"This is where they kept the workhorses," Chris Streb said as he led a tour of the Stables Building in Clipper Mill, where the Poole & Hunt Foundry flourished in the 1850s as one of the Industrial Revolution's most prolific manufacturing plants.
Since 2005, the building at 2801 Clipper Park Road in Woodberry has been home to a nationally known business of a very different kind, but one that is obscure unless you happen to be in the business of helping to save the environment.
It's the national and "bioregional" headquarters of Biohabitats, Inc., which specializes in conservation planning, ecological restoration and regenerative design, according to company officials and its website, www.biohabitats.com.
In part, "We're creating new ecosystems," Streb said. "We're a design studio."
And in part, the company works with governments, universities and other institutions to plan for future growth that helps the ennironment, said Amy Nelson, the company's communications directror.
Streb said there aren't many companies like it in the world. "It's a pretty niche market."
"I think in a lot of circles, we're pretty popular," said Nelson. "Either you've never heard of us or you're like, 'Wow, Biohabitats!'"
One of the company's biggest projects is in North Baltimore, where it has been contracted by Baltimore City to restore the eroded lower Stony Run.
Biohabitats is also unusual as a work space. Instead of horse stalls and hay, it's an ecologically oriented feast for the eyes, with hanging plants that improve indoor air quality by removing harmful toxins; specially selected and placed lights to maximize energy efficiency; and office furnishings "made with the environment in mind," including shelving made of wood harvested from sustainable forests, and desks made of wheat straw, according to the website.
The walls are recyclable polycarbonate, and one is a "living wall" with live plants that filter air and serve as the air intake system for the building, Streb said.
Biohabitats was one of the buildings the public could tour Oct. 24 during Doors Open Baltimore, an annual program co-sponsored by the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and American Institute of Architects' Baltimore chapter to show people buildings that are considered architectural gems in the city. The living wall was shut down for re-servicing that day.
The 7,500-square-foot building has three floors but looks like one big open space, with exposed pipes. The building retains its original large windows, all working, and many of its original timber beams and locally harvested stone walls.
It's a dream work space for 32 of Biohabitats' 59 employees companywide, including landscape architects, engineering ecologists and environmental scientists. It's where Biohabitats founder Keith Bowers, who now lives in South Carolina, first settled after starting the company in 1982, in small, more traditional offices in Towson and later Timonium.
Biohabitats also has bioregional offices in Cleveland, Ohio, New York City, Louisville, Ky., Raleigh, N.C., Charleston, S.C., Denver, Colo., Santa Fe, N.M., and Portland, Ore., as well as small field offices in Richmond, Va., and Montpelier, Vt.
But its biggest home is in North Baltimore, up the street from Woodberry Kitchen, the Amaranthine Museum and the apartments of Clipper Mill.
"We call it the mother ship," said Streb, 44, of Bolton Hill, an ecological engineer with a civil engineering degree from West Virginia University and a master's of science degree in Ecological Engineering from the University of Maryland at College Park, where he was the first graduate of the program in 2001.
Shoring up the Stony Run
Officially the headquarters for the Chesapeake/Delaware Bays Bioregion, the Biohabitats local office designs projects that range from reducing the impact of stormwater runoff from Baltimore's public marine terminals, to shoring up the eroded lower Stony Run in the Wyman Park area. It has projects from Montgomery and Prince George's counties to Howard and Baltimore counties.
The $2 million Stony Run project calls for 5,000 linear square feet of stream restoration, from roughly Craycombe Avenue to the Sisson Street Culvert that empties into the Jones Falls, Streb said. The work is expected to start in the summer of 2016 and take four or five months to complete.
"A lot of it is bank stabilization," Streb said.
Other Biohabitats projects include installing artificial habitats along docks to preserve and improve biodiversity. Last year, the National Aquarium in Baltimore partnered with Biohabitats and the organization Ecocean to install special Ecocean-designed Biohuts on bulkheads in the Inner Harbor, outside the aquarium, to grow food for blue crabs and fish, using oyster shells that algae could grow on, so that fish and crabs could harvest the algae — "like a starter kit," Streb said.
Biohabitats also designed, installed and implemented floating wetlands in the harbor as a pilot project to improve water quality and habitat.
"The area of wetlands was expanded tenfold in 2012 and has become a central feature of the water in the Inner Harbor," the website states.
Biohabitats generates about $13 million a year in revenues companywide, about 60 percent of it from the Baltimore office, said Adam Feuerstein, chief financial officer for Biohabitats.
"It's definitely a revenue-driven company," said Feuerstein, of Hampden. "Our employees are our number one assets. There's a lot of talent. Keeping them busy is the number one challenge, making sure there's work."
Much of the company's work requires getting grants for projects and then bidding them out or using a sister company for construction, Feuerstein and Nelson said.
Biohabitats is bidding on a restoration project for another section of the Stony Run and submits about 350 proposals a year in response to Requests For Proposals on various projects, according to proposal director Deborah Vere.
But although it's a for-profit company, "We feel like a nonprofit," said Nelson, of Catonsville. "We have the soul of a nonprofit. Everybody here is extremely passionate about what they do. They could probably make a lot more money doing traditional engineering."
Senior environmental scientist Peter May used to work for the Washington, D.C. government in its Watershed Protection Division, and for the Smithsonian Marine Systems Laboratory. He has worked for Biohabitats for the past 10 years.
"It's hard to do science in a non-academic setting," said May, 46, of Greenbelt but owns property in Fells Point. May is also a lecturer in the Environmental Science & Technology Department at the University of Maryland and teaches the course, Ecosystem Ecology. But he said that at Biohabitats, "We all have an appreciation for science, ecology and the environment."
May's passion comes through as he talks about projects such as using harvested algae to clean water. The algae water-cleaning system has been tested at the Port of Baltimore's Dundalk Marine Terminal and is now being tested at the Cox Creek Dredged Material Containment Facility in Curtis Bay. May is also studying whether dried algae can be used as a mass energy source to produce electricity for homes.
The hope, he said, is that "first it cleans water, then you use it to create electricity and biofuel."
Learning on the job
Nelson said that when she started at Biohabitats in 2000, public relations wasn't as important for the company.
"There wasn't a lot of interest from the mainstream media. Now, our work gets much more attention than it ever did," she said, adding that Biohabitats published a quarterly newsletter for the environmental industry.
Feuerstein, 41, former president of the Hampden Community Council, joined Biohabitats earlier this year as CFO, coming from a similar post for a furniture manufacturer in Arbutus. He still feels a little like a fish out of water.
"I was strictly a financial guy," he said. "I'm definitely getting an education. I'm trying to learn, but I'm not a science-y guy."
On the other hand, he already knew a little bit about the Stony Run and Biohabitats from his time as Hampden Community Council president. And he feels a kinship with the company, as "people trying to do good things for the world."
And, he gets to work in an office on the third floor, where the hay barn for the old foundry once was.
"It's such a different environment than where I was," he said.