29 October 2021
Greenhouse Surfboards and the Wisdom of Ken Cole
[10 minute read]
When it comes to sustainability, deep down at a subconscious level it's likely we know what the right thing is to do, but do we acknowledge these feelings or know how to verbalise this? Our latest interview is with someone who can explain problems and solutions, but is also working on something in his own humble and intelligent way, to develop a remarkable idea that could make a massive impact on the surfing world and beyond.
Ken Cole is a psychologist but also a surfboard shaper and founder of Greenhouse Surfboards in Milwaukee in the US. The philosophy at Greenhouse is an approach that's steeped in an awareness of surfing’s responsibility to make environmentally responsible, yet stunning surf craft.
Ken uses local Milwaukee materials such as coffee bags from local roasters, wood scraps from yards and shops, repurposed bio-resins and stringer shavings. Each Greenhouse Surfboard is made from scratch and disposes of very little. He designs each blank, template and shape using a Wisconsin-based foam manufacturer. As a result, each board is sculpted with care, patience, and a clear performance vision in mind.
If, like us, you're intrigued by surfing and it's relationship with sustainability, then you're in for a treat. Read on...
G'day Ken, can you tell us about your history with handcrafted surfboards and what goes on at Greenhouse Surfboards in Milwaukee, USA?
My goal at Greenhouse Surfboards has always been to make boards that are as beautiful as surfing feels. Early on I realized that a key part of the experience of surfing is how the board serves as a conduit to connect the rider with our environment, with the water below and the sky above. That connection, however, has always been hampered by the harsh reality of what each board is made of. This prompted me to look at materials that could foster a greater synchronicity between the surfer and the wave. The result was to use more natural materials such as jute, hemp, repurposed coffee bags, as well as leftover cured bio-resin, and scrap pieces of wood.
As far as handcrafting boards go, well, the Greenhouse approach is as “old school” as it gets. Each blank is cut by hand from a slab of EPS foam, and with time, vision and lots of shaping the board reveals itself. While this approach is time intensive, it has allowed me to shape boards that are to the exact specs as envisioned.
Thus far, our sustainable highlight has been a longboard that is wrapped with jute and repurposed coffee bags, using hemp for roving and a fin and leash plug made of repurposed woods. We were able to avoid the presence of any fiberglass, metals or plastics anywhere on the board. And while this is a step in the right direction, we realize that it is not enough. This epiphany continues to push us toward bypassing foam altogether and creating one made entirely of leaves and bio-resin.
Can you tell us more about your current project at MSOE which involves sustainable composites?
For about a year prior to our collaboration with the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), I was in my “basement laboratory” exploring ways of making fins out of leaves. A handful were prototyped and I was immediately impressed with the strength, aesthetic and weight. Even with this discovery, I realized that I lacked the bandwidth, but also knowledge to take this concept to the next level. You see, outside of my time at Greenhouse, my other career is as a psychologist, thus, my knowledge on composites was driven by concept and vision, but lacked any formal training or research in compositing. This compelled me to reach out to friends and subject matter experts in the field of sustainability, design, as well as professors affiliated with MSOE to look at collaborating with them to explore this composite further.
We’re now almost two years into this, and even with the pandemic slow down, we’re proud to say that we’re on track to have a prototype board ready for launch by Spring of 2022. Of equal importance we’re realizing that our patent pending composite has potential uses beyond surfing and could be used in a wide array of other applications.
Our long-term vision is to introduce a composite with the potential for products and uses that would allow the manufacturing of everyday items that are free of any wood, metal, fiberglass, foams or plastics. The end result, a material that does not rely on trees being chopped down, significantly reducing our reliance on petroleum at a time when the devastating impact of this addiction is now more clear than ever.
In your opinion, how is the surfing industry currently placed to transition away from oil-based foams and resins?
“From the soil, not from oil”, has become the mantra for all of us at Greenhouse Surfboards. And while it’s a lofty goal at that, it’s one that we should aim for out of necessity, as well as to honor the environment we as surfers thrive in. That said, the surf industry is poised to lead the way with sustainable design, but more so they are in a truly unique position to prove how companies can gradually break their reliance on oil-based foam and resins.
The challenge for the surf industry, however, is not due to a lack of viable solutions, but rather the absence of an across-the-board commitment to find them. The biggest hurdle is that foam is to surfboards, what oil is to automobiles. Yes, there are alternative approaches, but the reliance has been intrinsically programmed into the industry since its inception.
One reason for optimism is that unlike automobile manufacturers, surfing is deeply connected to nature. As surfers we all profess to love the waters we surf in, and it’s a large part of our identity. Yet we ride boards that are antithetical to this belief. Single-use foams and plastics are increasingly being banned across the globe, all the while we as surfers are riding the equivalent of a gigantic Styrofoam plate. Millions of us out there, myself among them, all part of a naïve hypocrisy that in the end is simply not sustainable.
So, the surf industry has the capital and an endless array of engineers, shapers and visionaries to make it happen. The question however is whether or not their commitment to sustainable surfboards is going to be simply about half-measures and a green-washing marketing campaign, or will it be a long term commitment to do what’s right for the environment, and in the long run, prove to be financially viable for the industry as well.
What has surfboard shaping taught you about sustainability and does this spill into other areas of your life outside of surfing?
From the outset at Greenhouse my focus was on using alternative materials to create sustainable surfboards. This initially consisted of using repurposed coffee bags, hemp, basalt, an array of scrap woods and plant based resin. The results aesthetically were truly unique, with durability and a ride that is comparable to traditional boards. However, there were unanticipated setbacks. The use of resin with jute is at a much higher rate, and it is not near as easy to work with than traditional four and six ounce fiberglass.
Conversely, the primary lesson learned is that simply wrapping a board with more sustainable materials merely masks the more concerning material that accounts for well over 95 percent of the board’s overall mass, the expanded polystyrene or polyurethane foam. This prompted the Greenhouse team to explore how far we could go at replacing the foam altogether. From crude iterations in my basement, to more refined compositing with the help of engineers at MSOE, we’ve made small, but consistent steps toward our goal of prototyping a board that is made solely of leaves and plant-based resin. From the leash loop, to fin, to the wrap and the core, the goal is to show what can be done without foam, because ultimately we realize it must be done.
Sustainability has definitely spilled over into other aspects of my life. It compelled me to realize that in many ways, my family could do much more to reduce our footprint and be far more responsible in our purchases. This has resulted in my family making concrete, but doable changes such as reduced waste in our home, repurposing and increased recycling and far fewer purchases of unnecessary items.
Any final thoughts on the future of surfboard manufacturing and the surf industry in general?
I have no doubts the surf industry is passionate about protecting the environment. Thus, there’s both a personal and yes, financial interest in finding sustainable solutions. The challenge is that traditional foams used in surfing are an amazing material to work with. And while I’m all about sustainability, I must concede the ease, strength and weight advantages of these petroleum-based materials. But at the end of the day, or dare I say, at the end of our planet, we have to ask ourselves, “But at what cost?”
I do think there will be a market for truly sustainable boards. And while they may not be adopted by professionals or hardcore surfers where weight and cost are of the utmost importance, there will be a growing number who recognize that as surfers we must be part of the solution, and not continue to be part of the problem. We must go beyond green stickers, eco-friendly hashtags, or be limited to feeling good about eco-friendly packaging for bars of wax. Instead, we have to finally confront what’s at the core of our sport and industry; foam. Because we cannot honestly profess to love the waters we ride in if every one of us are riding boards that further contribute to the undeniable and devastating effects of climate change.
In the interim, there are countless individuals out there exploring alternative ways of creating surfcraft, as well as groups like Wave Changer highlighting the need for a more pronounced focus on sustainability in surfing. From mycelium, to seaweed, and yes, leaves, many of these ideas are dismissed as niche and feel-good stories. Ultimately, however, some will eventually be proven to be part of the solution. Until then, shapers in basements, garages, and yes, a handful in collaboration with an engineering university in Milwaukee will experiment, revise, and learn better ways of creating surfboards. Eventually something will cross over in ways that show what can be done and, once proven, I’m confident that the surf industry will jump on board. But given the urgency of now, many of us are not going to wait for the industry to tell us what to ride. To the contrary, we’re going to lead the way and show how it can be done. And when the surf industry is ready, they are more than welcome to join us in the line-up.