Rooftop resources

Pioneers: Living Roof founders Kathryn Blatt and Emilio Ancaya brought their green business to Asheville in 2007. photo by Max Cooper
Pioneers: Living Roof founders Kathryn Blatt and Emilio Ancaya brought their green business to Asheville in 2007. photo by Max Cooper

It’s not every day that a local small business gets its product tested by a hurricane. But Living Roofs Inc., a local company founded 2006 by Kathryn Blatt Ancaya and Emilio Ancaya, got just that. A green roof they designed and installed for Duke University’s Ocean Conservation Center was hit by Hurricane Earl in 2010, and again by Hurricane Irene in 2011.

The outcome? The Ancaya’s installation did just fine. Incredibly, after being whipped by wind gusts of 90 to 100 miles per hour, the roof system and vegetation showed no signs of damage.

With backgrounds in design and environmental science, the Ancayas were intrigued by the fact that green roofs — i.e. one with a vegetated covering — can address a whole host of environmental concerns, from reducing energy costs to improving air quality. They knew that green roofs were growing in popularity in the U.S., but they hadn’t seen a lot of them in this region. “We were intrigued by their untapped potential here in the Southeast,” says Kathryn.

Of course, there are pros and cons to being a leader in one’s field. As the owners of the first company in North Carolina specializing in professional green-roof services, the Ancayas were on their own in many ways. “The Southeast has a whole set of specific challenges related to weather and geography,” says Kathryn, “so we learned a lot through small successes and failures.” The couple experimented with different plants and systems to find what worked best locally.

Being pioneers also meant that they could feel the effects of their work in a bigger way. Before they moved to Asheville in 2007, they considered several other cities. “We decided that Portland and Chicago already have people there doing the type of work that we’re doing,” explains Kathryn. “We knew it would be easy to go to larger cities like that and be surrounded by our peers. No one was doing green roofs in North Carolina — so we knew it might be more difficult to stay, but we also knew we’d have more of an impact.”

After landing in Asheville, the Ancayas decided they needed a marketing push to get the word out about their business, so they turned to Mountain BizWorks for a loan. “Mountain BizWorks was the first to fund Living Roofs,” says Kathryn. “Since we’re the first business of our kind in the state, there wasn’t much precedent. We wanted to determine the long-term viability without risking too much.”

That funding — along with an additional line of credit that helped with cash flow during larger projects — has helped them grow rapidly. In 2008, the business installed 7,500 square feet of green roofs; and in 2012 they installed seven times that — 52,500 square feet.

Still, Kathryn insists that while they want to continue growing, they don’t want to get too big. “We like to keep things pretty small and efficient,” says Kathryn. In addition to the Ancayas, the business employs two full-time staff and, depending on the season, three to ten part-time workers. Kathryn explains that due to the diversity of the work they do, finding the right employees is essential — and tricky. “The people on our team have to have the skills to sit in a client meeting, and then go out and pull weeds on a roof or work in a construction environment,” she says.

While ecological sustainability is built into the work they do, the Ancayas are also very aware of what it takes to build a sustainable business. And similar to the diversity of a healthy ecosystem, their success depends on a diversified base of projects and a wide array of services. From a tiny roof for a kiosk in Carrier Park, to a 24,000-square-foot roof atop a Federal building in South Carolina, their projects vary greatly in size and location. They also offer a full range of green roof services, including consultation, design, feasibility studies, educational sessions, retrofitting, installation, and ongoing maintenance.

While their full-service approach ensures a steady stream of work, they recently realized that there was one market they weren’t reaching. “We were getting a lot of calls from people who really love green roofs and wanted to incorporate them into their homes, but who couldn’t afford our services. We felt like green roofs were out of reach for the do-it-yourselfers.” In response, the Ancayas worked with W2 Architects to develop a set of building plans for green-roofed garden sheds, which are for sale on their web site.

In the coming years, Kathryn says they’d love to travel less for work and do more projects locally. “We would love to see more green roofs here in Asheville. We’d like to start incorporating some of the things that we’re seeing in other cities, like agriculture on rooftops.” They just completed a project at the Dr. Wesley Grant, Sr. Southside Center, and love the feeling of seeing their work come to fruition. “We get to see it a couple times a week when we’re on our way to the River Arts District or West Asheville, and that's a great feeling.”

Learn more about Living Roofs, Inc. at www.livingroofsinc.com or call 252-4449.

— Mountain BizWorks helps small businesses start, grow and create jobs through loans, classes and coaching. For more information, call 253-2834 or visit mountainbizworks.org.

Anna Raddatz is development and communications coordinator at Mountain BizWorks.

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