Jason Isenberg wants to revamp the concept of living green - transforming it from nerdy or extreme to stylish mainstream.
His business - called Realm: An Urban Organics Company - aims to do just that while making money in the bargain.
"We're trying to make sustainability sexy rather than stylistically clunky," says Isenberg, 39. He was honored recently as a member of the Arizona Daily Star's 40 Under 40 group of young community leaders.
Realm, with about 30 employees, designs, builds and maintains everything from landscape installations and water features to rooftop gardens and organic pest- management systems.
One innovative offering that's now in the planning stages: converting no-longer-wanted backyard swimming pools into water-harvesting sites neatly hidden beneath rec-friendly patio areas.
BUILDING A BUSINESS
"I bootstrapped the whole thing - from a rusty rake and a beat-up truck to a great group of employees and a fleet of vehicles," says Isenberg, a tall, affable man whose voice offers only the faintest hint of his native Birmingham, Ala.
After attending the University of Arizona from 1989 to 1994 and majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, he worked for about three years with the nonprofit Desert Survivors service agency.
"I had no clue what my career would be, but I realized I was passionate about gardens," Isenberg says. "I started building vegetable and herb gardens for people, and I maintained them.
"I was given the keys to their houses, and I would put fresh-cut flowers in their homes. It was a bohemian, bucolic idea."
But it was just a beginning.
Isenberg says he gradually grew the business - with increasing emphasis on landscaping and designing outdoor living spaces.
"It transitioned to a company I called Urban Organics Landscaping," he says. "And it eventually led to the full-on, design-build-and-maintain business we have today."
EVOLVING AN ETHIC
Isenberg gave his company a new name - Realm - about a year ago.
The firm's website announces, "If it's outside, it's within our realm" - and then goes on to proclaim, "Realm is the outdoor sustainability solution."
That word - sustainability - is key to the company's approach and reflects a sort of ethic Isenberg has evolved over the years.
"Sustainability," he says, "is not a style. It's a tactic. It's an approach. It's a philosophy. … We want to show that with sustainable practices, we can lower water bills. We can create usable outdoor spaces" without environmental damage or excessive use of resources.
Sometimes, such an approach calls for complex design work, cutting-edge construction and precise maintenance to create, say, a patio area or backyard water feature that won't gulp water or electricity.
"But sustainability can also be as simple as making an appropriate plant selection," Isenberg says. "For example, it might be choosing something that will max out at a certain size" rather than growing to excessive proportions.
The ultimate aim, Isenberg says, is to reach a point where "there is no longer a recognizable divide between conventional and sustainable practices."
As Realm has expanded from its landscaping roots, Isenberg has introduced a full-on smorgasbord of services. Among them:
• Waterworks - "As much as 70 percent of the average homeowner's daily water usage is applied in the landscape. We think that's too much," says the company's Waterworks brochure. "We have our sights set on reducing water waste and shrinking your water bill."
Isenberg says Realm's approach to water conservation involves everything from efficient, closely monitored irrigation systems to water harvesting and nontoxic water feature treatments.
• Petscapes - The safety and comfort of dogs, cats and other domestic critters is the focus of the company's "pet friendly offerings."
They include designs and construction to accommodate animals, pet waste composting, self-filling water bowls, organic flea control, probiotic urine neutralizers and other features aimed at ensuring a safe, nontoxic environment.
• Organic pest control - Realm uses organic products to help control pests - but also emphasizes trimming back low-lying plants, removing dead wood and taking other measures to make the landscape less attractive to animals such as pack rats.
The thing about backyard swimming pools, Isenberg says, is that people sometimes realize they just don't want them anymore. The reasons: too little use, too much maintenance, great waste of water.
"So people often say: 'Let's fill this thing in and put a lawn on top,' " he says. "That's unfortunate because there are so many other things that could be done with that space."
With that in mind, Isenberg has projects in the planning stages for making innovative use of former pools.
One option, for example, would be to redesign the former pool pit to accommodate a sunken patio.
An idea Isenberg likes even more: Convert the swimming pool into a built-in water harvesting system below ground level with a patio or other outdoor-living space above.
"Then prioritize that water for use in irrigation," he says.
OFF THE CLOCK
Inventing, operating and expanding a business doesn't leave a vast realm of free time.
In those all-too-rare hours away from the responsibilities of work, Isenberg likes to eat, mix a drink or walk on ice.
"I enjoy cooking," he says. "I have a wok and I like to prepare Southeast Asian cuisine. And Southern cuisine - things like collard greens, black-eyed peas and fried okra.
"I also think I'm a pretty good mixologist."
And the ice walking?
"If I have time to get away, I love to do some mountaineering - especially on a mountain with glaciers."
AT A GLANCE
• Name: Realm: An Urban Organics Company.
• Owner: Jason Isenberg.
• Address: 219 S. Olsen Ave.
• Website: www.realmenvironments.com
• Employees: About 30.
• Annual revenues: The company would not provide figures.
• Pricing range: The company would say only that it completes jobs "from $25 on up."
Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4192.