R ecently, a reader told me of her semi-successful attempt to build a green home. Unaware of exactly what it meant to "build green," she trusted that her contractor, who assured her that he was a "green" builder, would know how best to proceed. Unfortunately, mistakes regarding heating choices, positioning of the house and building materials led to her new home, beautiful though it may be, being colder, draftier and less efficient than she had hoped. Only after the construction was complete did she learn what components could have been put into effect in order to have made her dream home a green home.
"How," she asked me, "are you supposed to make sure you're getting a green builder when anyone can say they're 'green'?"
Never having built my own home, I didn't know the answer, so I decided to ask around. Word of mouth led me to Birdseye Builders, a contracting company run by Joseph Hicks and Jeremy Allen. Birdseye is "Build It Green" certified, and promises environmentally conscious building practices from design to efficiency to disposal. Even their work trucks are fueled by biodiesel. I contacted Jeremy Allen, and he agreed to meet with me and answer some of my questions regarding what it really means to build green.
Allen and I meet at Peter Lowell's, the wine bar located in the new sustainable town home complex that has recently opened on Sebastopol's Florence Avenue. This seems an appropriate meeting place, and we are able to stroll about the complex and check out some of the environmentally friendly perks, like dual-flush toilets and an ingenious water-recycling system. Allen says that he has worked on tract developments before and warns that they are generally not "conscious" places, with profound waste and reckless use of materials being the norm. With the inevitability of development in mind (after all, we do need places to live), Allen sees these housing blocs as a step in the right direction, as well as a brave move on the part of the developer. "Once you say you're going green, you're putting your ass on the line, and everyone is watching."
Allen was alerted to green-building certification while visiting the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Department, where he came across a display for Build It Green, a California nonprofit that promotes sustainable building practices and offers classes and certification for builders. In order to keep up his certification, Allen must take a certain number of classes per year, extra work he doesn't mind as the courses keep him on-task and aware of new resources and advancements in green building materials. Allen believes it is vital that when he says he is a green builder he is keeping resource efficiency in mind, as well as making it clear to his customers that he isn't, he laughs, "building something that people can eat at the end."
The word "green" is so overused that it's beginning to lose some of its meaning. This is not a new concept, Allen insists. The native people of this country were green, which meant living in harmony with the natural environment, not dominating the landscape the way we do now. There are so many factors to consider when building green, and there is no getting away from the fact that what we build will have impact. Even within the environmentally conscious world, there are compromises that must be made. Some potentially "green" materials, such as concrete, have to be mined, and concrete contains fly ash, which comes from scraping chimneys at coal plants. Florescent lights, while touted for their energy efficiency, contain mercury and are toxic to dispose of.
I ask Allen what he would recommend for those who are not able to build themselves an entirely green abode. He recommends first reading Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House by Carol Venolia. He cautions that it is important to remember that re-using is the best option; recycling, a last resort. We all like to give ourselves a big pat on the back for recycling, but the fact is, most of us have no idea what happens to our recyclables once we toss them in the bin or, in the case of the remodel, a huge dumpster.
As I wave goodbye to Allen, I feel fairly exempt. After all, what does a renter care about such responsibilities? Then he ruins my glow by giving me the same morsel of advice my mother has been giving me my entire life: "Oh, and don't forget to turn down the heat and put on a jacket."
I know he's right, but I don't have to like it.
To find out more about Birdseye Builders go to www.birdseyebuilders.net. For more information on Build it Green go to [ http://www.builditgreen.org ]www.builditgreen.org.