Green building is hard to pull off, because building is a deeply evolved social phenomenon — it’s one of the oldest human endeavors. Changing building practices, like adopting civil rights or democracy, is a long-term process.
Looking around the table at a recent design meeting, I noticed that the contractors were friends, the engineer was a local, the architect had known somebody in the hiring group for years. That’s why they got selected. They are not green experts, and that fact won’t substantially change over time. Owners need to learn to work with contractors who may not have green experience, but do have a willingness to change. The challenge is to insinuate greenness into what is really, ultimately, a family — not a business. The way to do that is not with a consultant.
What we’re dealing with is a habit — the habit of business as usual — and any habit is hard to break. The most successful programs (think AA’s 12 steps) break the process into manageable bites. At Aspen Skiing Company, partly in response to that contractor’s question, we developed a "Green Building Process" that shows our project managers and contractors exactly what steps they must follow. A similar set of guidelines could become part of LEED or an independent aspect of the U.S. Green Building Council’s work.
In a perfect world, you’d have the process, then you’d have the prescription (highly energy efficient building codes, or aggressive internal green goals), and then you’d have the certification system.
There are other ways to bring green construction to the masses. One is to change green building conferences so that they’re useful. Right now, they’re an aggregation of consultants, architects, planners, builders, or engineers trying to get work by showcasing their projects. They are incentivized against admitting mistakes. Instead, organizers should theme conferences around reality, not dreamed utopias, and invite speakers willing to get into the nitty-gritty of the process, willing to expose their faults and teach people how to avoid them. We need honest discussions, not sales jobs.
Changing codes — by lobbying elected officials to require better insulation, windows, and heating equipment — can, in one sweep of the pen, do more good than centuries of piecemeal green building. This is already happening in many progressive municipalities. Aspen and Crested Butte are two Colorado examples. The U.S. Green Building Council is currently moving its power and spotlight toward greening codes, probably the single most important step it can take to get the big-picture change we need now.
Ultimately, the success or failure of the green-building movement may hinge on how good we are at being teachers, not builders. In the classroom, it’s much easier to go through a checklist than to show how to build a green building. But it’s much more interesting and valuable (and fun!) when designers or builders tell war stories.
A man named Jack Aley used to guest lecture to environmental studies classes at Bowdoin College. He talked about the house he built in coastal Maine, and he always returned to one theme: "Passive solar! Face it south! Superinsulation! Thermal mass. It’s simple, it’s elegant." Jack heated his house with a small woodstove, but he said it was so tight you could heat the place by making love.
Jack is something of a Maine redneck, and maybe that’s what we most need to complement our integrated processes and biomimicry and LEED and lifecycle analysis: a redneck 10 commandments of green building that works for residential and commercial spaces alike:
- Don’t bother, unless you have a committed owner, sufficient time, the best goddam engineer, a willing architect, and a construction company that believes.
- Be a bulldog! Establish clear expectations repeatedly enunciated, making it unmistakable what you care about and what you want.
- Have a good bullshit detector: accept no compromises or excuses.
- Use consultants in response to specific issues, as a way to help the design and construction team, not in a "Green God" capacity.
- Forget the fruit salad (certification) until you’re done, then use it to see how you did.
- Don’t forget the subcontractors; they are the ground troops.
- Keep your eye on the ball — which is energy efficiency, not bamboo floors. Don’t fall in love with funky eco-products, and save biomimicry for tomorrow. For today, just get ‘er done right.
- Superinsulate, caulk, and, for residential construction, face it south.
- Be paranoid: have a third-party engineer inspect the heating and cooling systems in design and after construction. It’s common sense, like sending along a chaperone to your daughter’s prom.
- Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. At the end, go through all your mistakes and figure out how to avoid them next time.
And finally, the way to check your work, at least for residential construction: if you can make love and heat the house, you done good.
Auden Schendler is director of environmental affairs at Aspen Skiing Company