Brian Heather wants you to flush your toilets with rainwater.
He also wants you to run your home with solar power, grow water-capturing plants on the outsides of your building, and use heat pumps to power your dryers--and that's just for starters. Heather, 33, is founder and CEO of SolTerra, a Seattle-based sustainable-building firm that wants to change the way city-dwellers interact with nature, which, he thinks, is the key to saving the world.
Heather has reason to feel ambitious. His company, which started out in 2008 as a simple solar-installation business, debuted at No. 536 on this year's Inc. 5000, Inc. magazine's annual ranking of the fastest-growing private companies in America. With a three-year growth rate of 721 percent, SolTerra reeled in $30.5 million in 2015 revenue. It's on track to post around $40 million this year.
The seed for SolTerra got planted early. After graduating from the University of Washington in 2006, Heather got a job at a solar company in Seattle. While there, he learned about all kinds of lesser-known sustainable technologies: creative ways to capture and reuse water, to conserve heat energy, and to improve air quality inside buildings. Inspired by the innovations he saw, he attempted to convince his bosses to move in a more daring direction. None were willing to bite.
"I had this vision of making an impact, but I just couldn't do it," Heather says. "There was so much new technology that I felt I could help people deploy in new construction projects, but I could see how slow the construction industry was to innovate."
So he left the company and struck out on his own.
New kid on the block
With less than five years of experience in the solar industry, the newly minted CEO, then 25, didn't have too many credentials. But he had a certification in sustainable technologies, and--he thought--a patent-ready idea. The only real problem was finding a way to make it happen.
Heather was neither an architect nor an engineer--he had majored in political communications at UW--and this, coupled with his age, meant some potential clients didn't take him seriously. By 2009, he had begun to design the basis for a living wall of plants--and the irrigation system to go along with it. By 2015, he was granted a patent.
"I've always enjoyed problem solving and looking at the challenges people face, and being able to communicate what those challenges are has put me more in the role of storyteller," Heather says. And selling that story to SolTerra's first clients was crucial to the company's survival.
One of SolTerra's first major clients requested $1 million worth of renovations on a chain of Domino's Pizza stores to make the buildings LEED certified. But beyond a few individual projects, Heather says the company ran into the same reticence he saw in the construction industry: Nobody wanted to try new strategies.
The problem, he found, always came down to liability--and penny pinching.
If an architect saw another product with a longer warranty, she might choose it over the suggested product, even if it didn't work as well. If a client thought a particular technology was too expensive, he might advise against it, even if that technology would pay itself off in dividends.
One proposal, a $150,000 permaculture rooftop, was dead on arrival. It may have been a great design, but the developers were concerned about needing to secure the area so people wouldn't loiter on the garden-like roof.
Most daring design projects SolTerra proposed were met with a similar fate. At every turn, someone--or at times multiple people--wanted to say no. Finally, Heather had had enough.
"We said, you know what? We need to own this process; otherwise we're never going to be able to do what we really want to do," says Heather, who quickly got to work on a vertically integrated business model.
If no one else was willing to attempt a daring feat, SolTerra would. With the new model, Heather would function like a real estate developer, scoping out land, attracting investors, and crafting the creative concepts behind its own projects. In 2014, SolTerra Cities launched with a series of boutique apartment buildings across Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
A bright, green future
The Woodlawn, located just outside downtown Portland, stands three stories tall, has 18 apartment units, and features a 4,500-square-foot eco-roof. There is also 1,100 square feet of living walls, the design for which Heather had received his patent. As the successful pilot for the SolTerra Cities program, the Woodlawn is both a jewel in Heather's crown and a humble starting point.
SolTerra now has 12 projects in the works--in addition to the Woodlawn, one other Portland property, Brooklyn Yard, is now complete--and has raised more than $55 million in investment capital to fund them.
"We found out, as we went to raise capital, that there were people who really wanted to see something like this come to life--but it still needed to be a solid investment for them," Heather says. "We guarantee our investors an 8 percent return, and we've exceeded that every time." (So far, he says, investment returns have been between 10 and 20 percent.)
Naturally, it hasn't all been easy. Finding skilled talent in the construction business continues to prove challenging, for instance. Yet SolTerra continues to set its sights high: It intends to deliver six projects a year--three in each of its hub cities--and to have 1,000 SolTerra apartment units renting in 2019.
And if you expect Heather, in his eighth year as CEO, to be less idealistic, think again. One of his earliest memories is the view from inside a rhododendron plant in his parents' backyard in Portland. Sitting inside those bushes was where he felt most at peace, he says. Today, the memory is more than just nostalgia. It's inspiration for his company's mission: Reconnecting people with nature by making sustainable design something worth investing in.