Q & A

From Sod Roof to Bikes: Investing in a Hometown, One Project at a Time

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Adam Scharf, a 2001 graduate of Goshen College, is a former City Council candidate, owner of Red Tail Farm, partner of Venturi Pizza Pub and owner/operator of Rethinking Buildings, a remodeling and construction business focused on aesthetic, social  and environmental responsibility.

Q: Where did you grow up?

A: Goshen is my hometown.

Q: You own the house just across Main Street from the college, the one with the sod roof; what’s the story there?

 A: As I was graduating from Goshen College I lived in the basement of that house and it was rough.

When I ended up moving back to Goshen I decided it would be a good project to take on and I thought that the building just behind it would be a neat spot. So I bought it and got it approved so I could live there.

Then I got going on a long-term project of salvaging materials and doing a green roof. I was working on LEED certification and going through checklists. The whole place is a collection of salvaged things. The Goshen High School gym floor is my floor, and I’ve used the old floor from Goshen College’s Union building as well.

Q: What did you intend to do with the sod roof house?

I wanted to move tenants out of renting into home ownership through savings programs and incentives, putting aside a certain amount of their rent for down-payment. But unfortunately the zoning didn’t go through for that.

Q: How did you become interested in remodeling projects?

A: When I was living in Seattle I got into natural building, cob building, straw bale building, and in moving back here there was a cob-and-straw-bale timber frame house going up on Middlebury Street. I saw a natural building community here that I thought was a nice jumping off point from what I was doing before in the Pacific Northwest.

Q: Were your projects in Seattle your first experience in remodeling?

A: I bought one house while I was living in that basement apartment in college. A buddy and I were looking for something to do so we fixed it up, and sold it. I had some sort of idealistic notion like “I want to do things with my hands, create things.  I have had my nose in a book for 22 years and I don’t have anything to show for my labor.”

Q: Are there other projects you’ve been a part of in Goshen?

A: I was part of Chain Reaction Bicycle Project, getting it up and going. I own Red Tail Farm just across the canal here. We have a community art show and a community garden down there.

I’ve done wetland restoration, and I’ve dabbled in some pasture-based, sustainable agriculture stuff.

I ran for City Council, organizing around trying to reroute some of the train tracks, and I got interested in the social justice issues in that, like how built environment and geography affect different groups of folks, how there literally are “the other side of the tracks.“

Q: What motivates you to get involved in projects like this?

A: I honestly think this is a pretty cool place and there are a lot of great people who have energy, are plugging in, cooperating and making things better.

I was in Mali for SST (Study-Service Term with Goshen College). That, and subsequent travels really impacted my view of urbanization and brain drain in small communities worldwide and how people leaving their hometowns is a real problem. Maybe that’s an ethic that motivates me to work in Goshen.

Q: You hope for people not to leave this hometown?

A: Yeah.

Q: What do you get out of your projects?

A: It’s just fun. I get to meet a lot of people that I wouldn’t otherwise get to meet if I weren’t taking on a variety of projects.

Q: Are there any upcoming or very recent developments in Goshen that you’re really excited about?

A: I’m proud of Venturi. It’s gotten good reviews; it was in Esquire magazine just this last week. I’m also excited about turning attention to Red Tail Farm.

Q: Do you have any dreams that are cookin’?

A: Some are tied in with the farm, potentially coordinating with the cancer center and hospital, something along the lines of a Ronald McDonald House, a spiritual and physical care center, a retreat space.

I’m also going to grad school shortly to study geographic information systems (maps). One of the schools I looked at, Temple, focuses a lot on race and gender issues in urban areas and how built environment factors and economic development affect people.

Q: Where do you hope grad school will lead you?

A: I see a real need for better data and information, especially at the local level in how we make decisions as a community and as elected officials. I ran for City Council and I felt like a lot of the discussion was strongly held opinions without research and well-analyzed objective data to make decisions on. I think that is, politically, one of the things we’re lacking.

I would like to keep plugging into projects that are interesting to me. Things here in Goshen: the Millrace redevelopment project and the 9th Street corridor redevelopment.

Q: [I notice paint on his hands.] What have you been painting?

A: I just moved a family into a rental house.

Q: How many rental houses do you have?

A: Several.

Q: Despite earlier zoning hang-ups, are you still hoping to move people into home ownership?

A: Yeah. In as much of an organized fashion as possible. I don’t have the resources like La Casa and other organizations have. They are doing a great job of helping people with that.

Q: The houses that you’re renting, have they all been fix-up projects of yours?

A: All but one.

Q: Do you see that as something you’ll continue to do in Goshen?

A: It’s a nice enabling type of job. If you’re organized it can allow a flexibility of schedule while still maintaining a steady income.

When I first started it was a lot about moving people out of renting and trying to make more equal this hierarchy of power. It doesn’t seem just to me that, simply because you had money before, you should be paid on an ongoing basis to be the owner on paper when someone else is working to pay the bills. But, the transition to a lot more people owning and a lot less people renting is not a short-term goal.

Not everyone can own a home.  I’m realizing there’s a place in reality to be a responsible landlord.


The interview has been condensed and edited.

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