March 13, 2014 by Julie Washington, The Plain Dealer @cleveland.com
WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTS, Ohio -- Grant Cleveland is a man with a deep-seated love of plants. He founded a company, DuneCraft, Inc., to foster the love of growing things among kids. When his company needed more space, he found a Warrensville Heights industrial building that he could turn into a miniature botanical gardens, where every desk is steps away from palm trees and ponds creating oases of serenity.
There are no cubicles. Potted rubber plants, ficus trees and other ornamental plants create space dividers between desks, and surround three six-foot-deep ponds where fish flit amid water plants and around tinkling fountains.
“You spend more time at the office than anywhere else,” Cleveland explained. “If you’ve gotta work in a cubicle, that kinda sucks.”
I rubbed my fingers against the leaves of a jasmine plant and sniffed the delicate scent. “Imagine if the whole office was filled with that smell,” he said.
The office renovation project took about four months to complete, and DuneCraft’s employees – 11 office workers and 50 warehouse employees -- moved into their new headquarters in December. DuneCraft, Inc. manufactures small terrariums, sprout-and-grow mini-greenhouses and other science and nature kits.
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“I can control what the office looks lie when we walk in here,” he said. “Is it worth it? I do not know. People seem pretty calm.”
He believes that the atmosphere improves workers’ productivity, the lack of cubicles promotes cooperation and too much privacy tempts employees to shop online and watch “House of Cards” all day. Cubicle workers “just screw around on the computer all day. Then they get sad and depressed,” Cleveland said. “We’re more of a team when we’re all together.”
Sales manager Robert Sigman, who was spreading his papers on a conference table underneath a pergola, enjoys his novel workplace. “This is very uplifting,” Sigman said. “We can be incredibly productive in a comfortable environment like this.”
Cleveland founded his company in 2002. When DuneCraft had outgrown its previous Cleveland location, CEO Cleveland looked for a property that was close to his home and had low taxes. This 1950s-era industrial building fit the bill with 12,000 square feet for office workers and an adjacent 160,000-square-foot warehouse.
When he first saw it, the space was divided into small offices, a cafeteria and conference room. Cleveland showed David Payne of Chardon’s Payne and Payne Builders Inc. a copy of the original floor plan with the rooms whited out. “That was easy,” Cleveland chuckled.
Making all that infrastructure go away in reality wasn’t so easy for Payne; his company was the general contractor on the project. The two men forged a solid working relationship during Payne’s extensive renovations of Cleveland’s home in 2010. Payne has seen a lot of custom jobs, but this one gave him pause.
“It was pretty far out, and so unusual,” Payne said. “A little jarring, frankly. But knowing Grant, it wasn’t a complete shocker.” In the end, nearly all of the ideas that Payne and Cleveland first brainstormed were turned into reality, Payne said.
Office walls were demolished, and Payne had to figure out how to take down a wall in order to get a backhoe inside to dig up the concrete floor for the ponds. Workers built bridges over the ponds so they could climb ladders and install adjustable grow lights on ceiling tracks.
It took 7,000 gallons of water to fill all three ponds designed by Mock Pond Shop of Mogadore, Cleveland said.
Now they are largely self-maintaining, with the fountains putting oxygen in the water and fish fertilizing the water plants. The fish swam to the surface hoping to be fed when they saw people standing nearby.
“Really, the pond just does its own thing,” Cleveland said. He believes that the ponds lend calm and tranquility to his workplace. “No one’s frantic even though it’s our busiest time of year.”
The plants – about 160 in all – arrived on a heated truck from Florida. Cleveland lovingly tends them all himself.
In the rest of the office space, I saw meeting spaces made up of large tables with colored, swirling acrylic and concrete, situated underneath pergolas. The office furniture was custom-made by the Cleveland company 44 Steel. The steel-filing cabinets and desks complemented the floor, which looked like distressed gray wood but is really vinyl.
There’s a game area with Ping Pong and air hockey tables, and a shower for they guy who dyes sand blue for terrarium kits and gets the coloring all over his skin.
Cleveland doesn’t have an office. He likes to sit at a large desk with green LEDs embedded in top surface and situated near his workers. He did set aside space for a gallery holding about 30 of his abstract and boldly colored paintings. “They all have different stories to them,” Cleveland said. “My subconscious is talking to my subconscious as I paint.”
His affinity for nature was evident in a hallway lined with his framed photographs of botanical gardens. At home, he grows ficus, hibiscus, living stones and Chinese evergreens.
“Not having plants to me is so odd,” he said. “Plants are the final touch on the design.”
The office workers at DuneCraft don’t have to imagine themselves in a tropical grove; they are surrounded by the sights and smells of the tropics every workday.
Cleveland isn’t done. He’s looking forward to adding window boxes and hanging planters. Warm weather will bring a chance to landscape the building’s grounds.
“It’ll be nice,” he said. “It’s relaxing and calming.”