Path to Positive: MechoSystems’ Sustainability Evolution Drives Health, Energy, and Material Change

Tags: built environment (653)

MechoSystems’ sustainability story starts in an appropriate place—during the oil embar­go of the 1970s when it was located on Prince Street in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. The company’s founder, Joel Berman, was awarded his first patent for a shading system during that time. The shades helped reduce energy use in buildings by blocking solar heat gain, while maintaining outside views. At the same time, the company would also develop motorized and automated shade systems that would come to be used in countless green-built projects over the following decades.

“To the extent of energy savings, it’s in our DNA and our roots since the early ’70s,” says company president Jan Berman.

By the early ’90s, the company’s sustain­ability efforts were evolving into something much more intentional, and eventually would deeply ingrain themselves into the overall company mission and product-de­velopment process. MechoSystems began sponsoring and participating in one of the earliest green-building conferences, EnvironDesign, and through this venue, was introduced to sustainability thought leaders like Bill Browning and architect William McDonough, who was already a specifier of MechoSystems’ legacy products.

It was through participation in EnvironDesign, as well as increasing awareness of issues such as Sick Building Syndrome, that Jan Berman began to realize that there was more to sus­tainability than providing shading systems that contribute to buildings’ energy savings. He got feedback asking if he could develop materials that replaced the PVC used in MechoSystems’ shadecloths. The most influ­ential factors were the story of DesignTex’s Climatex—as told by William McDonough— and ultimately the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which articulated manufacturers’ and designers’ great need to change production approaches.

As Berman learned more about Cradle to Cradle® (C2C), material health, and the concept of “closing the loop” at the end-of-use of a product, “we started thinking about what we wanted to be as a company, what products we want to sell, what will be important to our clients in the future.”

He soon sat down with McDonough, the co-founder of the Cradle to Cradle® movement, and his team at MBDC, and began to figure out a path toward a healthier shading material. It quickly became a team effort as he engaged partners, suppliers, and MBDC leaders to develop a shade textile that adhered to C2C principles. “We decided this was something we had to do—to have a product that is great for energy, glare reduc­tion, and views, but also would be friendly to the people in the building, and for the en­vironment after its end use,” Berman recalls.

The effort required a unique relation­ship with a key vendor in the supply chain, Twitchell Manufacturing, to work together to co-fund and develop such a product. Sadly, as the first meeting between MBDC and Twitchell was to begin, the participants were informed of the untimely death from a heart attack of Geoff Pittman, Twitchell’s 49-year-old manager, son of the founder, and one of Berman’s closest friends in the business.

What followed were several years and changes in leadership at Twitchell. By 2000, MechoSystems re-launched the process of developing a PVC-free shadecloth and, in 2004, introduced EcoVeil®, the first Cradle to Cradle Certified™ shadecloth.

Getting there wasn’t easy or quick. EcoVeil had to replicate the legacy ThermoVeil® shadecloth’s key features—namely its durabil­ity and wash-ability, along with a clean view to the outside, like looking through a screen door. It also had to work with the supplier’s extrusion process, a key element affecting the shade’s characteristics. Materials were con­sidered then eliminated—polyester did not have the same solar performance, while PLA-type polymers were too costly. Also, questions of the efficacy of “bio-based” plastics—which were also competing for resources used for food production—became a concern.

Finally, the mill developed a proprietary system that combines a polyolefin core with a thermoplastic olefin (TPO) jacket. During manufacturing, the yarn and the coating are extruded together, resulting in a shadecloth that is not only absent of C2C banned-list chemicals, but is also strong and long-lasting, with a clean, clear view.

Furthermore, the new material respects Cradle to Cradle®’s core tenets of a circular economy: the core and jacket-yarn com­ponents can be ground up, together, and re-polymerized into thermoplastic olefin (TPO) pellets for the manufacture of new products such as green roofing, carpet back­ing, and automobile parts. Ultimately, it is MechoSystems’ hope to use these pellets for making more EcoVeil.

As is typical of MechoSystems’ continuous improvement efforts, the company didn’t stop with EcoVeil shadecloth, and soon set its sights on optimizing the whole roll­er-shade system. The team focused next on its flagship Mecho®/5 shades, a modular system that allows for larger manual shades while offering fast and easy installation.

The team modified the system’s SnapLoc® shadecloth-to-shade-tube spline to manu­facture it with TPO (instead of vinyl), which allowed MechoSystems to eliminate PVC from the whole shade system. In 2006, under version 2 of the certification, the Mecho/5 roller-shade system and accessories earned Cradle to Cradle Certified Silver. This was followed by the UrbanShade® families in 2011, and others are in process.

In addition, the products are designed for disassembly. The spline and the shadecloth are welded together, but are the same materi­al, so the two parts can be recycled together.

Today, the company approaches all new products with C2C in mind. “The idea is that when we add a new component, any Cradle to Cradle certification questions are part of the R&D process up front,” Berman says. “Our engineers, for example, know they can’t supply anything in violation of the C2C banned list, and must design for disassembly. And vendor selection has become much more transparent.”

The next steps for EcoVeil and other prod­ucts to reach higher levels of certification is to solve the flame-retardant challenge. The current solution by many manufacturers to meet NFPA 701 vertical-burn test require­ments involves chemicals that limit a Cradle to Cradle version 3 certification to Bronze.

As part of its continued product optimi­zation, MechoSystems is tackling the issue from two fronts—materials and engage­ment. To optimize the EcoVeil Shadecloth Collection, non-halogenated flame retar­dants are constantly tested with Twitchell. MechoSystems’ research and development team is also studying other textiles that will meet flame-spread requirements without adding chemical flame retardants (CFRs). The company also engages in conversations with industry groups in the architecture and design community about possible overregu­lation of fire codes in commercial spaces.

MechoSystems has found success in the elimination of CFRs in a newly announced line of shadecloths, EcoVeil Sheer™. It does not require any CFRs and still passes the NFPA 701 vertical-burn test. It is intended to be included as a part of MechoSystems’ C2C Certified complete shade systems.

For Berman and all of the MechoSystems family, mindfulness is about much more than just product ingredients. Just as Cradle to Cradle Certified offers a holistic approach to sustainability, the company has embraced larger energy-use reduction and positive social-change missions.

Day-to-day operations are directly im­pacted by the company’s local community social cause, AHRC, an organization that creates meaningful work for adults with mental handicaps. The company doesn’t just contribute funds or sponsorships to the orga­nization, but fully participates in its mission. Most recently, MechoSystems placed its own staff and set up a sheltered workshop at one of AHRC’s facilities where participants are employed in positions such as literature and sample fulfillment. In addition, several of AHRC’s associates work at MechoSystems’ Long Island City, N.Y., headquarters.

“Because we have a family member who is mentally handicapped, we have seen firsthand the value that meaningful work can bring to someone’s life. We wanted to extend that same value to people in New York,” says Berman. “People feel self-worth and self-val­ue through the work they do and accomplish.”

MechoSystems’ headquarters is a show­case of C2C Certified products. In 2011, the company gutted and renovated its 98-year-old manufacturing facility in Long Island City into a LEED® Gold-certified office headquar­ters. In this process, it achieved an Innovation LEED point for the extended use of Cradle to Cradle Certified products, including Herman Miller seating, Shaw carpet, and, of course, its own EcoVeil shadecloths.

Furthering the holistic approach is a com­mitment to renewable energy. The building features a solar array generating 26.8 kW of electricity, which—in conjunction with its SolarTrac® automated-shading system and automated lighting—offsets the building’s remaining lighting load, making its day­lighting autonomous. At any time, you can view MechoSystems’ Energy Dashboard on the company’s website to see the building’s energy use and solar generation in real-time.

It’s one more component of a mission that began in the 1970s by Joel Berman and will continue well into the company’s future. “I just like to be proud of what we do, and create something my children can be proud of. That they can say, ‘You do good work, you do good things,” Jan Berman says. “We’ve always prided ourselves as a technological leader. I feel that our holistic approaches and our work with Cradle to Cradle have contributed to leadership.”

As other shade manufacturers begin to follow MechoSystems’ example, it’s clear that the company’s forward-thinking efforts are indeed enacting change.

“At end of the day, I feel really proud that we blazed that path. We’re thrilled that they are joining this family,” Berman says. “I’d rather compete on that level than who has the cheapest, toxic material. When you’re the only person saying, ‘I have a better mousetrap,’ people say, ‘Alright.’ But if five people say it, they stand up and listen.”

MechoSystems didn’t set out to start a movement. But with a conscientious, cus­tomer-focused approach and tenacity for innovation, it has done just that.