Inspire spent an autumn afternoon in the lush backyard of a classic Philly rowhome and watched Close at Hand Innovations get down in the dirt.
In your own words, what does Close at Hand Innovations do?
Lena: Close at Hand provides urban landscaping, as well as custom wood and metal fabrication to Philadelphia’s residents. We construct rain gardens, raised beds, native perennial beds and install irrigation and exterior electrical work. We also build internal and external structures like railings, planter boxes, as well as trellises, patios, roof decks, and
bike shelters. We manage for the particular needs of our clients and often the constrained, diverse spaces they live in. When it comes to plantings, we work with the client to determine how much they can and are wishing to care for themselves. This will often determine features in the initial design and plan.
We’ve heard a lot about your involvement with other Philadelphia organizations. Could you tell us a litle about that?
Paul: We work in collaboration with The Philadelphia Water Department and serve as a contractor to the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. PWD is on the cutting edge for dealing with stormwater. There are a lot more roofs and impermeable surfaces, such as parking lots, etc than there is stormwater infrastructure to manage for them. PWD in partnership with the Sustainable Business Network and the Philadelphia Horticultural Society has taken a 25 year passive green approach for managing for it. Four disciplines they offer are permeable paving, rain gardens, planter boxes, and rain barrels. So, this past year, we have been helping them with some of those initiatives. As of this March, they had collectively installed 6,000 rain barrels across Philadelphia. The planter boxes have been a real winner because it also ends up being a beautification program, they are very attractive structures, and we use hearty native perennials to fill them.
How long have you been in business together and what did you do before Close at Hand?
Lena: We have been in business since 2011 and in 2014 we incorporated. Before starting Close at Hand, I initiated a community project to open the Kensington Community Food Co-op and directed the organization through the process of securing a lease for the future store. Paul is a heavy equipment mechanic by trade and maintained the equipment for the Walnut Lane public golf course. I receive ongoing horticulture training through the Penn State Extension Master Gardener’s Program and PHS and we both through the Sustainable Business Network Green Storm Initiative Program.
Lena: The building we currently operate out of came up for rent exactly at the right time. We already had so many connections here through the Circle of Hope Community Church and the Fishtown/Kensington neighborhood networks. We moved here in 2006 and when the opportunity to stick around came up, we just said let’s go for it.
What does the phrase ‘Close at Hand’ mean to you?
Paul: We discovered that a lot people we knew from church and the surrounding community were complaining that the type of work we now offer was a very far reach from the local neighborhood. And we had finally found a great big spot within our own neighborhood to set up shop, instead of driving nearly 40 minutes to our shop before, now - it’s close at hand. We wanted the name to allude to our we felt and reflect the people in the neighborhood could now feel.
Lena: Additionally, what differentiates us from other landscaping companies comes down to what we value. One of the things us urban dwellers can become very disconnected from is our relationship to the natural world. But, with our work, the world of nature can be right here, close at hand, and we are part of making it happen for you.
What is the most fulfilling part of the job?
Lena: We’re new at being small business owners, and it’s been an interesting experience - you have to be everything for yourself and your business. Personally, what fulfills me the most is providing such a valuable service to people. In our small way, we are contributing to beautifying spaces and creating habitats for all different kinds of species, plants, animals, birds, and ourselves. As humans, we need healthy habitats too, and all of us thrive when we have them. It’s a great thing.
Paul: Now that I work for my clients full-time, the life of the business is dependent on me. I show up and I do what needs to be done. A lot of it is routine, but it can also be like a treasure hunt. I occasionally have the opportunity to find a genius solution that really makes people happy and helps the environment around us.
What impact do you feel you have on Philadelphia and its goal towards a more sustainable future?
Paul: I’ve really enjoyed working with the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. The work we do for storm water management may seem a little mundane, but what’s really great about the rain barrels is that they’re free, and it’s all about bringing more people into the sustainability net. I find that when I meet with clients who don’t have much means or disposable incomes, it’s nice to talk to them and shift their framework just a little bit towards being able to live more sustainably. In order for Philadelphia to be truly sustainable, we need to reach some sort of critical mass, and we can do that by continuing to enter these lower income neighborhoods and spreading the word, diffusing more value, and increase overall understanding.
Lena: We use Inspire for our home and our workshop. We found out about Inspire through word of mouth, which we trust more than anything. We’re all for using wind energy - and it just made sense for us. It ties nicely into our mission, and we are all for supporting other companies with roots in Philadelphia.
To find out more about Close at Hand, check out their website.
Visit their workshop at:
2065 East York Street
Philadelphia, PA 19125
Give them a call at: