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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Green Building

Maybe it's time to head to the bar

Posted on Nov 5 2010 by Carl Seville, GBA Advisor

My recent post about banning fiberglass batt insulation (thanks for all the wonderful comments) was inspired by a couple of pre-drywall inspections on homes I am in the process of certifying under the EarthCraft House program. Recently I completed pre-drywall and final inspections on several LEED for Homes projects I am working on, and have participated in several meetings on an affordable LEED townhouse development that is just coming out of the ground. The level of building performance and compliance with program requirements in these projects varies widely. While all of the projects are generally far superior to average construction, most of them have problems that could have been avoided through a combination of better planning and tighter management.

The good
It seems to me that the level of contractor performance falls into one of three categories: high, moderate or low. Even the high-performance projects fall a little short in a few areas. The best projects are by contractors who are fully committed to sustainable building, working with architects who are similarly committed. During the pre-drywall inspection on one project, I identified some deficient window flashing, which the contractor quickly corrected, anxious to do the right thing. The final inspection on this same project identified a few minor problems, mostly related to duct leakage inside the building envelope, which, while not great, shouldn’t cause any major problems.

The bad
The contractors who fall into the moderate category are interested in green building, but they are still new to it. They have had some training but are still learning the intricacies of the subject, achieving some—but not very complete—success in the process. These homes were also not designed from the start to be green buildings, creating challenges for the builders in the field. I expect that with more experience and training—and hopefully better plans—these builders will rise to the challenge with future projects.

The ugly
While not common, I have certified and consulted on a few projects where the contractors just didn’t care enough to put in the effort to build a high-performance home, and resisted any efforts to upgrade their work, even when their clients were willing to pay for it. While this disappoints me, I have to let it go. I hope they will eventually upgrade their work or move on to another profession where they can’t do as much damage.

The projects that really bothered me were the ones by contractors who should have known better. I work for several companies that are experienced green builders, recognized locally and nationally in publications and with awards for their work. Objectively, these projects are the most high-performance homes I see, but they have far too many minor defects and poor decisions for the level of experience of these builders. I believe that most of this is due to communication breakdowns between management and the field, something that I experienced frequently when I was still building and renovating.

Are we on the Titanic?
I have come to the conclusion that it is not easy for contractors to go green, particularly in our current, cutthroat building market. It is a real challenge to be competitive enough to stay in business, make a profit, and satisfy clients, while making substantial changes in work process to build better, green homes. New homes must compete on price with underpriced foreclosures and distressed sales, and few purchasers understand or are willing to pay for high-quality construction that everyone should be demanding.

What will it take to improve the performance of all new and existing homes, and how long will it take us to get there? I was at a lecture by a corporate sustainability consultant recently, and during a discussion about how long it will take to get to universal sustainability, someone asked him the question “Do you sometimes feel like you are on the Titanic and just want to go to the bar?” While I enjoy what I do and generally feel hopeful, sometimes I just want to go to the bar.

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Nov 6, 2010 1:49 PM ET

Some of us do our best work at the bar
by Michael Chandler, GBA Advisor

The Titanic analogy is brilliant. But the biggest issue for me right now is that when we are blessed enough to connect with clients who are willing to invest first cost money for a long term operational and return on investment advantage the banks and appraisers aren't willing to loan money to support those investments.

We recently were forced to install code minimum attic insulation in a project because we were committed to using spray foam to keep ducts within the thermal envelope and the bank would only permit the project to go forward if the owners came up with additional down payment money to pay cash for the additional insulation.

We decided that it would be less of an inconvenience to add more cellulose to the ceiling in a year or two when they can afford it and to spend the limited cash they had in excess of the down payment on the solar thermal system and rainwater harvesting, which the bank also saw as frivolous amenities, despite the fact that the client was clearly happy to pay for them.

This is why changing the building code is so important, if energy efficiency is required by code we won't have to fight the appraisers for permission to build efficient homes.

See you at the bar dude!

Nov 7, 2010 1:33 PM ET

Cash or mortgages
by RLTarch

Keep your chin up, progress is being made! The Titanic sank and there's no floating it again, but houses come and houses go...we can build better new ones, improve the ones with inherent value, and send the rest to Davey Jones' locker (yeah, a stretch, I know).

In the meantime, we should be working backwards - towards the time before the home mortgage, when people actually had to save money to buy a house. If our clients we thus restricted, they'd be far more careful about their home choices, and far less dependent upon the banks, underwriters, and appraisers.

Michael - if the bank's role in the project you describe above were greatly reduced, your clients would be free to make the choices that you know would benefit that house. Would it be a very different house? No doubt it would - but that's what we're all trying to do anyway, right?

Nov 7, 2010 2:24 PM ET

Improved efficiency
by Doug McEvers

Better built homes as the norm will only come through the code system. The new 2012 IECC is a great start, this levels the playing field on a cost basis and gives committed builders an experience advantage.

Nov 8, 2010 9:47 AM ET

Codes are not alone
by Steve El

I agree energy efficiency should be written into codes.

I do not agree that this is the ONLY tool available. Any lender that gets any type of federal assistance (that casts a pretty wide net) could be required, as a condition of continuing to get that assistance, to (a) incorporate the concepts of energy efficient mortgages into their boilerplate loans and (b) rely on mortgage appraisals using different appraisal methodologies than are presently being used. I'm not smart enough to think through the obstacles and details, I just believe that the building code is NOT the only tool available.

Nov 8, 2010 12:17 PM ET

if co2 is truly bad and fossil fuels r limited...
by a non mouse

Then the simple answer is to raise the price of it out of existence. (like what we are doing to tobacco)

We need to tax fuel incrementally higher per year and force it out of use and out of the atmosphere and out of our homes.

Banks and contractors and customers would be lined up to go net zero if it hit their wallet logically and emotionally like a baseball hit out of the park.
Still, nice to have a cold ipa to further discuss such

Nov 8, 2010 12:27 PM ET

leadership is also very important Taunton Press, Inc.
by a non mouse

Dear Taunting CEO and all staff writers;

Your posts, blogs, website front-page and emails should be including lots of blurb as to how Taunton is moving to being a fully sustaining entity. How you have ended all useof fossil fuels, how all who work there telecommute,walk, bike, and also live carbon neutral. By now you should be even going toward net positive in your energy use at the office.

What is Taunton doing to walk the walk and do as it makes a living preaching about?

I know its just an outside mouse's suggestion, but it's still good one. Lead by example....
A non mouse

Nov 8, 2010 12:40 PM ET

Speaking for myself
by Martin Holladay, GBA Advisor

Dear NonMouse,
I'm not sure whether anyone at Taunton is available to answer your challenge. But here's my response: I make no claim to leading a green lifestyle.

I think almost every American falls short when it comes to global environmental responsibility, and I certainly include myself among the offenders. I am currently striving to move my own lifestyle in the direction of greater responsibility.

Nov 8, 2010 1:48 PM ET

Thanks Martin, something is
by Steve El

Thanks Martin, something is more than nothing, and that's what our family is trying to do also. I'm sure nonmouse's electronics are coupled with plastics based on hand distilled homegrown hemp seed oil, so you and I both have a long way to go to catch up!

Nov 8, 2010 10:59 PM ET

something is not more than nothing.
by a wanabee green mouse

Incremental straight line change will not lead to anywhere near the target of a green sustainable densely (humanly) populated planet. Let's say me along with all of us are 1% of the way to our goal of being 100% green. Now we have to decide our rate that we are going to become more green per time, say we pledge to be 100% more green per every 18 months like processor improvement (Moore's Law.) 1% to 2%, to 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, and GOAL 128!! In 10 years we are there boys and girls. What's stopping myself and you all. The other green....$$$$$$. What would push us to go green? How about fuel taxes that double every 18 months to pro us. Gas tax from 18 cents to 36,72,1.44,2.88,5.66,11.32,22.64,45.28!!! I bet we would be done using fossil fuel and pretty green if fuel taxes even equaled tobacco taxes rate if increase.

So we should all pledge to go green at some rate per year of change including Taunton Press, Inc. and we should all vote for politicians that will tax fossil fuels out of use.

One person has a 5 year lead on many of us. Riversong in his small cabin bathing once a week.

A non green mouse

Nov 8, 2010 11:37 PM ET

"What would push us to go
by Steve El

"What would push us to go green?"

If "us" means the voting electorate the I believe the only answer is "system failure". And that's inevitable, since capitalism requires never-ending economic growth and nature does not provide any examples of never-ending growth (except maybe the expansion of the universe). So there is a stone cold wall we're going to hit. Maybe not all at once or in a single generation, but you get the gist I'm sure. IMO, society is a lot like a teenager of 13 years. Knows everything, will live forever, and will never screw up. R-i-g-h-t. For lessons that stay with them, experience usually trumps soapboxes. Applied to our society, I'd say everything is just fine, actually. Nature will react if we exceed carrying capacity for our lifestyle, just like nature reacts when any other species does the same thing. (Personally I'd say that's already happening) One big difference is that we have the technology and education to be able to understand it and have global conversation about it as it unfolds, so we might actually take some of the lessons to heart this time. But IMO, it is unnatural to expect humans to voluntarily and suddenly embrace a profound understanding of ecological population dynamics. Instead, we're just riding the wave like any other animal species that exceeds its carrying capacity JUST because it makes intellectual sense. We're not wired that way. Next time around, maybe we'll be more ready to act like humans instead of animals. But not this time. We've only just got our driving license, and we really need to crash a couple cars to figure out how to drive. No amount of soapboxing can change that. And since its all very natural, this is not the slightest bit depressing to me. Its really kinda cool. Nature at work, and we are about to - maybe - be taught what "sustainable" means. Exciting times, for ours and the next few generations. I sure hope my child doesn't starve to death on any ecologically driven refugee event. But that doesn't change my big picture feelings of hope. Experience is an awesome teacher, and we're finally old enough to "get it" this time. Maybe.

BTW.... while we're going green, I want to go green with joy, fun, celebrating what works, and living in ways that strengthen community bonds and the individuals respected place in society. It is far too easy to go green so fast and so far that one ends up isolated and grumpy on the margin of society. I'm speaking of myself, by the way. I tried it once.

Steve El

Nov 9, 2010 8:32 AM ET

Great post Steve... I'll add two cents to it.. or a bit more
by A non mouse

Your last post is great... but... to me you and all green thinkers and minor do'rs just don't see the future correctly from the present and past. World advancement and discovery is bringing improvements and solutions to all of us at a faster and faster rate, exponential. Every 18 months is the doubling rate with processors. That speed... is filtering through all of our world via processors (computers and software and the internet and ACS) ... Silicon is becoming much more capable than multitudes of men and women and children working in any way that we all did in all past history.

So... you can't conclude that the future will go the way of the past. Nope. The future will turn out different than the end of us... because capitalistic industry will and is solving the world's problems as it makes economic sense to solve. That is why we will have someday more taxes on fossil juice if it finally is needed to help prod us in a new direction more quickly.

And population, will not continue to grow for developed countries too fast for our future carrying capacity. Nature's heavy hand tactics... will still be working away at places like Haiti a bit longer but I see that improving eventually. We already in developed countries are able to take other countries citizens in to keep our growth at the steady rate we need for what you call our current system of semi capitalism.

I like you predict nature will do it's thing... but... also that silicon, and all the micro nano, atomic level discoveries will make much of it wildly new and game changing. Like lasers and the internet and quatum physics... and the wheel... have.

Your kids will live into a time when aging is understood more... and modifyable... and much much more. They may live to see the first mini nuclear attack and counterattack... ouch. I still say it pays to choose where to live and not just in the country of your birth.

Yes... I agree lots of interesting future to eventually live through.

a non mouse and very green seer/god (green as in the 12 year old that knows it all already, lol)

Nov 9, 2010 9:28 AM ET

Hope you're right. But
by Steve El

Hope you're right. But silicon can't change the fact that there is only so many kilograms on this planet. If we convert ALL of those kilos into human flesh, then what? Like I said, nature does not provide any earthly examples of never ending growth. Unless you can get rid of inflation, under capitalism the lower buying power of a unit of currency will require for profit corps to cut costs and move more products just to tread water. You move more products by increasing demand of existing consumers, by turning poor folks into consumers, and by birthing more folks into consumer culture. You build in obsolescence. Your for-profit corp MUST do these things just to tread water, since the corps amount of currency loses value due to inflation (as does the stockholders).

I think you'd agree technology keeps increasing carrying capacity..... be it silicon or fire or water purification. It's all good. But it also all has limits. Each time we avoid learning about limits and sustainability with a new round of technology, we build a drier taller pile of super dry kindling in the ponderosa pine forest. If we don't start growing strawberries instead, we're gonna have one hell of a stand-replacing forest fire.

Maybe its like urban sprawl driven freeways. A bit of congestion happens, so they justify a new fwy saying it will relieve the existing congestion. And if sprawl STOPPED dead in its tracks, it probably would. Instead, the added fwy just encourages yet more sprawl until the new road is as bad as the old road (maybe even worse since you have further to travel to get into downtown).

I am definitely not anti-tech, but I am anti-economic growth. Which is strange to say because when things are growing, my bread and butter business booms and right now I'm seriously hurting. But it doesn't change the facts. Never ending growth is not possible. I'm not smart enough to figure out what would be better but I am smart enough to know that NO economic system can grow forever, so making growth a central pillar of your system seems good for 700 years of partying, and however more are left before we reach max our card, but its a lousy basis for just one year of sustainability.

Perhaps the path to lifeboats is lit with emergency lights, and those lights are power by bravely looking afresh at capitalisms pros.... but more importantly its weaknesses.

Nov 9, 2010 9:47 AM ET

Another analog
by Steve El

PS.... directly on the subject of looking for the answer in technology.......

Would you rather have ten dollars in your account and overdraw the account by one, or have ten million in your account and overdraw it by nine and half million? There's no correct answer. I just offer this as an analogy to technology-driven increases in carrying capacity.

Or consider a growing trust fund or other investment..... if you live off some of the interest all is well and good. If you spend a little of the principal early on (ie exceed carrying capacity back in 1600 for example), that has big longterm consequences but you never really feel that pain. BUT if you spend most of the principal after it has grown considerably (ie seriously exceed carrying capacity in 2075) you will be seriously hurting. Every tech boost in carrying capacity makes for a longer drop when carrying capacity is seriously exceeded and plummets to establish a new equilibrium. I hate to be around when new technology doesn't pull our behind out of the flames. (Actually maybe I would. Nature is awesome and this is just one more natural process)

I prefer option A.

Nov 10, 2010 2:14 AM ET

Confessions from the's not my fault!
by Christopher Johnson

I'm struck by the example of what really bothers you (the ones who know better, but something gets lost between management and execution) and wonder if that's not a case of the systems at play getting in the way (and dis-empowering people to make green decisions). One of the most telling examples of this I came across of this dynamic at play was a case study of a BP refinery. The refinery was flaring off natural gas for years and many of the employees knew it was dumb and wasteful, but no one ever said or did anything. After a fairly significant intervention in the company culture, it actually became a project and employees were able to do something about it. Crazy thing - payback period was 2 WEEKS!

I'm generally a very optimistic and hopeful person, too, when it comes to saving the world. My company (ifPeople works in support of green businesses - and increasingly green building materials companies - to help them market and sell more effectively. The thing that has been getting me down lately (and yes, was the motivator for me to make that comment about the Titanic at that talk!) is how BAD they are at it most of the time. It leads to many good ideas (and products) totally failing in the marketplace. We've started to write on the phenomenon in our blog (see post following SJF Summit on green economy and post about why social change is so slow). It's been good food for thought, but hasn't led to fueling optimism yet!

While good ideas certainly require good execution (something too often overlooked...), my conclusion (currently) about the state of saving the world - I think the system dynamics at play are more to blame than individuals (and yes, Tirza, Marty and Kim are at the "Systems Thinking in Action" conference this week!). My question is this - can we learn how to fix the problem (and carry it out) fast enough to save our butts?! I'm feeling a bit more optimistic today, but perhaps that's because of a couple of homebrews ;)


Nov 10, 2010 2:20 AM ET

The Titanic
by BethSEGreen

I always want to go to the bar. I make sure I walk so my carbon footprint will be low : ) Actually, I was at that conference too. The bad news was there were several speakers who wanted to make you go to the bar. The good news is everyone in the end had a message of hope!

Nov 10, 2010 9:32 AM ET

never ending growth...
by A non mouse neo-dadaist

Steve great post... you have me thinking, I like that. So... never ending growth not in nature?

How about humans???? I would say for quite few years more than my lifetime the human race has been increasing. Why? Because we as a species have one powerful highly advanced biological processor... that has gone one step further than most other living things, it communicates, and records that communication both in itself and on the walls of caves and now in "the cloud" even.

Nov 10, 2010 5:14 PM ET

Sun still sets even if it's only 10am
by Steve El

Non mouse, you ask if human population growth is an example of never-ending growth. "Never" would have to include the future, right? We don't know the future. But we do know that the amount of helium on the sun will not grow forever. Atomic fusion up there is pretty cool, errrr hot I mean, but there's only so much hydrogen to turn into helium. After that, it's lights out. Did you know scientists think the sun will expand as it dies, until earths orbit is actually below the sun's surface? Sort of puts some perspective on things. point is that none of the sciences can give us an example of never ending growth. The fact that something is growing NOW does not mean it can grow FOREVER. That would be like saying the sun will never set because it's obviously still going up. Of course if its only 10am you can immediately see that would be a false conclusion. Human pop growth is the sun and its still before noon. This analogy breaks down at noon because I'm not prepared to predict what happens after noon. Maybe human pop levels off in equilibrium with carrying capacity for our lifestyle and population. Maybe carrying capacity free falls. Maybe it gracefully sets, matching the curve of population growth on the upswing, like the setting sun matches the curve of the rising.
Who knows?

Human population growth has been growing that's true. Like I said, there are only so many kilos on the earth. At some point, we will be unable to convert additional kilos into man-flesh. Never ending growth is non-existent. I would so love to come back a few hundred years after we figure that out, and find out what people of that time say looking back at the free-market advocates who hitched their cart to that false assumption.

Nov 10, 2010 11:22 PM ET

We will leave Earth ...a we can slowly grow forever...
by A non mouse neo-dadaist

The universe and life will and can continue to expand forever possibly. I think so. Steve... see you on the other side and I'll buy the IPAs.

Nov 11, 2010 9:19 AM ET

The nail
by Allison A. Bailes III, PhD, GBA Advisor

Steve El, you've hit the nail on the head! It sounds like you've been reading, listening to, and/or watching Dr. Albert Bartlett's talks on the arithmetic of exponential growth, or else you figured it out another way. It's nice to find someone else preaching the gospel of the end of growth, because it sure feels lonely out here when you're one of the only ones doing it.

I love the way you've put it:

"Nature does not provide any examples of never-ending growth (except maybe the expansion of the universe)."

"Silicon can't change the fact that there is only so many kilograms on this planet. If we convert ALL of those kilos into human flesh, then what?"

It's really pretty simple, but I have to agree - We humans just seem not be wired to grasp it, so we keep forging on, blithely unaware that we're heading for the same place Wile E. Coyote kept finding himself - three steps past the edge of the cliff.

Nov 11, 2010 10:42 AM ET

Dr Bartlett.... who? Thanks
by Steve El

Dr Bartlett.... who? Thanks for kind words, Allison. What really amazes me is that back when I did enviro ed, my 10 year olds would ask their parents about human population growth after just a 45 minute class on the subject. They get it and get it instantly.

Why don't adults? I have a hypothesis here. I speculate that brain imagery might show similar areas of the brain light up when we think about limits to economic or population growth, and think about limits on the years we will live. I think its safe to say we're hardwired to fear death. My speculation is that thinking about the limits of population or economic growth triggers the same fear process, neurologically speaking. There's endless examples in literature that look at what happens when we try to cheat death. Poe's "The Monkey Hand. LeGuin's third book in the Earthsea Trilogy "The Farthest Shore". And on and on.

I'm convinced the real answers lie as much in psychology and social work as they lie in sensible building technologies. When we value mental health as much as net worth we'll be making some real progress, and might be able to start looking at these questions with much less fear.

Another screwed up part of the American mythos is the stupid idea that we have to have all the answers.

I'm sure you've seen those things work off of each other.... if you stand up and say "never ending growth is impossible" you get a hostile response "fine, but what's YOUR answer, you commie bastard?" I try to make sure students know its important to call attention to vital problems even when they have no clue what to do about them.

Keep the torch burning, Allison! There's a lot more of us growth-literate folk on the street than public forums would make you think. They just need to get connected with each other so they keep talking about this.

Steve El

Nov 11, 2010 11:37 PM ET

The Ocean is large, don't focus on the Icebergs
by Jeff

I agree that in the current economic environment and with a large supply of cheap and inefficient housing stock available that it will be difficult to convince buyers and builders alike to build green. However there are some macro trends that should help shift the demand to more energy-efficient homes.

One of these is the preference of the Echo-Boomers for more energy efficient and green housing. This generation is larger than the baby-boomers and is just starting to enter the housing market. This generation places a premium on living in walkable locations or where public transportation is available. They also will put their money where there mouth is and make a statement by buying a green home that is consistent with their overall support of a more environmental way of life.

The second macro trend is the ever-increasing cost of energy. Although there is a brief reduction in energy costs as you mentioned, with continued population growth in the US and especially abroad (China, India, etc) will cause energy prices to stay on an upward trajectory. Because the main recognizable and tangible benefit of green building is its cost savings in the long run, increased building costs will soon be overshadowed by savings on energy bills.

Nov 12, 2010 12:15 AM ET

Steve, Jeff, Allison
by a non sequitur mouse and peach pit

Population is not continuing exponentially. Knowledge is!!!!

Except yours.

Plot the two as knowledge outgrows population we cruise into a bright future.

The sky is always falling chickin littles.

Yaa right.

Hasn't fallin the last ten end of times predictions and it won't now.

Sorry to be your all's protagonist but someone has to do it.

Might as well be a mouse.

With much love to you all and the future...

Jan 26, 2011 6:02 PM ET

Edited Jan 26, 2011 6:06 PM ET.

gentle tax increases and price floors...
by Ted Kidd

Carl, this is a great site!

Coming from an economics and financial planning background I think everything can ultimately be measured in dollars, (or even time, but that's for another discussion). Reality is, paying a premium to be "green" needs to be balanced with keeping the doors open.

People/businesses would love to invest in efficiency, but if fuel prices drop that $40k sprinter van that gets 22mpg just got much MORE expensive every month than the $12k Ford 9mpg pig the competition drives. Without some price stability and insurance of inflation the risk of large capital expense over small may mean when the economy changes you are uncompetitive, it may mean bankruptcy.

Price floors, with tax increases projected into the future allow business to plan and do math that encourages capital investment in higher efficiency. In Germany they built their solar infrastructure by offering per kwh price guarantees to people interested in building solar farms. We need to protect "green" intentions with a little price insurance.

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