One Portland Design Build Firm Is on a Crusade to Make Buildings Less Poisonous

September 27, 2017

Green Hammer, a design-build firm creating healthy and inspiring buildings, thinks everyone deserves to know what’s in their buildings.

One Portland Design Build Firm Is on a Crusade to Make Buildings Less Poisonous

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The Tasting Room at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, designed and built by Green Hammer, is the first winery in the world to achieve Living Building Challenge certification.

In late August, Barbara and Bill Steele watered the grapevines of their award-winning vineyard, providing them with a much-needed soaking on a 90-degree day. With the Chetco Bar wildfire burning 60 miles away, a smoky haze hovered over their fields and much of Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley.

Yet inside the new tasting room at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, the Steeles’ Demeter-certified Biodynamic® vineyard, guests breathed easy as they sipped on wine and nibbled on house-brined asparagus and Biodynamic® cherry chutney.

Completed in the spring of 2016, the bright and welcoming tasting room is not only free of harmful smoke and other outdoor air pollutants; it’s free of common indoor air pollutants as well. It’s the first tasting room in the world to have received the rigorous Materials Petal in a third-party certification process called the Living Building Challenge, which verifies that the building is free of toxic and bio-accumulative substances pervasive in most building materials. Invisible to the human eye and often odorless, these chemicals are not nearly as obvious as the smoke caused by the nearby wildfire. Yet, they can be just as harmful to our health.

“A building with healthy indoor air quality has a huge impact on the well-being of the occupants – especially for people who suffer from asthma, allergies or other respiratory problems,” says Erica Dunn, Director of Design at Green Hammer and the architect of the tasting room at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden.

“It was important to us that the tasting room, like our wine, be a reflection of our values,” says Barbara Steele. “We are proud that we can tell our customers that this building is not harmful to their health. We don’t need to tell them, though. They can feel the difference.”

Helping people make healthy decisions

The EPA estimates that people spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, where on a normal day the air quality is worse than it is outside. In most buildings, the concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations due to airborne pollutants coming from the building’s materials and other indoor sources.

For Dunn, ensuring healthy indoor air quality in the buildings she designs is as important as the quality of light or the flow of space – it’s a critical component to making a successful building.  Until recently, trying to rid buildings of toxic chemicals was daunting, bordering on impossible, Dunn says. That’s because, except for a small percentage of known harmful chemicals regulated by the EPA, there is no requirement that manufacturers of building products disclose the ingredients in their products. “If you’re allergic to a certain ingredient such as peanuts, food labels can save your life,” Dunn says. “That’s not the case with most manufactured products.”

When selecting building materials for the tasting room at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, Green Hammer could not simply look up a type of flooring in a catalogue and find out what ingredients it contained. For each and every building material, ranging from 2x4s to doorknobs to drywall, Green Hammer had to contact the manufacturer to request this information. It was often not readily available.

But the tide is slowly shifting, thanks to pressure from companies like Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden and much larger players like Google that view healthy indoor air quality as a key to success. In 2014, with 70 offices in 40 countries, Google was seeking an easier way to find information about the materials it was considering for its office buildings. So it invested in Portico, a database of building products started by the Healthy Buildings Network. One can look up a product by manufacturer, product category, and whether or not it meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and Living Building Challenge standards. While the tool is still in a pilot phase, it could dramatically shift the market by driving demand for products that are safer for human health.

“We all have a right to know what’s in our buildings,” Dunn says. “Businesses like Cowhorn are paving the way, making it easier for others to make smarter decisions about how they design and build. Green Hammer is excited to support them in this goal because it’s aligned with our values, too.”

Link to Original Article on Portland Monthly

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Green Hammer’s design-build process focuses on selecting building techniques and materials that result in superior indoor air quality.


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Green Hammer’s projects prove that excellent design and sound environmental practices can go hand-in-hand.

Barfly: Former Marin residents pursue biodynamic wines in Oregon

September 24, 2017
Bill and Barbara Steele founded Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in 2003. (Courtesy of Bill and Barbara Steele)
Bill and Barbara Steele founded Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in 2003. (Courtesy of Bill and Barbara Steele)

Barfly: Former Marin residents pursue biodynamic wines in Oregon

Barbara Steele grew up in Marin County, moving to the Terra Linda/Marinwood area when she was 5 years old.

“I went to Oak View, Miller Creek and then to Terra Linda High School,” says Steele, 55.

It was a normal Bay Area career arc; she obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and an MBA from the University of Colorado. Back in the Bay Area, she worked at various Marin small businesses as a controller and chief financal officer, meeting and marrying her husband, Bill. In 1990, they bought their first home in Novato.

The rest would have been a normal Marin County story except that the couple took to visiting family in Oregon for vacations. An interest in farming took root, and a casual interest in homeopathy led to a more serious interest in biodynamics. A conversation about the intersection of the two ideas on a return from just such a trip led the couple to make a major life change.

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden was founded by the Steeles in 2003. She had been helping some organic farms with financial analysis for about a year and became interested in shifting her career to an agriculture-related field.

“We were enthralled by the focus on improving the land, making it richer at the end of the year than the beginning, and by the principles of promoting health for the entire estate,” she says.

They bought a dilapidated farm in Jacksonville, in Southern Oregon, quit their jobs and moved north.

“We were able to find a single piece of property that allowed us to build a model of an economically sustainable and scalable farm,” she says. “We started growing produce in 2004 — corn, melons and potatoes — and in 2005 we planted our first vineyard. We now have 25 acres of vineyards, 2 acres of asparagus, and 1 acre of assorted bee habitat, herbs and other produce.”

Often called extra-organic or something to that effect, biodynamics follows the beliefs of Rudolf Steiner, who also pioneered the Waldorf School method, by emphasizing observation, analysis and creativity in improving the vitality of an organism. Which, in this case, was the Steeles’ farm. Enlisting experts in biodynamics and grape growing, the couple planted 11 acres of grapes, including syrah, grenache, viognier, marsanne and roussanne.

“We grow Rhone varieties because that is what our soil and climate can support. Our vineyard sits on old river bed soil in a cold valley of the Applegate,” she says. “Our soils and climate are very similar to the Rhone regions. We selected these varieties because the terroir of our site would best support full expression of flavors from our estate-grown fruit.”

Simply put, their goal is to become the preeminent fine wine grower and perennial polyculture farm in the New World. “This essentially means that we will not monocrop,” Steele says. “And that we believe our farm will demonstrate that many different crops, from wine grapes to asparagus to fruit trees, can be grown sustainably from a soil perspective as well as an economic perspective.”

The biodynamic method is different from the organic method as it does not rely on manufactured products for its growing system. “BD relies on the ancient relationships between plants, climate, soil, microbes and all critters large and small to work together to create good tilth,” Steele says. “By supporting fully functioning soil, we create immunity for our plants from disease and pests, and we support full expression of flavors from the fruit.”

Cowhorn produces two white Rhone blends, a red Rhone blend, a grenache, a syrah and a reserve syrah. They also produce a viognier and reserve viognier, ranging in price from a modest $28 all the way up to $75, with most hovering around $40.

“We are a certified organic grower and winery,” Steele says. “We have documentation for every grape we have grown and every wine we have ever made that it met the OG standards.” Cowhorn’s certifier is Stellar Certification Services. But Cowhorn does not label their wines as organic, they are labeled as biodynamic, with the Demeter certification stamp on every bottle.

“I think that showing respect for our bodies, our minds, our planet and our fellow travelers on Earth defines us,” Steele says. “People who love Cowhorn love fine wines and care about their choices. When you make a choice to support Cowhorn, you are choosing something that supports good health, good tilth and good community.”

As for Marin’s impact on her professional life, Steele says it was critical. “Working in small business in Marin for 15 years was the most amazing experience. I had the opportunity to work for talented business owners who shared their experience and methods with me. I really cannot list all the stories of things my employers did for me. But I will tell you that I started Cowhorn because of the education and compassion I was shown by my employers in San Rafael.”

Cowhorn wines can be found at stores and restaurants throughout Marin. More information about the winery can be found at

Jeff Burkhart is the author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender” and an award-winning bartender at a local restaurant. Follow him at and contact him at