University of Vermont

University Communications

UVM Furniture Project, A Model for Vermont's Economy

Release Date: 08-26-2002

Author: Cheryl Ann Dorschner
Phone: 802/656-4308 Fax: (802) 656-3203

When eight scientists planned their move from the University of Maryland to the University of Vermont this fall to set up the The Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, they realized that they could communicate the essence of a complicated concept such as “ecological economics” with simple everyday objects. Their office furniture.

So instead of pointing his finger at some metal office units in a thick catalog promising delivery in 7-14 business days, Gund Institute Director Robert Costanza chose a longer process from tree to table that not only produced sturdy Vermont-made furniture but also built sturdy all-Vermont relationships and helped Vermont’s economy.

Early on, Costanza connected with three key Vermont organizations: The Vermont Family Forests, The Cornerstone Project and Beeken Parsons. Vermont Family Forests is a nonprofit organization that monitors sustainable forestry projects and connects Vermont landowners to customers. The Cornerstone Project, is an initiative managed by the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. It is a partnership among several of Vermont’s largest institutions, including UVM, that links demand for goods from these partners with local Vermont businesses. Beeken Parsons, a four-person furniture company at Shelburne Farms, is well-known for its use of sustainable forestry products, use of native “character” woods, careful design and craftsmanship.

“I immediately was interested in these partnerships, because what they’re trying to do is a good philosophical match to what we’re doing,” said Robert Costanza. “Even if we hadn’t bought the furniture we wanted to study their processes as examples of sustainable processes.”

Costanza designed simple, flexible, modular combinations using 80 tables and 45 bookcases. Bruce Beeken and Jeff Parsons improved the design for durability and sound construction.

Vermont Family Forests connected land owners in Charlotte with a logger from West Bolton. A Hinesburg trucker delivered the logs to the sawmill in Pittsford. The lumber is now drying at a kiln in St. Johnsbury. Under the direction of Beeken Parsons, it will be sized and rough cut by woodworkers in Fairfax and further worked in Vergennes, before returning to Beeken Parsons for joinery, sanding and finishing. Further assembly and finishing will be done in Island Pond. The furniture is expected to arrive in October at the Gund Institute offices at 590 Main St. in Burlington. Vermont businesses in the process include Hardscrabble Associates; Bill Torrey; Paul Fornier; Gagnon Lumber; Caledonia Kiln Corporation, Inc.; Morse Hardwood; R&K Woodworking and Island Pond Woodworkers Alliance.

The Island Pond Woodworkers Alliance is a newly formed venture of workers who lost their jobs when an Ethan Allen furniture plant closed in Vermont.

David Brynn of Vermont Family Forests pointed out that, “as with all materials during the manufacturing process, this wood bounced around a lot – but, in this case, it’s never left Vermont.”

“The forest products industry in Vermont faces tremendous pressures from global competition, said Edward Delhagen of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. “By focusing the demand for wood products locally, we can build support for forest products businesses. We want to harness the demand from places like UVM to help Vermont businesses and re-circulate dollars in the state’s economy.”

Photographs of early stages of this process are available.

Additional contacts: