Founder and CEO Chris Caskey is rethinking ceramics manufacturing with an eye on sustainability.
Caskey took his company’s name from a long-shuttered brick manufacturer, adding “& Climate” to reflect a new manufacturing mindset. It follows that Delta Brick & Climate Company is as much about capturing methane as it is about making bricks.
The company got its start in Denver before moving to Montrose in 2019. Caskey’s original vision was to build a brick and tile factory at a closed mine to power the operation with residual methane. The source of the clay: the sediment trapped behind the dam at Paonia Reservoir.
The idea originally emerged from a convergence of factors on Colorado’s Western Slope. “We targeted Paonia because, one, it was a place my wife and I were interested in living,” says Caskey. “Two, I was involved in a local nonprofit here, Western Slope Conservation Center, and they have watershed and farm health programs, so the reservoir issue was on my radar. I got involved in methane capture from that same group, where they were trying to find some proactive solutions for these old coal mines.”
Caskey brainstormed how he could use waste methane from a mine. “Burned gas makes heat, but what can you do with it?” says Caskey. “Ceramics manufacturing is a high-heat industry.”
While manufacturing on or near a mine remains part of the long-term vision, the permitting and financing proved challenging. “I was hoping to build the factory on an old coal mine and do the whole vision all at once,” says Caskey. “I priced this out and wrote a business plan, took it to a bank and said, ‘All I need is two million bucks. I’ll put in a methane-capture system and build a new building.’ The general response was: ‘How about you sell one tile first, then we can talk about a loan?'”
It follows that Delta Brick & Climate leased a 2,300-square-foot space in Montrose to launch manufacturing.
The reservoir-rooted supply chain, on the other hand, has sailed smoothly. “I got a bucket of mud and took it back to the lab, and sure enough,” says Caskey. “Clay plus heat equals ceramics.”
The process starts with “a whole slew of permits” and a dump truck, says Caskey. The operation has been dredging 40 cubic yards of clay — about 60 tons — from Paonia Reservoir in the fall when the water level is low. “We drive an excavator down the boat ramp, scoop up some mud, put it in a dump truck, drive it to Montrose,” he explains.
Caskey and company mix the clay with grog (“basically sand”), extrude it into ribbons, which are then cut, textured, kiln-fired at nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and glazed into tiles, bricks, and pavers.
Delta Brick & Climate shipped its first order of tile in May 2020. The company is focused on small-batch, custom runs. “It’s pretty much all made to order,” says Caskey. “We hold a little bit of inventory. . . . We sell them pretty much all directly to consumers and work with a few interior designers.”
Growth has come in spurts, but the overall trajectory is positive. “It’s been a zig-zag upwards,” says Caskey, forecasting profitability in 2022.
Beyond manufacturing, the company is involved in a project aiming to bring electricity generation to some out-of-business coal mines near Redstone, and sees potential for other sites. “We see our future in methane capture,” he says. “Maybe it’s high-heat manufacturing, maybe it’s electricity, maybe something else. Then you develop that as a climate play and try to keep methane out of the atmosphere, but at the same time creating good jobs and value for the community.”
Challenges: “There’s a big regulatory challenge with coal gas,” says Caskey. “It does not fit cleanly under Bureau of Land Management rules for oil and gas, and it doesn’t fit well in their coal program either. We’ve been working with Senator Bennet’s office to get that sorted out. That’s a challenge and a goal for this year.”
But the supply chain for clay is the opposite, as sediment can significantly choke a reservoir’s capacity. “Clay is extremely abundant on Earth, so sediment in most any reservoir is going to be good,” says Caskey. “Just to use all of the mud that comes down every year [at Paonia Reservoir], we would need to be one of the largest brick factories in the United States.”
He adds, “The real solution is we need to send that mud downstream with the water and rebuild the delta of the Colorado River, but that’s out of my control.”
Opportunities: Methane capture is at the top of the list. “Climate and climate action,” says Caskey. “We say we’re an example of a way to do business and a way to interact with our environment. We think it’s a positive way, but we don’t fool ourselves into thinking it’s the whole solution.”
He also sees opportunities in the form of new products like soap dishes, pizza stones, and coasters made from the “rejection collection” of misshapen tiles.
Needs: Employees. “We’re going to keep hiring,” says Caskey, noting that he’d also like an assist in the form of tile-cutting automation. “That’s a real factory bottleneck.”
A new Delta Brick & Climate facility is also in the offing. “It’s either rent somewhere else or build the thing you actually want,” says Caskey.
While banks initially snubbed him, it’s a different story in 2022. “We have proved it out from a market standpoint, we just need to secure a site and raise some money,” he notes.