DURHAM — Inside the Common Ground Green Building Center, customers find countertops made out of walnut shells or aluminum shavings from a milling plant, a rainbow of nontoxic paints, and cabinets made from formaldehyde-free plywood and healthy finishes.
While many businesses talk about going green, Common Ground’s owners have built a niche on actually being green and toxin-free.
Common Ground owners and married couple Paul Toma and Dawn Hintgen have standards for their products, which they sell and offer to contractors and homeowners to design, fabricate and install in homes and businesses.
They look at where a product is made, what it is made of, whether it has recycled content, the energy used to produce and deliver it – and if it’s harvested, can it replenish itself quickly.
With tile, for example, they require 25 percent of the content to be recycled. Tile from outside of the continental U.S. has to have at least 40 percent recycled content to offset travel costs.
The vast options include laminate flooring made in High Point with 75 percent recycled content and nontoxic printing ink and finishes, wood from plants that replenish themselves quickly and antique heart pine fished from the bottom of North Carolina rivers.
The couple’s knowledge of nontoxic products traces back to the birth of their 26-year-old daughter Nirvana Hintgen, whose sensitivity to chemicals results in allergic reactions and breathing issues.
“When you are going to make someone you love sick by bringing something into the house or into the yard, it really sways these kinds of things,” Dawn Hintgen said.
Pre-Internet, the couple, self-described hippies and environmentalists, turned to advertisements found in the back of Mother Earth News magazines to find products that were safe for their daughter.
“And because of what we believed in, we were always looking for sustainable building materials,” Toma said. “And it was very difficult to find them.”
The couple opened Common Ground Construction out of their home in 2007. Toma’s background was in carpentry; Hintgen’s included owning an organic gardening company and working as a kitchen designer for Kitchen and Bath Galleries in Raleigh.
Their initial intention included remodeling projects using toxin-free and sustainable products, but it was difficult to educate clients about the options with photos from magazines and websites, they said.
“We wanted a place where people could come touch and see these kind of materials,” Toma said, so they moved to a small section of their current location in February 2008.
Just as the construction industry started to feel the Great Recession, the green trend took flight.
“In 2009, it started to explode,” Toma said. The couple expanded the business’s upstairs and to warehouses to hold inventory. They have tripled their revenue since 2008, they said.
In 2013, they worked on about 200 construction projects and about 2,000 people came through their store, Toma said.
Most of their jobs are in the Triangle, but some have stretched up to Virginia and down to Pinehurst. Their competitors, they said, are hard to define.
“On one hand, there is no one quite like us out there,” Toma said. “And on the other hand, (there’s) anyone that sells flooring, and anyone that sells tile and anyone who sells cabinetry.”
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