Saving the world, one stove at a time

A line of metal stoves — all about the size of top hats — sits on a shelf at the Burn Design Lab’s bustling shop in the Sheffield Building south of Vashon town.

Peter Scott with Paul Means

A line of metal stoves — all about the size of top hats — sits on a shelf at the Burn Design Lab’s bustling shop in the Sheffield Building south of Vashon town.

Some have doodles on them — faces or designs created in moments of whimsy. Others are charred from use. Collectively, they represent something huge and potentially life-altering, a social and engineering experiment that could change the face of East Africa.

The stoves — ultimately hundreds of designs were created — are all iterations in an attempt to come up with the perfect prototype: a stove that burns far less charcoal, that produces less carbon monoxide, that costs little to make and that performs ably for the women who do the lion’s share of the cooking in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and elsewhere in East Africa.

After 18 months of work, the engineers and activists who have worked long hours at the lab believe they’ve got it. What’s more, thanks to a $300,000 loan from a Fortune 10 corporation, as well as the promise of additional funds, they’re also close to scaling up — building a Kenyan-based manufacturing plant that can begin kicking out thousands of these small, cobalt blue, cylinder-shaped stoves.

It’s called The Tank. And for Peter Scott, the charismatic founder of Burn Design Lab, this final iteration — what he and others believe is the perfect stove for East Africa — represents an auspicious moment.

“We’re there,” he said last week as he stood outside of the newly dedicated lab where the stoves’ performance is tested.

“In 18 months, we went from scratch to building the best charcoal stove on the planet,” he said.

The stove consumes 50 percent less charcoal than the best current stove on the market. One small chamber’s worth of charcoal can boil five liters of water in 25 minutes and keep it boiling for over an hour. Manufacturing costs will be minimal — about $25 per stove.

Scott has drawn what he and others call a “stove army” — a crew of retired engineers, freshly minted designers, tinkerers and interns — to Burn Design Lab because of the enormity of the need and the power of his vision. The organization’s goal is to build three million stoves over the course of 10 years. If they’re successful, Burn Design Lab and its sister organization Burn Manufacturing Co. will help to address what many consider a global crisis.

Every year, thousands of women and children are sickened from exposure to carbon monoxide from inefficient, charcoal-burning stoves. What’s more, East Africa is facing an ecological crisis from all that charcoal: It takes seven tons of wood to make one ton of charcoal, leading to rampant deforestation and a lack of sustainability that will create more crises down the road.

Now, with the prototype in hand, Scott and his crew are ready to begin manufacturing in small batches, taking the stoves to Kenya to see how they perform over time in the field. But already, those involved with Burn say, they know they’ve reached a major milestone.

“It’s finally ready. It’s finally being received in the field to rave reviews,” said Boston Nyers, Burn’s director of operations who moved to Vashon from a graduate program at the University of Colorado a year ago to work with Scott.

“It’s so exciting that all the work we’ve put in is coming to a climax. It’s just thrilling.”

Scott and his wife, artist Olivia Pendergast, came to Vashon nearly two years, thinking, at the time, that the Island would be their home base as Scott continued to travel around the world, building artisan stoves in developing countries and acting as a consultant to some of the big stove-makers and various NGOs.

But he also had a dream of building a lab that could design the best, most technologically appropriate stoves for a variety of countries and myriad cooking needs — a dream he began to share with a few people after he arrived on the Island.

When he gave his first talk about his vision for a better world through intelligent stove-design in November of 2010, he realized he had landed in the right place. The room at Courthouse Square was packed. Afterwards, dozens of Islanders, mostly engineers but also people with backgrounds in law, finance, business and manufacturing, told them they wanted to help.

The project took off. And for the past 18 months, dozens of people have worked long hours, most of them for not a penny of pay, to help him bring his dream to fruition.

Ted Clabaugh has offered hundreds of hours of pro-bono legal work, getting Burn Design Lab established as a nonprofit and Burn Manufacturing Co. established as the for-profit arm of the operation. Scott Durkee ran the testing program for three months in his backyard — before they built their lab in the Sheffield Building. Keith Putnam has been part of the design team, helping to design a separate stove for Guatemala, an effort that included the 80-something-year-old architect taking a trip to the Central American nation. Lou Fezio and Michael Ligrano played key roles in engineering and design. John Olson donated $10,000, a cash infusion, Scott said, that came at a time “when we were totally broke.”

Last week, several of the people involved with the effort gathered at a ribbon-burning (rather than a ribbon-cutting, Scott explained with a smile) to celebrate the completion of the small lab that has just been built — much of it with donated labor — next to their shop. The lab is named after Daniel Schumacher, a brilliant software engineer who was part of the original design team and who died last year from cancer.

Scott thanked Islander after Islander for their help — then turned to Bob Powell, an MIT-educated engineer who owns and operates a water-jet machine that can cut metal and who has created the parts for every single prototype the team of designers decided to create.

“I’d not be standing here if it weren’t for Bob,” he told the group. “I’ll start crying if I keep talking about him.”

It’s been a whirlwind, Scott said later, as he talked about the months that followed his talk at Courthouse Square.

He and Pendergast had a daughter, born the week before officials from the Fortune 10 corporation decided to pay a visit to Burn Design Lab. Interns have come and gone, many housed in the backyard cottages and studios of various Islanders eager to offer a small way to help. A film crew — headed by Ward Serrill, who made “Heart of the Game” — has settled in to document the effort, a film that will be called “Catching Fire: Peter Scott’s Stove Army.”

Clabaugh, who serves on the board of both the nonprofit design lab and for-profit manufacturing company, said he has donated countless hours because Scott and his vision are powerfully compelling.

“Peter is so driven and so totally immersed in this project,” he said. “When you meet someone who is that driven, you just want to help any way you can.”

Indeed, Scott, who’s yet to get paid for his work on Vashon and has personally bankrolled much of the effort, has garnered considerable attention for his years of work in the field of third-world stove development. He was among a handful of stove-makers profiled by The New Yorker magazine and was recently named one of the top global thinkers by Foreign Policy Magazine.

Last week, sitting outside of his modest office at the Sheffield Building, he sounded both awed by the support he’s received on Vashon as well as heady about what lies ahead for his team of designers and engineers. Scott said he believes something of magnitude is taking hold on Vashon — the beginning of what could be a new K2, with hundreds of engineers working together to design and build stoves for developing countries around the world. The charcoal stove for East Africa, he said, is just the beginning.

“Vashon was an Island waiting for me,” he said. “This wasn’t going to happen in West Seattle or Belltown.”


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