Q&A: Amee Quiriconi

We spoke this week with Amee Quiriconi, president and founder of Squak Mountain Stone in Woodinville, Washington. Her hand-cast countertop products, fashioned from cement and locally sourced recycled materials, provide an attractive, sustainable alternative to natural stone.

The idea for her business was conceived while she was earning her graduate degree from Antioch University. Inspired by Michael Shuman's book, Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age, Quiriconi wrote a paper exploring the possibility of making construction materials from local resources, to replace the building materials typically extracted from the earth and transported from remote regions.

"I don't know why it wasn't just one of those other papers I wrote and turned in and moved on," she says. "But it drove me to really see if this could be possible." After looking into viable alternative building materials like papercrete, Quiriconi started mixing things up and testing the results in her own garage. The end result was Squak Mountain Stone—originally a combination of coal fly ash, recycled paper, recycled glass and portland cement. The material has a smooth, flat, somewhat industrial finish, similar to limestone, ideal for use in countertops and similar surfaces.

Quiriconi has since developed a second, more upscale version that uses larger, visible chunks of glass with quite beautiful results that imitate granite. And Squak Mountain Stone has gotten a flurry of press mentions in such publications as ReadyMade, Domino and Popular Science.

With this demand, Quiriconi could expand her business by shipping Squak Mountain Stone to retailers around the U.S. But that would go against the goal that inspired her from the start. With her eyes on potential new locations in Kansas (where she grew up) or Colorado, she hopes to work with partners in those communities to set up shops and create their own versions of the product, with materials drawn from their respective locales.

Worldchanging (WC): What are some of the challenges you've encountered, developing Squak Mountain Stone with such an emphasis on operating locally?

Amee Quiriconi (AQ): While the resources are there, the means to re-form them into usable ingredients are still lacking. We're lucky [in the Northwest] to have companies like Trivitro; they're willing to re-process recycled glass so that manufacturers like myself can use it. In the Midwest, it's hard to find those sources, because the demand for those products is so low.

We have the ability to expand our business across the country, and interested parties [to help], and the raw materials are there, but we almost need to have a network of other businesses in the area in order to create a symbiotic relationship.

Also, what has changed over the last year and a half, I've made a choice to move into low-carbon cement technology. The process to make it creates 1/3 of the carbon emissions of portland cement. So that's not from local resources; it's manufactured in China and elsewhere, and was studied and developed in Europe. My choice was to make a design decision that was moving us into the future.

WC: What makes local businesses so valuable?

AQ: For me, it's about drawing in the resources in the community, making [your products] in that community, and dispersing them in that community. When we constantly get things from somewhere else, we lose that connection to where they came from. You see granite in a beautiful showroom, but you're not connected with the mountain [that it was extracted from] … so that blinds us to the process.

I'm a huge fan of granite, personally. It is beautiful, and it was given an exquisite place in architecture because it takes a high level of craftsmanship [to build with it]. But it has turned into a commodity…which is tragic. There's a huge consequence to that.

It's something to have people come to our shop and see things as they're being made. They have a sense of ownership. …Doing one shop in the Northwest and sending products around the world, that's not our goal, because people won't be able to have that connection.

WC: What are some other great business ideas out there?

AQ: I think one of the most compelling things I rely on, on a daily basis, is this principle of biomimicry. The inspiration that we can get in terms of how nature works is something that is genuinely heartfelt for me, and that I consider every day.

A couple of weeks ago … someone asked about the longevity of the [Squak Mountain Stone] material. How long will it last? Well, how long does it need to last? In construction, materials actually have a short lifespan. If you design materials that will last 100 or 1,000 years (in the case of plastics), is that overdoing it? If you design a material that's going to dumped in 15-20 years, don't you want something that can be readily incorporated back into the earth in some way? Trees decompose, and we want to design industry that way. We don't want to leave a legacy of garbage behind, so how you design a product and communicate its intention to people is very important.

WC: What's your Utopian vision for business/industry in Seattle?

AQ: The one thing I think would be a refreshing change in business would be honesty. Business has a bad rap for being disingenuous, and all about making a buck. It's refreshing to do business with people who are up-front and honest about it, who aren't just trying to carve every penny out that they possibly can, but who are also making responsible decisions. I little more compassion would be great. And an understanding that if we have honest relationships with one another, we'll ultimately all be richer for it in the end.

Photos used with permission from Squak Mountain Stone