Scott McCombs has perfected a method for turning glass bottles into concrete. It’s clean, it’s green, it’s revolutionary. How come his GreenStone isn’t catching on?
Chances are you’ve heard about the castle. Realm of Design Inc., a family-owned company that makes things such as columns, mantels and countertops, has received a lot of attention for its unique manufacturing facility in Henderson. Because it’s not a mere factory — it really is a full-blown castle. Its Morrow Pavilion Hall is a 30,000-square-foot replica of the 17th-century Swarkestone Hall Pavilion, the English castle featured on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Hot Rocks album. Morrow Pavilion Hall is as much an environmental statement as an architectural one: The entire façade is made of GreenStone, an eco-friendly concrete substitute that Realm owner Scott McCombs created from recycled beer bottles and fly ash, a byproduct of coal burning.
Countless media outlets have run stories on the famous beer-bottle castle, from Martha Stewart’s Whole Living Magazine to The Huffington Post. The DIY Network featured the building in a 2012 episode of “This New House.” In September, France TV flew in to shoot a documentary, following a beer bottle from the Strip to the glass crusher to the wall. And last February, a story trending on Yahoo! brought enough traffic to Realm of Design’s website to crash it.
And the interest pretty much fizzles there — with a gander at the marvel (tourists and prom-goers like to pose in front of the castle for pics) and a pat on the back for effort: Realm has won various awards, including the Green Technology Award from the Technology Business Alliance of Nevada, for its GreenStone. But, of all the commercial and residential products Realm sells — think fireplace features and mantels, countertops, columns, fountains, pavers, flooring and the like — only a minuscule percentage have been ordered in the McCombs’ beloved GreenStone.
“People tend to think it’s dirty somehow. Or, if it’s recycled, then they think the product should be free or almost free. It’s really strange,” says McCombs, who is confounded by the lack of consumer interest in GreenStone, particularly in the U.S. “Or they really don’t care.” Whatever the reason, it’s proven frustrating for McCombs, who’s dedicated the last 10 years to perfecting the formula.
Realm’s even made a point of pricing its GreenStone to match the cost of its common cement. Never mind that the glass-crushing process means GreenStone is more expensive to make; to use sand would be a mere 16th of the cost. They still can’t find many takers.
“They like the idea of recycled,” says his wife, Cindy, who handles sales. But, in the end, people usually opt for traditional Portland cement they’re familiar with. She wonders whether that’s because there can occasionally be bits of glass in the GreenStone, never larger than three-eighths of an inch. She points at a painted-white glass chip in Morrow’s wall. It’s about the size of a peppercorn. “There’s a Corona bottle,” she says. Other products have pebbled glints of green or brown glass. “But most of the time, you’re not going to see it unless you want to.” If a customer wanted GreenStone, but preferred not to see evidence of the recycled glass, her husband, the artisan, could make it so. In any case, the McCombs seem to have something big on their hands — something big and something ahead of its time.
That fateful beer
McCombs, 52, began his career in construction. On a home construction job in 1991, he couldn’t find the architectural columns the project called for. Always keen on a challenge, he decided to make them himself. The experience of handcrafting and detailing architectural designs proved so appealing to McCombs’ artistic nature that he and Cindy — recognizing the huge demand for these building products — launched Realm of Design, a family-run business that today employs his three children and other relatives. During the first decade of operation, they had a decent go of it, operating in four states (Nevada, California, Arizona and Oregon) and maintaining a staff of 56. But with the crash of the housing industry, sales plummeted.
“You watch all the businesses around you go out of business. And you go, ‘Wow, I don’t want to get hung up in that.’ So, you try to outsmart the situation,” McCombs says. GreenStone was the patriarch’s way to survive the economic crisis. “I thought, if I had a greener product, I would be more successful, and I would help clean up this problem, and who knows what I would learn in the process, right?”
[HEAR MORE: Learn how bottlehood makes bottles on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
The couple has their kids to thank for such green-mindedness. “Awareness wasn’t really something that we knew growing up,” Cindy says. “Then our kids were in school, and they’re like, ‘We need to recycle this and we need to cut this plastic up because we don’t want it to get stuck around a duck’s neck.’”
Another factor: Beer? Yes. One night in the late ’90s, McCombs was drinking a beer on the Strip when it occurred to him that Vegas has a unique abundance of glass waste: 30 million tons annually of relatively clean glass. Keeping in mind that glass is made from sand, which is used in cement, McCombs got to thinking — and then got to experimenting and researching. He traveled to Rome to study the Colosseum, which was made with volcanic ash; he went to Montana to visit the Missoula Federal Credit Union, the first building in the world to structurally employ fly ash and recycled glass in lieu of traditional cement.
And he solved problems. For example, crushed glass, when used as an aggregate in traditional Portland cement, causes a chemical process known as alkali-silica reaction, which leads to micro-cracking within the cement and makes it structurally unsound. But McCombs discovered that various ingredients could mitigate the reaction — one of them being powdered glass. In fact, ground to a supremely fine talc, glass becomes pozzolanic, meaning it will strengthen the cement. So does fly ash, he discovered. Ten years later, he finally found the perfect formula for Realm’s products. Unlike the material of the Montana bank, it could not bleed efflorescence (the white powder that cement sometimes emits), since the buyers of his high-end artistic pieces are generally very particular. Color was also important — people in these parts favor a lighter-hued stone. And set time was a crucial factor to McCombs: It needed to be very fast, since time is money.
He was also determined to eliminate the Portland cement in his recipe entirely. “Its carbon footprint is ginormous,” he says. It was all part of his commitment to truly walk the green talk. “I’ll run into ‘green’ products all day long, and it’s the most green-washed bull that you’ve ever seen in your whole life,” he says. “The formaldehyde they use to strip down a bamboo to make a fabric out of it — it’s like, really? What did you go through to process it? That’s not so green anymore.” He’s even careful to “shop locally” for his fly ash, which he gets from Arizona, within a 500-mile radius that he’s comfortable with.
Finally, after he perfected the chemistry (“It’s as green as I can get it,” he says of the final product, made of 97 to 99.8 percent recycled material), sourced the materials and obtained a patent in 2010, he was ready for the next phase. McCombs began the construction of his manufacturing facility. The idea was to introduce GreenStone to the world in a big way.
“How could it not be a winning idea?” McCombs says. He used more than 500,000 beer bottles (290,000 pounds of recycled glass) for Morrow’s façade, which, also counting the fly ash, saved more than 400,000 cubic yards of landfill space — about eight football fields filled to the top of the goal posts. (There are about 143 bottles in a single two-by-two foot paver.) “I was having a hard time finding a negative.”
Reduce, reuse, re … yawn
He wasn’t counting on the American public’s apathy toward recycling and sustainability. For all the talk about going green, American consumers are stuck in their old ways. According to a 17-country survey conducted by National Geographic and GlobeScan in 2012, “American consumers’ behavior still ranks as the least sustainable of all countries surveyed since the inception of the study, followed by Canadian, Japanese and French consumers.” Why? It mostly comes down to the price tag. The report continues: “In descending order, Russians, Brazilians, Americans and Indians are the most likely to respond that the extra cost does not justify the value. Still, percentages willing to pay a premium have trended upward since 2008 for Americans and Australians — an indication that the market for green goods is growing there.”
McCombs has found more interest in GreenStone overseas. Beyond France TV’s recent inquiries, McCombs has been approached by an Australian recycling company that would like his help to develop facing panels similar to the ones he used on his building — panels backfilled with polyurethane to instantly create insulation, while also reducing the weight of each piece (from 400 to 45 pounds) and, hence, the labor necessary to complete construction. Another company, Salish Sea Environmental Enterprises Limited in Canada, intends to use GreenStone to face what they hope will be the greenest building in North America, a 36-unit, oceanfront condo project northwest of Vancouver. Construction is due to begin in late fall.
“For these two things (recycled glass and fly ash) to become a material that looks every bit like limestone and yet is more durable and much more sustainable, it just seems the perfect solution for us,” says Tim Lang, CEO of Salish. Lang should know. He’s shopped the globe for the most state-of-the-art sustainable products available. In addition to GreenStone, his building will use a solar slate roof from the United Kingdom said to capture more of the solar spectrum than any other solar product; and cross-laminated timber, which Lang calls “plywood on steroids” — said to be stronger than steel. “Obviously there’s a lot more sensitivity here about the environment,” says Lang, an American living in Canada for the past five years. “People, by and large, get it here, and they don’t quite yet in the states. But I think it will come, eventually.”
The foreign interest in GreenStone has curbed some of McCombs’ frustration. He’s come to agree with Lang that it’s just a matter of time.
“There was a green movement that started to come on, say, 10 years ago,” says McCombs. “Slowly, people were taking interest in all the green building incentives, and all that stuff. Then the economy went bad, and I think it stifled our ability to get caught up to the rest of the world. Honestly, it’s just bad timing.”
Let’s go green together
But that timing may be improving. Because the initial 500,000 bottles that make up Morrow’s walls came from Mandalay Bay, the folks at MGM have always had McCombs on their radar. Chris Magee, MGM Resorts’ executive director of sustainable facilities, recently reconnected with him.
“As a company, we definitely try to help promote businesses in Nevada, in general, and if we can also make it a sustainable practice or support a sustainable practice, then it’s even more important,” Magee says. MGM — which produced 6,185 tons of waste glass last year alone — recycles more than 60 percent of its overall waste at certain properties.
Recently, McCombs filled an order to recreate large decorative urns out of GreenStone for Bellagio. Not only are such jobs good for the environment, they’re great marketing for the company’s green bona fides. “(MGM Resorts International properties) like the idea of being able tell the story that glass that potentially came from their restaurants and outlets is in products around the property — like the pots at the Bellagio,” Magee says. Now MGM and Realm are discussing a park project due to go up in front of New York-New York and Monte Carlo, where various features, like benches, could be constructed of GreenStone. The casino giant is even considering subsidizing the expense of a sophisticated glass crusher that would allow McCombs to reduce his recycled bottles to a fine talc.
“They understand that it has more of a value if it is a powder, so they’re looking to be supportive to getting it to that stage,” McCombs says. “It becomes pozzolanic then; the power usage is very low. And I could bag it and sell it as fillers for other things. So, it could grow the recycling effort. ”
Reducing the glass to a powder would also eliminate the small glints of glass that Cindy believes are partially responsible for deterring buyers.
“We’ve got to get our volumes up so we can make a difference, but I’m not sure how to get it to go in this country, other than to be here and just keep trying,” says McCombs.
With that, McCombs heads back to his glass castle. He’s got work to do — and a public to convince. “But it’s gonna take hold,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time. How can it not?”