But if Mitch Fine has his way, the painting, roofing, and window business soon also will be recognized as a leader of ecologically sustainable paints and building styles.After almost 40 years in San Francisco, Fine recently relocated Armstrong’s corporate offices to the old Berkeley Farms building on San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville. At first glance, the mustard-hued building looks like any other commercial structure. It is anything but.
It sports solar panels, high-efficiency fluorescent lighting, original concrete flooring, and area rugs made from recycled wool carpets. Plus some ficus trees to suck up any unlikely carbon monoxide. And sure to warm the hearts of naturalists everywhere are gardens encircling the front parking lot.
More than 40 different species of shrub, tree, and flower native to the temescal creek watershed and oak woodlands grow outside, all identified by a small sign with a name and number. Those plants will form the basis for a new, all-natural brand of Temescal Creek interior paints and stains with absolutely none of the toxic volatile organic compounds commonly found in house paint. The number on the plant outside will correspond to the stain or pigment identified in the store, so kids can learn where it all comes from.
There are Californian wild grape vines, creeping snowberry, Manzanita, big ripe strawberries, seaside daisy, woodland rose, and Berkeley sedge. The acorns harvested from a live oak tree will produce a tan pigment. The leaves of an arroyo willow will produce a yellow tint. Green hues will come from the tall, segmented stalks of the horsetail reed.
“ When you ask most kids where their food comes from, they say, ‘the store,’ ” said Fine, the company’s general manager. “ we want people to see the gardens then see the paint, to connect kids to nature. Armstrong specializes in painting, roofing, and construction. It took four years and four million dollars to rid the old Berkeley Farms building of asbestos and transform it into a model for sustainable development.
Carl Gaard, an interior designer and cabinet maker from New York, is designing interior education displays and interactive children’s play room, complete with an under-counter tunnel. He and Fine share similar philosophies, Gaard said. “We are in the process of creating a new-layer of Armstrong Construction – whole home construction and maintenance,” he said. “ In other words, how to create a house that is in tune with nature and is in tune with nature and provides health, safety, and happiness. A wall-sized display will take people the construction process step-by-step, showing how new structures can incorporate green technology for lighting, heating, cooling, and insulation to reduce energy bills. It also describes household problems such as molds and what can be done to combat it.
Fine said he gained inspiration from Sim van der Ryn and Bill and Helga Olkowski, members of a group who founded the Farallones Institute and created the Integral Urban House in West Berkeley by transforming the two-story Victorian into a self-reliant, mini-ecosystem and educational center.
“ Forty percent of our energy consumption in the United States comes from the building construction, materials, and maintenance,” said Fine, who is the company founder and owner of that unmistakable radio voice. “ The way we design and the way we build public space is the key to conserving our resources…the waste we create is part of the reason we’re in Iraq. We have the technology to save energy,” he added.
To give customers a healthier choice, the company offers a line of natural plant-based interior paints from pigments created in Hawaii and Germany and manufactured for Armstrong by an outside company.
The new Temescal Creek line of interior paints will be the first created exclusively by Armstrong, Fine said. None emit VOCs, which can cause some people to experience eye and respiratory problems, headaches or dizziness even after short exposure.
The company has also created a new, non-toxic line of kids’ finger paints – the seven colors of the rainbow made of all plant-based ingredients.
“ We make blue out of a sweet potato, green out of moss, and black out of kukui nuts,’ Fine said, explaining that some –not all– finger-paints the market are not healthy and that long-term exposure to them could cause health problems in some children. Within weeks of moving in Fine received a notice advising him that the city would like to acquire his property. Turns out it is where Emeryville would like to build its planned Center for Community Life. So Fine took Emeryville officials on a tour of his building to explain how its educational component could be incorporated as a demonstration garden into the Center for Community Life.
“Obviously, it is a labor of love,” said councilmember Nora Davis. “ I was so impressed by the fact that he chose Emeryville and is so committed to doing what he is doing…Mr. Fine is defiantly the type of business we want to encourage. ”He’ll have a chance to show the community at large at the building’s grand opening celebration Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The day will feature tours, food, live music, and a charity raffle to benefit the Emeryville Senior Center and finger-painting for kids.