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Green Advocate

Q&A With Martin Holladay

The esteemed editor and building science guru shares industry insight and a few recommendations

I don’t know Martin Holladay all that well. He is my predecessor, a GBA founder, and arguably one of the main reasons the site is as valued as it is. Over the past three years, I’ve heard stories and read articles enough to have gathered that Martin is, first and foremost, a pragmatist. And I like that. I think a lot of people do. In fact, I think it is what has earned him his reputation as a reliable source for data-backed information—one with an eye toward cost-effective measures and ways to economize. For these reasons, I wanted to turn the tables and interview the journalist who helped launch the publication to which we are all indebted in one way or another. Luckily, the “retired editor enjoying his retirement” was amenable. And so we have it . . . 

Michael Maines says you describe yourself as a journalist first and a former roofer second. Can you talk about how you dovetailed those two careers?

I’m a member of the back-to-land generation. I dropped out of college after two years and moved to rural Vermont. I built a house in the woods, started to raise my own food, and did odd jobs—including working in a wholesale plumbing outfit, as a roofer, and as a handyman/carpenter—to support a simple lifestyle. I built a few houses and a couple of additions, and acquired some skills. 

At some point in the 1990s, I was reading the Journal of Light Construction (JLC), and I saw they were looking for an associate editor. I applied and I got the job. It was as simple as that. I figured it never hurts to try, plus in college I had studied literature and writing. I worked at JLC for about three years before being…

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  1. Expert Member


    A really enjoyable read. Thanks.

    1. GBA Editor
      Kiley Jacques | | #3

      Thanks, Malcolm. I'm glad to hear that.

  2. Paul Eldrenkamp | | #2

    "Really, we should focus on improving existing buildings and making do with less. People don’t want to hear that."

    We definitely do not want to hear that. Upton Sinclair said it best: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

    1. GBA Editor
      Kiley Jacques | | #4

      Paul, I am sure that sentiment resonates with many in the industry. Others would argue that there is a good living to be made in remodeling, restoration, and preservation work.

  3. PAUL KUENN | | #5

    Thank you both for sharing the wisdom!

    I work so hard to make an old home zero energy then I see the inspector just slow down while driving by and never stopping in. They just don't want to figure it out. Two inspectors for a booming industry for our 70K residents and they could never have time to look at most. No infrastructure, all going to heck... but hey, they're not bothering me, right?

    Then of course we have the upfront electrical inspector who writes a 5 page letter to me with every solar install and asks questions if he's not sure why I did what I did. Gotta love him! They come from the same office downtown but entirely different philosophies. I'll never pretend to understand.

  4. maine_tyler | | #6

    Nice to hear from Martin again.

    "So it’s often best to back away from a true environmental analysis"

    I agree that a so-called 'true environmental analysis' is often not only a black box, but seemingly untenable for political/cultural reasons. And GBA serves a vital role by focusing largely on the technical aspects of energy efficient construction.

    However I do think that some effort to make 'true analyses' and to make them transparent (as much as possible) is the next frontier. Generally speaking.
    Skepticism is often born by suspicion of ulterior motives/agendas and because people with common sense inevitably see holes in any idea purporting to be one thing, but not delivering results on that thing it purports to be.

    It's tough to reconcile the notion that building new is not truly green, while also admitting that retrofitting old buildings to a high standard is not cost effective. It may make one wonder what is truly a cost effective approach to sustainable buildings/infrastructure/living.

    It can be a bit of a rabbit hole, but I suspect that in addition to all the people wondering how to make their new home as 'green' as possible by somewhat arbitrary standards, there's as many people wondering how we can shift to a paradigm where our existence doesn't feel as much a series of compromises with the rest of the planet's health. Where it's not economics and jobs pitted against 'the environment.'

    I don't think GBA ignores these tough questions, and I think a willingness to ask them continues to be important.

    1. carsonb | | #8

      well said Tyler, I suspect those are all concerns we struggle with and I know I do. If you can't quantify something you have no hope of managing it effectively. But that seems like a tall order for mere builders or even GBA and the BS community given the vast complexities and the fact that their audience is people who's livelihood or life savings are caught up in building mostly single family residential, which to Martin's point is fundamentally wasteful and highly emotional. It may be inevitable, it makes me sad to think that we are headed toward being like Europe (where I've lived before) where only a small percentage of people own a detached home (24% in the UK). With growth of almost two million a year (essentially a large city added every year), we seem to be headed in that direction and a slow death of an America full of back yards and wide open spaces. I was very happy to get out of apartment living.

      1. maine_tyler | | #9

        What's interesting is that our economy relies on this growth, though there are arguments that it may be able to slow in material growth, even if it continues to grow in 'value'.

        I'm not sure I completely agree that we're all headed for cities, at least not in the way we think of them now. I also don't know that under 2 million a year is all that much growth (its not compared to many other nations).

        For clarity, I don't suggest we'll tackle or answer such sprawling questions like above at GBA. It's more that 'asking the questions,' or even, 'asking questions about which questions to ask' shouldn't be left by the wayside. And I don't think it is, I'm just advocating for its continuance and its value. Mostly because I'm confused, which I take to mean I'm not dead nor fully enlightened.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #7

    Thanks for your comments. You're right -- GBA hasn't ignored these questions. Here are a few examples of articles I've written addressing aspects of these questions:

    "What Does ‘Sustainable’ Mean?"

    "Who Deserves the Prize for the Greenest Home in the U.S.?"

    "Carbon Emissions By the Construction Industry"

    "Climate Change Challenges the Human Imagination"

    1. mhirschland | | #10


      I'm working on a project that aims to have a big impact in a conservative state by working with large evangelical churches. We would greatly appreciate your review of five pages of info sheets that will be distributed to member households. For example, one is the second page of the attached sheet. The others are on HVAC equipment and sealing and insulating an attic. If you might be willing to help us out, could you possibly email me at [email protected] and I can provide you with more information. Thank you very much.


      Madi Hirschland

      1. GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #11

        Your information sheet includes some generalizations that don't apply in all locations. The reason that these generalizations can be misleading is that fuel costs vary widely from location to location.

        There's at least one piece of bad advice -- the statement, "In a cold climate, it [a heat-pump water heater] should be installed in an unheated space –- an attic or basement -- so it doesn’t steal heat from the rest of the home." If you live in a cold climate, you should never install a water heater in the attic, because of the risk of frozen pipes.

        It's hard to give general advice on water heaters, because there are so many factors affecting equipment selection. Low-use households need different equipment than high-use households. (The energy cost for hot water in low-use households is so low that investments in expensive equipment will never offer a reasonable payback.) Some homes have a space where a heat-pump water heater can be installed; others don't. Some people live where natural gas is cheap and electricity is expensive; others live where natural gas is relatively expensive and electricity is cheap. Some heat-pump water heaters are trouble-free; others break frequently and never pay back the investment.

        Finally, in light of the climate change crisis (a crisis that concerns some, but by no means all, members of evangelical churches), it's hard to provide advice on decisions involving natural gas vs. electricity without discussing the advice by environmentalists to favor all-electric appliances over gas-burning appliances, as one strategy (along with the greening of the grid) to address climate change.

      2. Robert Opaluch | | #12

        I like this brief, simple, informative summary. We need more newsletters and summaries like this to reach those outside our circle of high performance building advocates. Although I do agree with Martin's caveats about climate, price, etc. Best of luck educating and changing opinions of those less interested in construction issues!

  6. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #13

    I agree with Robert's overall feedback. This type of summary sheet is important, and such outreach efforts are valuable. The problem is that it's hard to be both concise and accurate.

    1. Robert Opaluch | | #14

      Maybe needs to be tailored regionally like PHIUS tries with climate and prices vs. classic Passivhaus?

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