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The Green Collaborator

Michael Anschel has become one of the nation’s most outspoken green visionaries through collaboration and determination—and, as his serpentine journey suggests, a good bit of hard-earned luck as well.

By Drew Wood

Stop me if you've heard this one:

Man buys house. Man invests thousands in new grass for house. Man lets grass grow. Grass gets really long. City asks man to cut grass. Man says it's sustainable grass. City gives man deadline to cut grass. Man lets grass continue to grow. City cuts man's grass without permission. Man complains via social media. TV sees man complain via social media. TV does a story wherein man sits dejected on steps, mowed grass looks horrible, man says he cried over the mowed grass. City bills man for services rendered. Man is one of the leading minds in green design, sustainable housing and urban renewal in the country. City looks bad. Man is right. They are wrong. Lawn is ruined.

Well, heard it? Probably not, unless you happen to have watched WCCO-TV's June 2, 2010, 6 p.m. newscast in which a suited - he'd just come from a meeting at 3M, he's usually more casual - Michael Anschel sat on the stoop of his North Minneapolis home, lamenting a lawn that looked as though it had just been mowed with the propeller of a fishing boat.

Much like the flowing grass that once populated his ecofriendly lawn, the story was a tad wispy. It made Anschel out to be the victim of a senseless act of city bureaucracy run amok. He, the eco-visionary investing thousands of hard-earned dollars and copious time and thought into attempting to further beautify his slice of an area of the city which, frankly, could use more beautification, and they, the city itself, too bogged down in paperwork and pencil-pushing to pay attention to even the most well-intentioned divergence from the code. As Anschel himself readily admits, the story kinda made it Michael Anschel vs. Minneapolis.

Although the segment was, perhaps, a bit overwrought with a hint of "damn the man" thrown in for flavor, it wasn't, to be sure, inaccurate. Michael Anschel, founder and sole proprietor of Minneapolis-based Otogawa-Anschel Design Build-seriously, as we will explain, there is no Otogawa-is a green builder, sure, but that's not the real story. Because, the real story, the story others seem to have missed, is not of Michael Anschel vs. Minneapolis, it's the story of Michael Anschel vs. - gasp - the world.

***

For someone who believes in living sustainably, Michael Anschel sure does fly a lot. In fact, these days, he's away more than he's home. And although this winter alone he's spent 28 days skiing out West - not to mention a few days skiing in Lebanon - for the most part his intense travel schedule has to do with work, but not the work, as his primary business would suggest, of designing and/or building houses, though it has everything to do with that.

Lately, Anschel's primary day-to-day function is as a speaker on all things green building and sustainability, a topic on which he is one of a global handful of experts - most of the other of the experts being his friends and associates. It's a bit of a circuit really, and it's run through Anschel's second business, Verified Green, a green consulting and training company dedicated to "changing the building industry."

"Michael is a collaborator," says Cindy Ojczyk, vice president of Verified Green. "Our vision for Verified Green is to be the place where green building knowledge is aggregated through the participation of green building affiliates across the country. He is constantly engaging experts across the country in the effort to expand the services of Verified Green and challenge himself to learn."

When he's not doing that, he's fostering another of his creations, Minnesota Green Star, a green building standard - Minnesota's first ever - and green certification program that "promotes healthy, durable and high-performance homes," which Anschel cobbled together by aggregating talent and resources.

"He picked a handful of people from all walks of life and kinda Frankensteined Minnesota Green Star together," says Dave Klun, one of the people Anschel picked to help launch Minnesota Green Star and a former supplier to Otogawa-Anschel while he was at Sheerer Brothers Lumber. "He [looked at] many different prototypes from around the country and took some of the best from each one to create his own."

"While Michael has opinions born of extensive reading, learning and discussion, he is also open to hearing opposing viewpoints-another reason why the development of Minnesota Green Star was so successful," adds Ojczyk, who also worked with Klun and Anschel on the Minnesota Green Star launch. "Michael is confident. His confidence enables him to take risks where others may not. Since green building is still an emerging  field, confidence is necessary to speak with authority and command attention."

But the only way he was able to get to this somewhat ironic point of being a jetsetting green guru was through building a design-build business that was so strong that he had to forcefully pry himself from the rigors of it.

"The first step was to take a two-week vacation, and that was the hardest thing I'd ever done," says Anschel of his exit from the story we have not yet told you. "And then the follow-up to that was I took a seven-week vacation-consecutive. You learn where your business is strong and where your business is weak."

However, we're getting ahead of ourselves. It took a ton of work, a bit of good fortune, and one of the more unusual personal journeys we've encountered for Michael Anschel to go from angst-ridden Minneapolis South high schooler to being the spokesperson for green. What makes it even more difficult? For as many causes as Anschel speaks for, perhaps the least natural is allowing himself to be the spokesperson for, well, himself.

"Whenever I've done anything - any articles, any interviews, anything - I've always referred to the company," says Anschel, flashing what can only be referred to as a knowing, nearly conniving (but not) wink. "I never refer to myself, because I want the focus always to be on Otogawa-Anschel, which is the team, this group of people, that produces amazing design, great projects. So I always take myself out of it intentionally. But I'm doing it, I get it. In many ways it's what I've always been pushing against, but now that the company is fairly established, I think that it's OK to do it."

***

The Michael Anschel of 1992 was a vastly different creature than the one in this story. He was a slightly anti-authority Minneapolis South senior who'd grown up in Linden Hills in a time when "people still had messy yards"- he had the top of a Volkswagen Beetle in his - and was keenly interested in how things worked. The child of professors, he never knew anything but a life steeped in the arts.

"My father is an English professor and when we wanted to watch a move he'd throw Taming of the Shrew or Merchant of Venice in and we'd watch BBC productions of Shakespeare as five-year-olds," says Anschel of his unwittingly high-brow childhood entertainment. "We thought that was very exciting. Shakespeare was easy. In high school, man, I was thanking my parents. It was like, ‘Why is everyone struggling? This is simple stuff.'"

Seeing the disconnect those not exposed to Shakespeare at an early age had, Anschel, ever the problemsolver, sought a practical solution. Thus, while still in high school he teamed with the Guthrie Theater to teach Shakespeare to kids from the Fulton neighborhood.

And although he had no plans to be a builder, the young, contrarian Anschel was informally testing such waters as well. In 1991 he built a sculpture using construction scraps on the Linden Hills boulevard in front of his family home that was meant to protest the "project developments in North Minneapolis and substandard housing," and that sparked a battle with the Minneapolis Park Board, which was documented in the Southwest Journal.

Anschel also possessed a natural affinity for business. In fact, in junior high school it even got him suspended.

"I had a very profitable business," chuckles Anschel. "I would buy Now and Laters, five per pack, at 10 cents a pack and I would sell a Now and Later for 5 cents. I made a ton of cash because you're in school all day and kids want candy ... And then I got suspended, so I had to stop doing that."

However, when it came down to figuring out exactly what he wanted to do post-high school, Anschel's predilection for solving problems coupled with inspiration from a documentary he'd recently seen took hold.

"I wanted to be a marine botanist," says Anschel. "I had a full ride out to Bates College in Maine. They have a big saltwater marsh out there, and I wanted to bioengineer food crops to grow in salt water. I think I got the idea from a documentary that had to do with fish and seaweeds, which was done in the Middle East."

Inspired to explore the world outside of Minneapolis between high school and college, Anschel decided to take a trip. It changed everything.

***

What was going to be a summer-long, coming-of-age exploration of China, nothing too different than the backpacking adventures many of a certain age aspire to, turned into something else altogether.

"I was in Beijing and I was going to take the Trans-Siberian [train] but before I got on I met this group of French who were there studying and we went out to this restaurant and they were hanging out with these Chinese and they were having a great time, all in Chinese; and I realized I was missing something huge," says Anschel of the moment his life changed. "I mean, I was on busses and trains-I was backpacking, 18 years old-and I was communicating with pictures and a few words of Chinese. I had had beef fried noodles like 100 times in the last month because I knew how to order that one dish."

Anschel felt compelled to stay in China and properly learn Chinese. Figuring it would take him a year, he didn't hesitate to write Bates and request a deferral, which they happily obliged. However, one year turned into two, turned into three and before he knew it, Bates was out and a new path had taken hold.

"You go there. It's so foreign. You don't know anybody. Nobody knows you. You don't speak their language. Maybe someone speaks yours. If they do, none of the contextual references are valid," says Anschel in an effort to explain why he stayed. "None of the stereotypes you experienced at home exist, you have new stereotypes. You have no group. You have no tribe. You're just there. You maybe start with what you were, and you realize very quickly that that's not valued in this place you're at. And you go through, for lack of a better term, self-discovery and reinvention. It's a very grounding experience. I think in many ways it allowed me to figure out who I was."

In China from 1992 to 1995, Anschel was a little bit of everything: a college student, an editor of the Beijing Review, a teacher at People's University and, after that, the Japanese Embassy School of Beijing, and, yes, even a show host on Beijing television.

And after spending the rest of 1995 in Japan, by way of his stint at the embassy school, he finally returned to Minneapolis in 1996, a man with a modified mission.

***

Anschel enrolled at the University of Minnesota to finish a degree in art (ceramics) and worked at the Linden Hills Co-Op to pay the bills and figure things out. At the same time he responded to an ad for a handyman's assistant, thinking the well-paying job that allowed him to work with his hands didn't sound all bad, even if, as he realized quickly, he could do it better.

"He taught me everything not to do," says Anschel of the handyman. "It was $20 an hour. It was great. But it was not a fraction of what it could have been."

What Anschel saw was the potential to do so much more, so much more cleanly and so much more efficiently. Especially in the urban Minneapolis neighborhoods where they were working, he questioned why they couldn't save more from the historic homes they were repairing, an insight that, although he didn't overtly understand it at the time, was the essence of the green-build ethos he would become known for.

"Let's look at preserving some of this instead of just tearing it all the way down," was Anschel's thought. "The physical properties of stucco and plaster and lathe, when it comes to moisture, sound and general durability, are so many times greater than our modern building materials in many instances-not always, but mostly-and my instinct was to preserve. And so the whole green building thing-do more with less, reorganize space, where does your wood come from, the materials, the chemicals, the toxicity, dust, lead-that just was a no-brainer."

The handyman stint didn't last long, as later in 1996 Anschel, by then Michael Otogawa-Anschel, having hyphenated his last name to include his then-spouse's, partnered with a friend and started business as Otogawa-Anschel Ohlroggen, a home restoration company that "lasted for about a month" before it morphed into Otogawa-Anschel General Contractors and Consultants - a company consisting primarily of Anschel himself - and the focus shifted from restoration to general remodeling.

Anschel and his crew started with small, interior projects, but when a client who was pleased with a bathroom remodel asked Anschel to put an addition on his kitchen the game changed again. Having never built an addition - or cut open a house for that matter - but with a voracious appetite for learning the trade and broadening his skill set, Anschel agreed.

"So I cut open the side of a house with a guy that I knew and I remember standing out there looking at this big Tudor with this big hole and I said, ‘Wow, we just cut open the side of someone's house, man. We better not screw this up.'"

With the help of the public library, patience and the ability to build a strong rapport with the building inspectors, screw it up he did not.

"The building inspector came out and we had our library books sitting there and he was pleased as punch that we had books on the jobsite because to him it meant, ‘These guys care. They're not trying to hide anything, they're actually trying to do things right,'" recalls Anschel. "I actually had great relationships with many of the Minneapolis building inspectors because I'd call them up and say, ‘Hey, this is the project I'm doing. This is what I'm thinking, it's in unusual condition. What would you do?'"

By 2000 the business was Otogawa-Anschel Design Build and it was turning into something more than just a paycheck, although Anschel himself wasn't sure he wanted it to.

"When I started this business I didn't know that I was starting this business, and when I was starting the business I did start, I didn't intend for it to be something I was doing for very long. It was something I was doing, but I don't think I was convinced that it was something I'd be doing long-term," says Anschel. "But it was that I had this thing that was not working perfectly, so I needed to do it better."

Part of the way Anschel did it better was by focusing on old-school business fundamentals and hard-nosed marketing.

"My very first step was flyers, business cards, ads and dedicated phone," says Anschel, who professes an unabashed-and unexpected-passion for marketing. "And the rules have not changed one bit. If the phone rings more than two times, I will pick it up in my office. I want it answered right after the second ring. I don't ever want it answered on the first ring, I don't ever want to hear it go to the fourth ring. You're not desperate for the phone call but we answer the phone. I can't tell you how many jobs we got because we were the only company that picked up the phone."

***

Which brings us back to where we began: How a guy who accidentally bootstrapped his way into the building business, figuring it out as he went, was able to become not only one of the most prominent local designers, but a voice in the global sustainability conversation. For Anschel it came down to turning something he hated into something he loved.

"It's easy to get sucked into it but this is not fulfilling, there's nothing healthy about it, it's hard on your body, it's stressful, it's all this stuff," says Anschel of building. "So what I ended up doing was - because I hated it - reshaping it into something I liked. And it ended up being something I really enjoyed because I was making into something I wanted to do."

What Anschel wanted to do was something meaningful because, as he says, "a good business does things with purpose," something that happened officially in 2002 when Otogowa-Anschel "started to talk about green actively."

"Otogawa-Anschel has been shaped and strengthened by Michael's core belief that we make principled decisions first and business success and profitability will naturally follow," says Adam Back, project manager at Otogawa-Anschel, of the shift in perspective. "Michael's uncompromising commitment to the many aspects of green, from social wellness to air quality and energy to health issues, are hallmarks of his personal and professional life, his leadership and, as a result, our company culture."

A culture that, according to lead designer Greg Kraus, has led to more than 60 awards in the past 10 years including Remodeling Magazine's Big 50, the first National Green Remodeling Chrysalis Award and the first MN COTY Award for sustainable remodeling, accolades earned because of Anschel's reliance upon a strong team. "[He] allows each employee to have a voice in the company's day-to-day operations and is open to critique," says Kraus.

He also realizes his own limitations-namely, in the actual trade aspect of his craft.

"He's always been an interesting guy to work with because he doesn't come from this field but he certainly exudes a great amount of confidence and he's willing to take the time. He gets the right people around him and they rally with him," says Dave Klun before adding, bluntly, "He knows he's [not a great] carpenter; that's why he doesn't put the tool belt on. But you've got to play to your strengths."

When your biggest strength is, perhaps, knowing your biggest weaknesses and supplanting them with the talents of others, chances are you'll be just fine.

 

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