypo-allergenic soap. We use a very gentle vegetable-based soap in our guest rooms that are filled in our dispensers. No throw-away amenities. Our sheets are organic cotton and we use down pillows and blankets for most of our rooms. I also have a few rooms with raw-silk comforters. Some of my sheets and the silk I have been able to purchase from members of Green America's Business Network. We also support our local businesses.
We use no VOC paint, no formaldehyde carpeting, and of course we place a recycling bin in each room.
We hear you have a major project underway at present to make Adventure Inn even greener. True?
Mark and Sue: When we purchased this Inn we had two buildings that were energy hogs -- old building with little insulation, rattly old windows, bad wiring, moldy areas that no matter what we did to improve we could not retrofit these buildings. So we decided to tear them down and rebuild an energy-efficient building. We free-cycled our buildings and many of the local folk came and took what they could use: siding, windows, old cabinets, and so on. Amazing to see how much of the buildings could be reused. We took much of the good wood out and what went to landfill was much less than originally figured.
Our new building was designed by a green architect from the area whose goal was to reduce our total energy usage by 50-percent. We received a CERTS grant (Clean Energy Resource Teams) based out of the University of Minnesota to help towards our design.
Our design takes advantage of our southern exposure and will have 20 large thermal solar panels mounted on the roof, designed to heat our water for our guests to use and for our laundry. In the winter when our guest load is down, the excess hot water will go to heat our cement slab floor on the ground level.
Our walls are 10-inches thick and made from SIPS panels, which is excellent insullation for our cold winters. We are also installing triple pane windows with the guest rooms facing east for the morning sun. We have heat pumps to help cool the room in the summer if needed and to extract heat from the outside in the winter. The new design allows us to retrieve heat from temps down to -4F. Of course, we get much colder here so we do have a back-up boiler and will have small mounted European style radiators in each room. The building is wrapped airtight so we also will have an air exchanger to flip the air in a room quickly and quietly.
We do have a small blog on our Web site with pictures and stories about the process. It is a huge challenge in our winters to build outside and the temps have been in the -40’s this winter and the highs below zero. These men manage to continue the building process. Mark and another carpenter are building the inside.
What are some of the challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Mark and Sue: The green steps we're taking with our building do cost more. Our best guess is that the costs are around 20-percent in building costs above a more traditional American-built motel. We are going to be in debt for a long time with this, but the pay-offs are reduced energy usage and building something that will retain its value and be usable for a longer time. Another challenge was to get financing. We worked with our small local bank as we will not work with a large one. The local banks know the area and the business and will give us more personal help. Getting the money was very challenging. Even with our excellent credit rating, and the banks willingness to loan, it still took a long time and many hurdles to get the financing.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Mark and Sue: We bought the business back in 2005. Before that, we were dairy producers in southwest Wisconsin before we moved to Ely. We moved here because we love the wilderness, remoteness, and we also enjoy winter and cooler summers. Neither of us handles hot weather well nor do we like A/C.
Tell us more about Ely.
Mark and Sue: Ely is a small community literally at the end of the road up in northeastern Minnesota. We border the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Wilderness.
It is a natural fit for us, forr our community to be a bit more attentive to our environment. Our air quality is almost pristine, and the myriad lakes here are filled with clean fresh water. We have beautiful white pine/red pine and birch forests; it's the southernmost part of the Boreal forest.
Our community is very environmentally motivated and a few of our local businesses have begun installing solar photovoltaic and/or thermal panels. Many of the folks here live off grid by choice in the forest -- a sort of Minnesotan Northern Exposure.
What's inspiring you now from the green economy?
Mark and Sue: Our community support has been huge and they are drawing a positive from the fact that we believe that our community is strong enough and worth the large investment. There are a small number of businesses that have been retrofitting to add solar or geothermal. We will be yet another one -- on a much grander scale and on the Main Street of Ely. Many others are looking at our project, and if it pays for us, then I believe that the inspiration will be passed on. We have many guests who stay with us because of our environmental stance and sustainable practices. Even better is the opportunity we have to educate others who are just now getting curious. Our office will be like a small information center about all of the design features and our ability to reduce our carbon foot print. We are hoping that with the new building, we can increase the occupancy rate, and effect even more education.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Mark and Sue: Do your homework and know your potential customer base. Be prepared to work long hours and give the best customer service you can. It may cost you upfront, but you will reap the rewards down the road. It took us three years to gain the knowledge and comfort in our new business. Going from running a 200-cow pasture-based dairy to running an inn was a 180-degree change. We made some goofs with employees in the beginning and we did not understand our market fully. We put in very long hours and did every job ourselves to learn. But most importantly, no matter how busy we were we made the time to be there for our guests. We worked hard to make their stay memorable so that they would return and tell their friends.
What green product could you not live without?
Mark and Sue: Vinegar and baking soda! And oh how I wish the company called "Save the Rainforest" had not gone out of business. They had the best soap products, and I had guests raving about their body washes and shampoos. The fragrance was so awesome that one time I sent a container home with a guest to Wales, UK because the lady loved it so much. I am now in search of a great-smelling liquid soap to use in my dispensers. Someone please come to my rescue!