Q&A with Bart Bettencourt, 21st Century Pioneer in Eco-Design and Sustainable Business

 

Here is a brief glimpse into the work of my friend and mentor Bart Bettencourt. Bart is best known for SCRAPILE, a sustainable furniture line created in collaboration with designer Carlos Salgado. One of his SCRAPILE tables, made of re-purposed scrap wood, was featured in a rotating exhibit, “The Green House: New Directions in Sustainable Architecture and Design,” first displayed at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Additionally, he is known for bringing sustainable building and furniture products to the East Coast. As a designer and businessman who started his professional design career in New York City, Bart is a well accomplished, forward-thinking person.

 

Monika Kerdeman: What’s your story in 1 minute?

Bart Bettencourt: I’ve always grown up working in trades and always enjoyed building things. From childhood, I have been very environmentally minded. I had been working at the Guggenheim doing installation work. That is where I met Carlos Salgado. We noticed a lot of waste and wanted to do something about it. Then about 10 years ago, I started my own shop where I wanted to push green building, furniture design and manufacturing. The timing was right for that on the East Coast. My personal line, Bettencourt Furniture, and collaborative line, SCRAPILE, got lots of recognition, for two reasons: the modern design aesthetic and the innovative environmental aspect. During the time I was making furniture, I discovered how hard it was to source materials, so I partnered with Matt Berk and we started a green building distribution business a little over six years ago (originally Bettencourt Greenbuilding Center, now called EcoSupply). There are various reasons I moved away from design into architectural sales, including wanting to have a greater impact to get sustainable building materials into the hands of more people. For the last two years, I have not been doing much in the way of design, though the majority of the press I received was for my design work.

Our business model is to do wholesale work, as EcoSupply purposely does not market our own brand but rather we promote and market the manufacturers' brand. This has allowed me and our business to shift to be more of a back-of-the-house operation. We set up a lot of other businesses to sell our manufacturers' products. We also do a lot of training and educating to help retailers understand green building materials.

MK: If you could solve one problem in the world through storytelling or design, what would it be?

BB: If I could solve one issue it would be to educate more people to save the rainforest and the amazing biodiversity that exists within the rainforest. Most of the world’s population rarely gets to interact with the rainforest, or a meshed world that takes millions of millions of years to evolve and provides so much in the way of natural resources, medicines, CO2, et cetera, to our planet. I have always felt passionate about this issue. It is one of the hardest parts of the world to get people to wrap their head around. Within the building industry, it’s easier to get people to understand issues and concepts around CO2 emissions and air quality. The extraction of resources and materials is a bit more abstract and people tend not think that much about it. People are starting to think about where materials come from and their impact on the world, but it is hard for them to picture that their choices of materials are affecting such a large ecosystem like the rainforest. I wish I could take them there to show them how beautiful it truly is and why it is so important to preserve it through the use of alternative sustainable materials

MK: What would you characterize as your biggest professional success?

BB: When I focused more on design, we were featured on magazines, TV and newspapers, like The New York Times, Boston Globe and London Observer. When this was taking place, it began shining a light on environmentalism within the world of product design.

I would have to classify my biggest successes within the distribution side of my business. We have cultivated business with some of the best mainstream quality manufacturers in business. Our products have helped people weather the economic downturn. Our product sales have increased while other distributors of “traditional” products have had dwindling sales. The materials we carry have become an invaluable and important piece to our business. Green products are generally looked as premiums in the market, though we have been able to use our products on major projects while saving money for clients. To me, I feel like we are succeeding in our work and mission when you can compete with DuPont to win clients because your products are not only sustainable but also competitive in price, if not lower in cost, than a lot of traditional materials.