Thursday, February 26, 2009
“How many product manufacturers does it take to change a light bulb?”
It’s a clichéd formula, but the question takes on new meaning at Ferguson Bath, Kitchen and Lighting Gallery in Seaside, where about 50 builder-types sit under magnificent chandeliers for the Monterey County chapter meeting of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry.
“Ten thousand to resist the change for as long as possible,” quips presenter Nik Spitz, “then 10,000 to tell you how many LEED points you can get for using their product.”
The wine-and-cheese-nibbling audience laughs politely, but Spitz, co-founder of the Oakland – and Big Sur-based EcoLogic Design Lab, is onto something. He asks how many NARI members are part of a green building program: About one-fifth of the hands go up. Then he queries for skeptics of green building: No one volunteers.
It’s as if the assembled NARI members can read the writing is on the recycled-wood-paneled wall: In a time of an acute real estate contraction, the green building sector alone is growing. For the traditionally conservative construction industry, catching up with eco-friendly building standards could mean survival.
The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification program has proven that green building standards can be a powerful brand. Companies get ink when their headquarters go LEED. Students and parents choose campuses with LEED buildings. Roughly 20,000 projects nationwide have registered for or achieved LEED certification.
But for most of the remodelers assembled under Ferguson’s warm, incandescent lights, LEED isn’t the best fit for their services. Certification is expensive and tedious, with standards tailored primarily to big projects. Build It Green’s GreenPoint Rated system, on the other hand, specifically targets home construction and remodels. But it, too, involves a highly technical review process that can cost thousands of dollars.
Both rating systems can be intimidating to eco-conscious homeowners with modest budgets – and, for that matter, to journeymen who are used to doing things the conventional way. That may explain why 80 percent of these local NARI members are open to green building but unsure how to go about it.
One man in the room has a plan to change that.
Michael Waxer has taken up the habit of prowling Home Depot with a camera, documenting the availability and prices of products that can improve a home’s eco-quotient. He stacks photos of motion-detector lights, dual-flush toilets and Energy Star ceiling fans, and collects samples of recycled flooring materials and efficient water filters. Inspiration, in his world, is the pretty color swatch for non-toxic paint.
The vice-president of Carmel Development Company is both a world-class designer of exclusive luxury developments and the sire of a new green remodeling standard geared to what he calls “the regular folks who are the core of our society.” The driving concepts are simplicity and accessibility for middle-class people who want to make their homes more environmentally friendly in the course of low-budget “freshening” projects, like appliance replacements and paint jobs.
“It’s a way to get to a place, and then step up to the next level,” Waxer says. Hence the name: StepUp2Green.
The idea began at a California council meeting of the American Institute of Architects, where Waxer and his colleagues were discussing the recent explosion of green building standards. There’s LEED, of course, with its numerous certifications. Then there’s Build It Green’s GreenPoint Rated system, and the National Association of Home Builder’s new National Green Building Standards.
“Each system seemed to come out more complex than the other,” Waxer gripes. “The manuals are becoming more out of reach of the regular folks. All these people at the bottom are not able to engage it as much. Can we come up with a voluntary system that’s as simple as possible, rather than a regulatory system that’s as complicated as possible?”
Waxer – ever a hater of bureaucracy – decided his idea was best pursued at a regional level, so he took it to the Monterey County Business Council’s Green Cluster meeting in Marina. By spring 2008, he had assembled a powerful cross section of contributors including realtors, building officials, contractors, architects, agency heads and energy consultants.
In mid-January, core members of the team gathered in the business council’s Seaside office to put the finishing touches on their baby, which they aim to launch Feb. 26. The beauty, they say, is its simplicity: The SU2G checklist fits on one side of one standard piece of paper.
It includes six essential items: non-toxic paint, Energy Star thermostats, low-voltage lighting, weather-stripping and caulking, low-flow showerheads and sink aerators, and safety equipment. Homeowners can achieve an award by fulfilling items in each of three categories: energy savings, water savings and overall improvements. Two items per category earns a Sage Award, three a Jade Award, and four an Emerald Award.
A third-party certifier – either a public building official or an accredited private professional – will inspect the applicant’s home to verify that it meets the standards. Ideally, jurisdictions will offer streamlined permitting and inspections for SU2G applicants. The committee aims for the entire certification process, including the review, to cost less than $200.
Local businesses, meanwhile, can sign on for a contribution of $1,000 or higher. If they certify that they offer products or services meeting SU2G standards, SU2G promotes them in return. While it’s beginning as a grassroots effort in Monterey County, the committee hopes to eventually license SU2G to other regions.
Each of the eight power players seated around the table sees a different perk.
MCBC President Mary Ann Leffel: “As a community business leader, I see this as a stimulus for our economy.”
MCBC Director of Competitive Clusters Kim Ha: “The intention is to accelerate the green marketplace.”
California American Water Co. spokeswoman Catherine Bowie: “The incentive-based approach really appealed to us.”
Realtor Christine Monteith: “We want it to be a grassroots program, but we have hopes that it will spread across California.”
Standards that didn’t make the list include wall insulation, waste disposal, lawn chemicals and green cleaning agents. If a standard isn’t easy for a third party to certify, Waxer says, it just won’t work for the program.
“It’s a pretty slippery slope,” he says.
“And we’ve been up and down those slopes several times in this room!” Leffel adds with a laugh.
Back at the Carmel Development Company’s office in Clint Eastwood’s Tehama development, Waxer – who lives a few hundred paces from his office, has worked on Eastwood projects for decades and drives an SUV with a TEHAMA license plate – reveals the root motive for SU2G: avoiding regulation.
Buildings are responsible for about two-fifths of the U.S.’s carbon dioxide emissions and three-fourths of U.S. electricity consumption, according to the federal Energy Information Administration. Any significant climate change regulation, it seems, will inevitably put a squeeze on developers and property owners.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is gearing up to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and the state has already adopted a law requiring a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020. The city of Monterey passed an ordinance last July requiring new homes and commercial buildings to follow basic GreenPoint Rated and LEED guidelines, respectively, and now Carmel is considering a similar measure.
In Waxer’s view, mandates provoke people to meet the bare minimum compliance levels, while incentives engage their creativity and inspire them to go further.
SU2G, in that sense, is his political tool – an offensive move against regulation.
BUILDINGS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR ABOUT TWO-FIFTHS OF THE U.S.’S CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS AND THREE-FOURTHS OF U.S. ELECTRICITY CONSUMPTION
“We could be proactive about this, present a system, and get people behind us,” he says. “We want people to be empowered to make good selections; they will get water, energy and healthier-home results.”
Previous owners left the 101-year-old Pacific Grove house full of garbage, the carpet soaked with cat urine, the walls infested with termites and mold.
“I walked in here, took a whiff and said ‘I could never live here,’ and walked out,” Max Perelman says.
But the feisty 32-year-old green business consultant, who has a wife and young daughter, likes a challenge: He took on the house, juggling the major remodel with his studies as a Monterey Institute of International Studies grad student, his service as a Pacific Grove planning commissioner and his hobby as a green building documentary producer. Del Rey Oaks filmmaker Caroline Harrison is documenting the home’s transformation in an online movie series called Shall We Green? (www.shallwegreen.com).
In early February, the work is in full swing. Perelman gives a tour of the 650-square-foot bungalow (it doesn’t take long) while local carpenters install cabinetry. Contractors have already killed the home’s structural bugs with a non-toxic heating treatment, ripped out the damaged sheetrock and floor, refinished the sub-floor and replaced the insulation.
While he bills the project as a green remodel, Perelman gets stuck on the nuance. His new cabinets are made from fast-growing bamboo, he notes, but it was shipped from China. The new spray-foam insulation should insulate the house well for the next century, but it’s manufactured out of petroleum.
“What is green? Is green low-embodied energy? Is it low life-cycle cost?” he asks, gazing into the tile bones of his future bathroom. “There’s no cookie-cutter kit to green your home, but there is a checklist to consider.”
Location is critical, he says: His house is within walking distance of his daughter’s school and shopping centers. Eventually, he hopes to build an addition with a flat, vegetated roof.
“Stuff that’s not sexy is green stuff. Slapping a solar panel on your roof is not green,” he muses. “The greenest thing you can do is not build a new house.”
A few miles east, in the hills of Skyline Forest, Matt Hanner of Carmel Building & Design gives a perimeter tour of a home that’s the polar opposite of Perelman’s. The 3,000-square-foot vacation lodge, completed last year, isn’t meant to be a portrait in green: “The owners were more concerned that it was a well built home than fulfilling a checklist,” Hanner says. But he claims it would score 130 points on the GreenPoint Rated system, more than double the 50 points needed to earn the GPR label.
The house contains non-toxic paints and finishes; the yard is mulched and requires no irrigation. The clovers that blanket the ground are rain-fed volunteers. The driveway is paved with fly ash concrete, which takes less energy to make than traditional cement. The house is properly insulated, with energy-efficient windows, lighting and appliances. Hanner says more than 65 percent of the materials from the previous home, which was demolished, were reused or recycled, including the Carmel stones comprising the walkway.
StepUp2Green isn’t for a new home like this, or even a major remodel like Perelman’s. It’s best suited for small adjustments, like the ones Michael Waxer has been making to his Seaside rental.
The modest ranch on Lassen Street doesn’t stand out, but Waxer has already seen to the essential items requiring energy efficiency, insulation, water conservation and fire safety – the base of the SU2G certification.
The little sprouts in the yard are natural growth, he notes; there’s no irrigation system or maintained turf. That’s four items in the SU2G water category. The lack of air conditioning and the subtle presence of a 2.5-kilowatt solar array on the roof add up to three items in the energy category. Inside, the fireplace is outfitted with a tight-fitting insert and a blower, and the television carries the government’s Energy Star efficiency label: That’s three items in the overall improvements category.
With just a few low-cost adjustments, he says proudly, the home is already at the SU2G Jade Award level. A couple more tweaks – motion detectors and a second ceiling fan, totaling about $200 to $400 – would step it up to the Emerald Award.
LEED only targets the top green performers, says BuildingWise Business Development Director Jordan Daniels, co-chair of the USGBC’s Monterey Bay chapter and former contractor on uptown Monterey’s LEED-silver-certified shopping center. The certification program doesn’t work so well for industrial facilities, parks or middle-class homes.
Build It Green’s GreenPoint Rated system is probably best for new home construction and big remodels, he says; and SU2G fills the vacuum for the lower-budget freshening projects. “It’s perfect for what it’s set up to do,” he says.
A disavowed former Sierra Club member, Daniels shares Waxer’s dislike for regulations. “It’s easier for the creative process to work if there’s a carrot rather than a stick,” he says. “People will go further with green building and not try to skirt the law.”
But Tenaya Asan, GreenPoint Rated program manager, says there’s no need for yet another green building standard. GPR covers small remodels along with the bigger jobs, she says. It’s been proven with a rigorous open process, established throughout California, and endorsed by the state energy and air resources boards. “It’s great to have consistency throughout the state,” she says.
Rita Dalessio, chair of the Sierra Club’s Santa Cruz-Monterey chapter, cautions about “greenwashing” in development projects.
“Some of the green stuff is what we call mitigation, but there’s not enforcement, there’s not follow-up,” says. “Environmentalists are getting a lot more cynical about promises that aren’t kept.”
Craig Hohenberger, director of Hilton Bialek Habitat, an outdoor environmental education center at Carmel Middle School, agrees. “It’s kind of like using the word ‘organic’ or ‘natural,” he says. “It’s hard to define what ‘green’ really means.”
Habitat managers are planning to build a LEED-certified organic kitchen and science classroom, but Hohenberger is wary of the potential for green certifications to obscure the damages in bigger, more politically charged developments. Adjacent to the Habitat, Carmel Development Company President Alan Williams is proposing a subdivision that Hohenberger worries could fragment bird habitat.
“Corporate people redefine [environmentalism] in a way that meets their needs,” Hohenberger says. “If powerful people want to redefine an already working system to make it more palatable, it’s actually misleading. They come up with their own system and try to make the system that’s been working for awhile obsolete.”
Waxer counters that SU2G fills a void that amounted to economic discrimination. The money needed for a LEED or GreenPoint Rated award is prohibitive to most middle-class homeowners, he says.
“If people want to go that route, it exists. The help is needed for the regular folks who are the core of our society,” he says. “We’re not trying to re-create standards. You can drastically improve your home without spending a lot of money. This list will stand up to anybody’s list.”
Whether SU2G takes off may ultimately hinge on whether it makes green certification finally accessible to middle-class homeowners, as Waxer claims, or merely dilutes standards already proven by existing programs.
Members of Monterey County’s tightly networked green building community enjoy a peculiar vantage point, perched somewhere between environmentalists and developers. Equipped with knowledge of and access to eco-friendly technology, they have the power to transform our built environment into a vastly more sustainable place. Ultimately, however, they’re under pressure to ally with clients who put profit over planet.
And if being competitive means being green, they can build on that.
Green Building Standard Websites:Monterey County Business Council’s StepUp2Green:
www.stepup2green.orgU.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED):
www.leedbuilding.orgBuild It Green’s GreenPoint Rated:
www.builditgreen.org/greenpoint-ratedNational Association of Home Builder’s National Green Building Standards: