It's late Auguston Martha's Vineyard, and the idyllic Massachusetts island is awash with vacationers, affluent homeowners, and, with the election just 14 months off, presidential contenders. You might think it's all lobster rolls and multimillion-dollar beach getaways on this storied playground of the Eastern elite, but an insider's tour reveals a more complex reality.

John Abrams is driving his dusty hybrid Ford Escape. Thirty-two years ago, he drifted onto the island on a lark. Then in his mid-20s, he and a friend — both back-to-the-land woodworkers who had little building and less business experience — had been asked to create a home for Abrams' parents. The job lost money, but the two loved the challenge, accepted more, and never left. Today, South Mountain Company (the name is a holdover from the New York cabinet shop the initial partners had run) is a $7.5 million design/build company with 15 employee-owners and 17 owners-to-be, and Abrams is showing some recent projects.

Randi Baird

At the high end, there are custom homes down meandering dirt roads, nestled discretely into their natural landscape. Seasonal retreats for people whose primary homes are on the mainland, these feature centuries-old lumber salvaged from river bottoms and wine barrels, custom furniture and railings made of driftwood, and structural oak posts selected carefully from the lots on which they're built. The homes are green by any measure, but let's just say that their solar electric and hot water systems and composting toilets are a cut above those you last saw in the '70s. The clients greet Abrams with hugs; at one, the owner is grilling venison burgers for the crew.

Farther down the economic spectrum, there's Jenney Lane, 10 “clustered” homes that South Mountain Co. is developing in a more densely populated area. So airtight they won't need central heating, even in the bitter Massachusetts winter, these two- and three-bedroom homes will be sold through an income-qualified lottery for as little as $170,000, at a time when the island's median home price is close to $700,000. In a classic case of success being its worst enemy, the Vineyard's desirability has made it unaffordable for much of its vital working class: its teachers, waiters, bus drivers, fishermen, construction workers, and others. Many take the ferry to work, a daily commute that can take hours.

A short drive away, at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, you also see a 10-kilowatt wind turbine spinning quietly atop a 100-foot tower. It was funded in part by a bequest from a South Mountain Co. client and will serve several purposes, among them reducing the school's electricity bill and inspiring students to pursue careers in renewable energy and green building. In another challenge relevant to businesses and communities nationwide, the Vineyard struggles to find enough skilled craftspeople to replace its aging workforce.

South Mountain Co. on its 1986 holiday card, above. Abrams recounts its journey of growth and sustainability in his 2005 book, The Company We Keep.
South Mountain Co. on its 1986 holiday card, above. Abrams recounts its journey of growth and sustainability in his 2005 book, The Company We Keep.

South Mountain Co. has grown steadily and very much by design, as evidenced by a significant backlog and enough money left over (after generous benefits and $240,000 in profit sharing in 2006) to donate 10% of annual profits to charity. The company embraces such a diversity of work not to hedge its bets, or to maintain cash flow during downtimes, or to harness its fortunes to the money and community spirit that are so abundant on Martha's Vineyard.

Instead, the company selects this broad range of projects — some far more profitable than others — to support its broader commitment to sustainability: that is, to homes, communities, natural resources, and above all, to a company intended to last for generations. Abrams' metaphor for this long-term view is “thinking like a cathedral builder,” referring to the craftspeople who laid foundation stones and framed walls for the enduring structures knowing they would never see their work completed.

Custom cabinets, millwork, and furniture are made in South Mountain Co.'s shop.
Randi Baird Custom cabinets, millwork, and furniture are made in South Mountain Co.'s shop.

As lofty as this thinking might sound, several indicators show that it works for South Mountain Co. Long-ago clients are as delighted in their homes today as they were 25 years ago. Wooded pastures and hilltops that came close to being cleared are preserved; any homes built on them are tucked into the vegetation. Old homes that might have been torn down are put on trucks and relocated as affordable housing, or “deconstructed” for use in other homes.

But the best evidence of sustainability may be the 32 people who make up South Mountain Co. today. In 1987, Abrams restructured the company as an employee-owned cooperative. (He was sole owner at the time; Mitchell Posin, his co-founder, left in 1984.) Initially, Abrams had two co-owners, both of them foremen; today, he has 14, with the remaining 17 employees expected to become owners after a five-year vesting period. “When we hire, we're hiring future owners,” he says. The often slow, deliberate nature of this hiring process pays off with a loyalty that many companies can only dream of. The average tenure of South Mountain Co.'s employees is 12 years. A few co-owners have been there more than 25 years; only one has left since 1995, and that was to go to engineering school.

No doubt, many of these people were attracted to the company by the quality and subtlety of its work — an aesthetic that is quiet, natural and “not chest-beating,” says Kevin Ireton, editor of Fine Home-building. “More than just about any other company I know, they exemplify first-rate craftsmanship.