It’s Not Easy Being Green (Part 1)

Cumming Construction Booth at GreenfestYou may have heard of the LEED Certification system, which is a national standard for green building. LEED is still rare in residential remodeling, due to the high costs involved in retrofitting the existing home and the rigorous third-party certification process.

That being said, one of my favorite aspects of LEED is that it requires builders and designers to research every building material source, its manufacturing process, and travel distance to the job site — whether salvaged and reclaimed, extracted from an FSC-certified forest, recycled from waste products, or a renewable resource.

Because the answers, especially in remodeling, can be more grey than green. The truth is, everyone from contractors to product salespeople wants to be green these days, so there is an awful lot of “greenwashing” (“clean coal,” anyone?) By the way, only a building can be LEED Certified, not a person or product.

Consider bamboo, for instance. It’s one of the most popular green products available -– bamboo fights global warming by releasing 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees, it doesn’t destroy the topsoil when harvested, and it’s renewable every three to five years. Unfortunately, much of the bamboo now available is harvested overseas by countries exploiting its sudden popularity –- resulting in over-harvesting, additional shipping expense, and questionable labor practices.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of bamboo, its durability and warmth in addition to its environmental benefits (I recently installed bamboo flooring in my own home). I’m simply suggesting that “environmentally friendly” doesn’t mean perfect, and compromises — whether financial, stylistic, or pragmatic — are inevitable in any major home improvement project.

We recently installed CFL bulbs in the new recessed lighting kits of a kitchen remodel in Fairmount. Although the bulbs were marketed as dimmable, after going a shade less bright they simply went dark. The result: out came the CFL bulbs in favor of the inefficient and energy-wasting incandescents (though the dimmers still save lamp life and reduce electrical output, both green positives). Again, good intentions tempered by practical application.

This fall we exhibited our work at two “green” events around Philadelphia — the Manayunk Eco-Fest and the GreenFest on South Street. Not only did we meet many people who appreciated our knowledge of green materials and products, but it was great to network and see what other exhibitors — from energy auditors to green roof designers — were introducing to the marketplace.

One part of the GreenFest I found particularly noteworthy was that, due to a scheduling conflict, our event shared space with a benefit walk for cancer (which we were happy to do, even swapping our company’s maroon tablecloth for a purple one). The cancer event director confided to me, as the festivals were winding down, that the GreenFest organizers gave her a very hard time because she was distributing collateral material in plastic bags. I empathized so deeply with her dilemma that all I could do was respond, “It ain’t easy.”

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Toolbelts and Textbooks: Our Ongoing Education

Jon has been building custom homes and remodeling for over half of his life (which, I jokingly remind him, is a very long time). And simply by practicing thoughtful and responsible habits — considering long-term and life-cycle sustainability, and maximizing nature’s resources in an efficient and conserving manner — he was a green builder, I believe, long before the term came into vogue.

He’s taught me construction and remodeling along those lines, so although it’s fun to read about trendy materials and more efficient systems, the philosophy and mindset are already second nature. Each time I eagerly bring an article to work about a new insulation or roofing shingle, he unfailingly responds, “Doesn’t that make sense?”

Deliver better indoor air quality, make the home cost less to operate, and minimize the negative impact the home has on the environment — these aren’t revolutionary concepts. The products themselves may improve on earlier versions, but the practical goals have been around even longer than, well, Jon.

That being said, we find it extremely important not to rest on our (green) laurels. Jon and I both are avid readers and self-educators on emerging green techniques and materials through trade magazines, web sites, seminars, manufacturer and distributor newsletters, and trade shows.

Jon is currently pursuing continuing education through the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI), where he is studying to become a Certified Remodeler (nothing like going back to school after 25 years in the business). Although his course load doesn’t specifically focus on green building, the information seems to take a pragmatic approach to environmentally responsible and cost-effective solutions for long-term goals (again, a basic definition of green building).

Last year I became a LEED Accredited Professional, which was a very intense six months of classes, studying and a pass-fail exam. The US Green Building Council defines a LEED AP as someone who has demonstrated a thorough understanding of green building practices and resources. He or she is also trained in the process of attaining LEED Certification for their projects. I belong to the US Green Building Council’s local Delaware Valley Chapter, as well, where I sit on the Emerging Professionals and Residential Circle Committees.

Check out next week’s blog to see how we’ve incorporated some green principles into our everyday work.

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