Thursday, April 30, 2009

Going Clean (but don't say Green)

I read this today in the NY Times special "Green Business" section. I am going to have to start putting a ban on the word "green" "sustainable" and anything "eco" soon which will really test my writing skills.

But I have said this before that being "green" should not need a label or distinguished from doing good business in a modern and new fashion. This story is about an entrepreneur who started his company out of need - his own. His adoption of safe clean practices came out of need to be modern and efficient and more importantly it resulted in affordability. A message I have been preaching for quite some time now. If anyone is listening it sure wasn't that "green developer" I met on Saturday. Should I stop sitting by the phone?

Reading this story made me realize that new dogs, new tricks, old dogs are just well lazy and cheap.


No Grit and No Noxious Fumes in This Foundry

By KEN BELSON - The New York Times
Published: April 29, 2009

FOUNDRIES have earned a gritty image — of super-hot furnaces, molten lead and other metals, and noxious fumes and dust.

But these days, some foundries are winning green labels because they use cleaner materials and new machines and processes that have sharply reduced toxic waste.

SA Baxter, a small manufacturer of high-end doorknobs, hinges and other architectural hardware, is one example. At Baxter’s factory in Chester, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City, no lead is used, no wastewater is produced, almost no emissions are released into the atmosphere, and many of the materials used are recycled.

Scott A. Baxter, who previously started and sold telecommunications and Internet companies, opened the foundry three years ago because he could not find the detailed architectural hardware he wanted for his new home in Bergen County, N.J. Producing eco-friendly fixtures was not his primary goal.

But as he outfitted his 10,000-square-foot factory, he discovered, like a growing number of manufacturers, that it was only marginally more expensive to use lead-free materials and that pricier eco-friendly machinery quickly paid for itself.

“If you can do it green, you should,” said Mr. Baxter, standing on the near-spotless factory floor, where 24 engineers and artisans work. “The technology is changing, and that enables you to be green.”

Baxter is not the only foundry using cleaner techniques. Makers of products like auto parts, jet engines and medical devices use some of the same technology. But the companies often do not sell directly to consumers and are not necessarily marketed as green.

“A lot of the things Baxter’s doing are already employed by many of our foundries,” said Michael Perry, executive director of the Investment Casting Institute, an industry group. “We have several members that make orthopedic implants and you can practically eat off the floor” of their factories.

Back when Mr. Baxter first melted lead-based brass he saw smoke billowing. Concerned about his health and that of his workers, he found the Ingot Metal Company in Toronto, which produces Eco Brass. Unlike ordinary, cheaper brass that is up to about 8 percent lead, Eco Brass is 76 percent copper, 3 percent silicon, 0.12 percent phosphorous and the remainder zinc.

Eco Brass last week cost about $2.35 a pound, 20 cents more than brass made with lead, according to Ivan Betcherman, a salesman at Ingot Metal. But it is about 40 cents cheaper than the other lead-free copper base alloys that contain bismuth, a lead substitute, he said.

The gap in price between Eco Brass and leaded brass has also narrowed in the past half year because much of the lead used in brass is recovered from items like car radiators. With auto production down, there is less lead to recover, and ingot makers have had to find more expensive alternatives.

Using Eco Brass not only eliminates lead fumes but reduces hauling costs because sand used in foundries costs less to dispose of when it does not contain lead, Mr. Betcherman said. The processing also uses less energy. The melting point for Eco Brass is about 300 degrees Fahrenheit lower than that of other lead-free alloys, which means furnaces do not have to be as hot.

“If you’re pouring leaded alloys, you have huge capital expenditures to prevent lead from getting into the atmosphere,” Mr. Betcherman said. “But a smaller foundry, rather than spending millions on lead prevention, can use lead-free alloys and concentrate on business.”

To further prevent emissions, Baxter injects nitrogen into its furnace when melting wax molds. This starves the air of oxygen and prevents smoke from forming. The company also installed an after-burner in the furnace, which works like a catalytic converter in a car to cleanse fumes that seep through.

In all, Mr. Baxter estimated that if his factory ran 24 hours a day every day for a year, it would produce less than half the emissions that a Toyota Camry does in a year.

The Baxter factory produces no wastewater because all the liquids used in the plating process are reused. And it opts for acid-based baths that are safe enough that Mr. Baxter casually dunked his hand in them to prove the point.

The company has a clean record at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which has not found any violations at the foundry.

Foundries, of course, are joining a host of manufacturers, from the likes of 3M and DuPont as well as clothing makers like Patagonia and food companies like Stonyfield Farms in using green technology. “Reducing waste and saving money can work for anyone,” said Glenn Croston, author of the book “75 Green Businesses.” “And for a lot of businesses, it is the difference between being competitive or not.”

Being green is about more than the competition. Environmental rules are becoming more strict, so investing in cleaner technology now could prevent retooling later.

“These upfront expenses will and have been a benefit to us overall,” Mr. Baxter said. “We have gotten our payback in our three very short years of existence and then some.”

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Eco Exhaustion

As I said in my prior post I was cautioned about putting the word "Green" in the name for the business. The belief was that it put me in a sole category, it could be perceived as fadish or even after awhile become diluted with the growth of green products, etc. And that the word "green" much like "organic" would become one of overuse and ultimately like organic food have a very short shelf life.

I think that time has come now. I may be truly suffering from Green Overkill. Just Google the term "Green Fatigue" and dozens of articles will come flooding forward about how the word, concept and term "green" is overused, overplayed and boring.

Here is one comment from a Newsweek article in 2007...

The Shelton Group's latest study, Energy Pulse 2007, revealed that between 2006 and 2007, Americans' enthusiasm for energy-efficient products and services fell across the board. Among its findings: the number of green or energy-efficient activities consumers said they participated in—such as recycling or riding a bike to work instead of driving—dropped from an average of 3.63 in 2006 to 3.0 last year. Furthermore, the number of respondents who considered energy efficiency "important/extremely important" in deciding whether to buy a product fell from 72 to 67 percent. "We are really seeing a backlash to the whole green thing," says Shelton. "We've tested environmental messaging for some clients lately, and we get a lot of eye rolls and deep sighs. We hear things like 'I'm so tired of the green label being slapped on everything,' 'I'm so tired of being guilted into being green'."
Click here to find out more!

But there is an upside.... we know consumers are interested in energy efficiency. But interest doesn't always mean action and with the downturn in the economy, even with the tax credits I do have concerns as to how much or how willing consumers are to follow through.

This is from Green ....

The survey wasn't entirely gloom-and-doom for the green economy: consumer interest in renewable energy for their homes is at an all-time high. Over 54 percent of respondents said they were likely or very likely to participate in a green power program through their utility, up from 44 percent last year.

But despite the growth in consumer interest in these programs, the survey found that actual participation in green energy programs is at a standstill: over the last three years, the number of consumers saying they already participate in these programs has actually dropped slightly, from 3.4 percent in 2005 to 3.2 percent this year. Sheldon chalked this up to poor promotion and marketing from utility companies.

"Utilities that fail to initiate and sustain strong, consistent marketing support of green power should expect continued low response levels due to the extra effort required of consumers to participate in most programs," Shelton said. "In addition, it's not just the existence of marketing programs that's important -- it's the targeting of these programs. Not everyone is a good prospect for green power. Utilities should target customers who both have the means and the interest to participate. A mass-market approach isn't appropriate."

I do think that until I see Photovoltaic panels on Seattle City Light's headquarters, a wind turbine on Puget Sound Energy's building, I am reticent to do more than I do.. which is conserve. All the upgrades to one's home does not excuse someone from maintaining a conservative lifestyle when it comes to using finite resources.

And on that note here is another survey regarding this issue.....

According to a 2007 opinion poll conducted for the nonprofit Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, as many as 20 percent of Americans suffer from it. The telephone poll, conducted by GFK Custom Research, surveyed 1,006 people nationwide. Of those, only 60 percent said they recycled newspapers, and only about half recycled glass and cardboard. When asked why they don't recycle, respondents said they were either unsure of what to recycle, that recycling took too much effort, or that they didn't think their actions would make a difference.

Green guilt isn't confined to recycling., a Web site focused on wellness and environmentalism, surveyed 631 of their readers earlier this year in an informal online poll and found that they felt most ashamed about taking long showers, driving cars that guzzle gas, cranking up the heat in the winter months and habitually using disposable coffee cups.

I find it ironic that while watching Heroes or 24 I am inundated with Eco Friendly/Green PSA announcements by the very actors on shows that have little to nothing to do with saving the environment. Well it is hard when torturing and killing your enemy to worry about where that blood drains exactly. But there is something kinda funny to see a CTU agent/Superhero cruise off to save the world in a Hybrid.

When escapist TV doesn't give us the chance to escape even Eco-guilt its only a matter of time when I might go Jack Bauer on someone.

What's in a Name

When I first began remodeling it was done as a sideline. I was a teacher and my husband was a Technology Project Manager/Consultant. As we were both geeks we chose a vague name rooted in Latin meaning, "make new again." It was unusual and had people tripping over their tongues when they said it... and more importantly they asked what it meant. That question allowed and opened up a wider opportunity to discuss what I did and in turn often built a network. When I shuttered my prior business with my ex husband I had time to think about the type and kind of business I wanted to do.

At first I was very keen on developing green affordable homes using pre-fab as the model. I had stumbled by accident during one of my many disastrous job interviews upon Michele Kaufman's architecture firm that was developing a line of pre fab housing called C-K designs. I looked at her work and her company and found that this side of her business was based just north of Seattle and as I was looking to leaving the Bay Area I thought that this was the sign I needed.

I had heard about the immense "green build" focus in the area and thought it would be the right time to move closer to where and what I wanted to do. In the beginning I wanted to call my company Green Goddess, because I simply liked the idea of answering the phone saying, this is the Goddess. It was during this period that I met my future partner who was a talented and experienced carpenter in Construction and thought we could do remodels (my passion and experience) as I worked on developing the ideas of building pre-fab homes. Which meant that we had to find a name that was no longer female centric yet still captured the intent of the business without being "typical". There were more than enough "green" named construction companies and I was concerned that we had to pick a name that could weather the transition as I envisioned our business in the future.

In California and in Texas, I had always used Mexican labor. I never felt that I exploited them as I paid them the going rate, fed them lunch and bonused any returning and outstanding workers. I thought myself privileged to have them work for me as they had a strong work ethic and pleasant nature that was always welcome on any job site. I know for a fact that this is not always the case on both ends and that in any situation when you hire from the street there is a risk but as anyone in the industry will tell you that without hiring illegal day labor much construction would be delayed or done at much higher costs due to the expensive insurance requirements.

I joked that we should call the company "Get a Mexican" as there was nothing in the trades these men could not do and do so quickly and thoroughly. But I knew that here in the politically correct Northwest this was not a joke they would get. I had no idea, however, that the name Vida Verde would also be such a challenge. I get many calls asking if I am a day spa!

Vida means life, Verde means green. And when I came up with the name it was after talking to someone who said, "you will really regret having green in your name as it will become a word that we may all get sick of sooner vs later." I can truly say that as of today I agree. So walking home I thought well what can I name the company.. I liked the idea of initials that I could use, I liked "green" as it was important and well this was my life's work. From that Vida Verde was born. Like Green Goddess it had two letters that were the alliteration and it was a Roman numeral. Talk about branding!!! Well I have no regrets even as I watch many individuals struggle with this simple Spanish name, in fact I am glad I stayed away from the now ubiquitous "green" or "eco" that currrent companies have taken to remain in fashion.

As I have often said the greenest people and businesses I know have never felt the need to wear green its the work they do that says what they do. And I would like to think my business is more than simply being a green one.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Passive House Revisted

After touring the "Green Build/Renovation" Home on Saturday and hearing the "developer" wax negative rhetoric about Passive House, I thought I would reprint another article regarding the advantages of Passive House.

Additionally, Passive House is beginning their certification/education process throughout the US, contact Passive House Institute direct to see where and get information on costs, criteria, etc if you are interested in becoming a Passive House consultant.

And on that note, the US Building Science/America institute is revisiting their 70s version of the "Super Insulated House" the birth mother of the Passive House and finding the original homes built are still standing strong and are working on further developing the prototype for that type of structure.

I have elected to pass on the Passive House training. At the present I see it only working for new building and at this time I don't see new building of any kind necessary and practical so for me to undertake that expense and trouble, despite my fervent belief in the product, has led me to wait until I feel that there is a time I can actually utilize the knowledge gained. That said, I have read quite a bit about the plans and continue to follow and study it with the hope I can utilize some of the concepts on retrofits of homes I work on here. I am always great with borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.. okay robbing.

Here is the article from the Oregonian discussing what is Passive House.


Passive house: The idea of the airtight home takes hold among green-building experts

by Ruth Mullen, The Oregonian
February 04, 2009

We wrap up in wool sweaters to keep warm in winter. Why not extend the same courtesy to our drafty, energy-gobbling homes?

The "super-insulated" house got its start in Canada in 1977. The Germans followed up in 1991 with an improved version by eliminating the furnace altogether. They called it a "passive house," which quickly caught on in their chilly climate.

This revolutionary concept has only recently spread to the United States, where it is gaining devoted followers among green building enthusiasts.

"The irony is that we knew about this (Canadian) house in the 1980s," says Mike O'Brien, residential green building specialist for the city of Portland. "Everybody at the time thought it was overkill. But now our energy bills have caught up with us and we're ready to hear about it."

Portland offers the perfect climate -- both politically and environmentally -- for a boom in passive houses, he says.

The passive house concept -- which can cut the amount of energy homes consume by up to 90 percent -- has the power to dramatically reduce our energy bills and our global carbon dioxide emissions.

The Passive House Institute United States (PHIUS) is an energy consulting and research firm working to further passive house standards nationwide.

What's more, it has the potential to be quite affordable. The cost to build a passive house in Germany, for example, where standard features like triple-pane windows with foam seals and multiple latches are readily available, is only about 7 percent more than the cost of building a standard home.

The trade-off is that you put money you would have spent on a state-of-the-art heating system into the home's exterior shell, or "structural envelope."

The Pacific Northwest's temperate climate and mild, Mediterranean summers also offer the optimal environment for passive home design -- much more so than frigid Frankfurt.

Several local builders and architects have already embraced the movement's strict code of construction that allows extremely little air leakage -- less than one air change per hour. (By comparison, an Energy Star-rated home allows up to seven air changes per hour).

Energy "retrofits," using the passive house model, are also an option, though meeting the herculean standards for air sealing is near-impossible in existing structures.

Nonetheless, you can still tighten your home's envelope using the same principles of design,
says Jonathan Cohen, founder of Imagine Energy, an energy consulting and contracting firm. Essentially, this is what is required to construct a passive home:

Super-insulate and make it airtight. Buildings are encased in ultra-thick insulation that acts as an airtight shell. This prevents warm air from escaping and cold air from entering the home, thanks to 10-inch-thick walls, triple-pane, argon-gas-filled windows and elaborate airtight seals around each window and door opening.

High-performance windows and doors. In addition to triple-pane, foam-sealed windows, there are also prefabricated walls that are insulated to passive house standards. These products are much more affordable in Germany, where they can be purchased off-the-shelf.

Eliminate thermal bridges. Homes are designed so that wood framing does not provide a conduit for cold or heat from the outside walls to be transmitted to the home's interior.

Optimize passive solar and internal heat gains. Passive homes also take into account the amount of "free" heat that residents and household electrical appliances create. Careful siting also enlists other passive solar energy sources, such as south-facing windows and the thermal mass of the building itself.

Heat recovery ventilation. The key to indoor comfort in passive homes is a central ventilation system that is widely used in Europe but still relatively unknown in the United States. As warm, stagnant air is expelled through the heat recovery ventilator, it passes by incoming streams of fresh, cooler air, allowing the heat to transfer without mixing the two streams of air. As a result, says local passive house advocate Tad Everhart, "a passive house loses very little heat and then recycles it."

Everhart hopes enthusiasm for passive house design will grow enough here that products and technologies will soon become readily available -- and therefore more affordable -- in the United States.

"My vision of the future is that all of these products will become available here in five years," says Everhart. "This gets back to the fundamentals of how we build our buildings. If we build our houses right, we won't have to strap on this expensive heat source."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Emperor's Green Clothes

Green Building or should I say Green Developers starting appearing in the last few years as a result of the housing boom. And like non-green developers the intent was to become a wealthy builder, only with the 'intent' of appearing more noble by building green.

Hence you saw many tech money people taking the LEED AP test and overnight they are green builders. As I have said before that is a test on how to apply LEED credits to project and the credits are devised by actual builders, etc but that test does not make you one. Nor does it allow you to see or make decisions on what works or doesn't and even more so when you have no background or experience in the field.

Yesterday I toured another million dollar Green McMansion. This home was originally a 60s built rambler designed by a respected Architect in that time. The house is located in a lush Bridle trail suburb and was a home with a location and original footprint which was worth saving.

As a long time renovator and remodeler this was the kind of project I could not wait to see. A respected property left intact but made to be "green." Well like the Emperor's new clothing I found it lacking.

The home is currently listed for over 2.3 million. In this economy I think it may be awhile for a buyer to appear and when it comes to luxury homes there is and always will be a market but for now its a slower one. Having done one spec luxury home myself I know how difficult is to do so in a way that allows for the type of design elements and features that appeal to an upper end client while also making it universal for a wider design aesthetic. In other words that tile you love may be the absolute nightmare for the next person and when spending millions on a home you deserve and want it your way.

Well in early days people went ahead took advantage of the massive remodeling already completed and then simply went in an replaced those features they did not like. Easy, not expensive to do a cosmetic upgrade and the house became custom to the owner's tastes and style.

To do this now is well in poor taste and well wasteful to say the least. And could one do that to a Green home, well that seems to be a true waste.

The developer was there and like his fellow developers who came from something other than construction it was obvious he had no clue. He waxed on about the mature landscaping and the leaving of the garage as it was.... uh it is a garage and in the most green way and biggest green feature ironically separate from the house. He tried to explain the concept of rain screening but like the developer I met before with his LEED House, he really doesn't understand it, did not know what the house wrap was made of and right away I knew he was not well versed or experienced when it came to building, green or otherwise.

He talked about developing green homes that are affordable and dismissed the concept of Passive House without truly understanding it. The house was pre wired for solar energy and water but not part of the package. So right there loss green points if we were doing that here. And while I completely understand and support him with regards to adding Photovoltaic to a home, the water tank I did not.

The next was the layout. He had built a second story addition to add three bedrooms and baths to the house, much of that space badly used, designed and well unnecessary. When design and function do not work, regardless of the label, you have a home that is hard to maintain, expensive and wasteful.

The heating of the home was also disjointed. And I usually defer to Mechanical Engineers on this point but the original lower level maintained the original forced air ducts with what I thought was also the original heating unit in place (I question its efficiency just on a modern level) then the second story was radiant heat with all the rooms carpeted. A most inefficient combination. And why not just increase the ducts and add a Heat Recovery ventilator to maximize efficiency? I don't think he knew what it was when I asked him about it.

The lighting was not centralized with no LED's or any type of clever design to minimize lighting just your typical hideous recessed canned lights with standard florescent bulbs to match.

Bathrooms had yes low flow faucets, toilets but there was no dramatic master bath as one would expect and somehow I did not like the idea of a combo tub/shower with the need for a rod and curtain. Even Green Build can have an interesting shower division with recycled glass or resin dividers.

The kitchen had the glamorous Pedini cabinets (why not solid wood locally made eco friendly and green by design and build) but not a European appliance in sight. In fact there was no washer or dryer included and it was on the second floor... when there was a utility space adjacent (and on the lowest level the way things used to be) to what was the most dramatic and gorgeous room in the home... and not surprising it was original to the house. This room had the original coffered ceilings and wainscoting that is rarely seen in homes today. I was thankful to see it remained intact.

I was not pleased to see a home with such amazing grounds and mature landscaping without Rain barrels or greywater set up for use. Again a green feature truly lacking.

While the home had amazing use of natural light and windows that were operational they were aluminum with wood clad. Truly the worst in thermal breaks. Again with a home that is luxury why not go with the European style fiberglass/wood clad, more energy coeffiecient and still great appearance. I knew later when I spoke to the developer he really had no clue how what U value and SHGC mean. But there were plenty other clues during my conversation. Charming man but I wish he had better advisers that were working with him.

Million dollar homes regardless of their label need to be complete and full of detail that validates its cost. The same go for 300K homes frankly but the difference is that yes you do have Maytag in one, Miele the other.

I understood he was developing affordable homes that were green nearby. I looked at the prices and they were at the million mark. Okay, so by affordable he means multi millionaires who are now just single ones. I will have to tour them to understand why and what makes them so. Given this past property its clear he doesn't understand green building but he likes Eco features and that is better than nothing.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Not Everyone wears Green Color Glasses

I consider myself a "realist." For some that might be considered a negativist, a skeptic or "bitter." When you are not a card carrying member of any one group that touts itself the purveyor and savior of all things "green" you spend most of your time being an "apologist."

My background is not in Environmental Science, I did not come up from building via the trades. I started in the business of remodeling via my father who was an investor. Some properties he sold, some he maintained and rented. He was a complex person who probably would have liked to have been a more successful entrepreneur, he began with a partner who after they split, developed properties and sold many throughout the area becoming quite successful. While my father preferred helping varying people out, renting/loaning and basically giving money to people in need. It seemed very against his stern and thrifty character at home to be so generous to those outside the family but that was who he was. He shared the same birthday as Richard Nixon and you can see parallels there. Nixon was this interesting moderate conservative with well paranoia. My father pretty much the same.

But I loved watching Darrell who also went on to greater business ventures buying property in San Francisco, commercial and residential, during the 70s and 80s in a city that's social and financial character came of age. He too was very successful and he started here as a friend of my mothers immigrating from Australia. Good with a tool belt and oddly a bottle of hair dye as well he helped my father renovate homes. I was never allowed to touch anything but I loved sitting there watching people work with their hands. I think I have the hand-eye coordination of Stevie Wonder so it is best I stay away from the power tools, but I like Stevie see in my mind's eye how things can work and what they become. So when it came time for me to buy and renovate properties, I knew what needed to be done and how to hire others to make that a reality.

Being green is just being practical. These men were not great saviors of the world. They made a living, they were not the educated elite, they were working class. They had flaws and issues and were not perfect. I don't think any of them would think they were great business people (although Darrell was - undeniably there is not a place Darrell did not build/fix or buy that is not still standing in San Francisco) nor great philanthropists, but people still today recall my father's help in some way or another. And he was not a likable man but they do recall him in a good way which is something.

So when people say to me "you are doing the right thing" and "saving the planet" I have a hard time accepting that. I am not doing anything but trying to make sense of why we waste so much, spend so much and why we need to make everything a fad in order to simply do what we should be or need to do all along.

The energy crisis is not new or recent. This was addressed in the 60s and again seriously in the 70s. There were attempts made during the same recessionary period and once out of it we returned in earnest to our consumptive ways. I am no less guilty of it and have a closet full of $300 dollar shoes and $1000 dollar handbags to prove it. It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly say I had this epiphany and now must go live in a mud hut to make up for my consumer lifestyle.

Well surprise... no mud hut here.. where would I put the shoes and the handbags? I strictly approach my work as practical, necessary and well useful in no greater concept than what I learned from my dad and Darrel. Spend and live with what you can afford. They did nothing that was outside their league or in debt. They had no debt when they died and they are remembered in ways that are not obvious nor with intent. And that is a great way to live green.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Green Fight

I think my new favorite pastime might be reading the ever ending excuse making finger pointing whining of Green Building Advisor's, Rob Moody, over Joe Lstiburek critiquing LEED buildings.

Rob has devoted not one but three blogs debating well windmills. Apparently Rob doesn't actually have any problems with Joe's knowledge. Joe is one of the preeminent building scientists and engineers who studies indoor air quality and is an ASHRAE fellow and principal of Building Science.

Joe and his team are probably the most vocal naysayers when it comes to LEED buildings and their claims of energy superiority than most. In fact they may be the only ones. I think there has to be more websites slavishly devoted to LEED than the Jonas Brothers. Who knew there were so many building geeks in the world!

I have reprinted articles from him here discussing some of the problems surrounding LEED buildings. I am in July taking a course from him on the subject of building science and the problems with "green build." And there is no question the USGBC are aware and are in the process of changing requirements regarding all things from attaining LEED AP status, building requirements and the addition of new programs for renovating and updating existing buildings. It doesn't however change the failures of the program while also being the sole exclusive purveyor of all things green, aggressively and actively lobbying to prevent Canada's Green Globes from making headway into the lucrative certification market. Maybe that is why Joe is pissed, he is Canadian.

However Rob seems very indignant taking everything Joe says quite personal. I can't tell if its what Joe is saying is the issue (which oddly Rob acknowledges is actually relevant) or the manner in which Joe says it. Well it appears the latter.

This might be what has got Rob's knickers in a twist....

So what’s with all these “green” programs providing “points” for “durability” and “indoor air quality”? I mean it’s pretty pathetic if we have to reward architects and engineers when they provide details and specifications that should be basic to fundamental practice. If you design and install a controlled ventilation system that meets Standard 62 you get points. You get more points if you keep the rain out and design the building to dry if it gets wet. And you get still more points if the occupants are actually comfortable. Aren’t these code requirements? Shouldn't’t these be “the standard of care”?

Have we architects and engineers sunk so low that we now get points if we meet basic building requirements that all buildings should meet in order to be called buildings?

Green programs waste a lot of time and money on stuff that is obvious and more time and money on stuff that is irrelevant or unimportant.

How about focusing on stuff that is important? It’s become “all about the points” and the important stuff gets ignored. Chasing “green points” doesn’t get you good buildings that are truly green. You can get a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating and not save any energy compared to traditional buildings. How can that possibly be green?

Rob's thoughts are....

Unfortunately, I agree with a lot of what Gifford and Lstiburek say in their papers. What I classify as unfortunate is that you have to sift through so many condescending statements, epithets, and sardonic wit that the points get buried. In a world where (in my opinion) so many of us can’t wait for good news, can you guys try to stay constructive and positive?

Rob has devoted three blog entries on Joe. Joe no articles about Rob. Looks like Joe wins 3-0.

I have no idea why Rob is so distressed about Joe? Rob is not an Engineer, his background is not Mechanical and/or Building Science so he is not really a peer of Joe. He is not Canadian, so why so upset? Rob is a former teacher turned contractor, (hey me too!) who taught Science, not English so critiquing the style of writing seems even a further waste of time. And as a former teacher he should value the conflicting opinions as a way of growth. But well when you vest your life in any one thing to any level you get defensive. I get it. But then people wonder why I don't do third party certs. It just isn't worth getting in the middle. But its fun sometimes to watch.

All on Deck

Its that time of year when we are getting the garden in order, getting the grill ready and wondering if that deck idea that was on the back burner is ready to move forward.

Decks are great ways to make the indoors move out and vice versa. A well placed and constructed deck can lend space and value to the home. And what materials you use will ultimately make that value long lasting.

I have been fortunate to live in the Northwest where Cedar decking and fencing is the most common of materials and the sustainability has never been questioned. Other common woods are redwood and now the exotics, such as IPE which has been growing in popularity and are considered sustainable.

What many greenies love is composite decking. Avoiding any trade names they are well known as they are well advertised and don't need me to provide additional marketing. The idea is that of course something made of recycled materials has to be an improvement than taking away the finite resources of the forest. Well not all recycled components are better and in the case of composites this much is true.

Google "problem with composite decking" or simply find a forum where decking contractors talk about the hassle in installing them, the poor wear, the mold issues, the color fading among others and you get the picture.

With new products now available, there are new VOC sealants that have tremendous capacity to protect and waterproof the wood without endangering the environment. Sometimes the most natural product is the best product.

Composites if you choose to use them must be installed by an authorized and experienced contractor. The cost will not be significantly lower than looking into Cedar or Ipe wood as an option.

A deck should be as beautiful and lasting as the environment that surrounds it, it should also be as sturdy and beneficial as the home it surrounds. A deck is a compliment to the home. Like the siding or the roof, the deck serves a purpose. If a composite fails in 5 years then the concept of sustainability is lost and the value is lost as well.

There are many things in the green community that are good things. But these materials are not new and not improved either. Composite decking and fencing is one green wagon best not jumped upon.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Earth Day

What can you do for Earth Day? The Goddess's Top 10 Green List.

1. Buy a Stainless Steel water bottle.
2. Go the library and checkout, read and return a book. Ultimate it Recycling and reusing. Even better become a friend or donate time to the library.
3. Help someone weatherize their home if you can't so they get tax credits, energy savings and you get to be the ultimate member of a green team.
4. Pick up some litter from your neighborhood
5. Drink a Green Apple Martini. (Use your EcoCanteen, multi purpose, very green)
6. Buy and read your local newspaper before they go disappear. And recycle it as its made into cellulose insulation. Talk about the ultimate in up-cycling.
7. Ride the bus, bike or walk.
8. Don't eat any meat today.
9. Say hello to someone you meet in passing on that walk, bus or bike ride
10. Plant something in a garden or a container pot and bring mother earth to you. You could try out Terra Cycle and see how well that works!

Earth day is not just about you doing something its about not doing anything. The longer we ignore what is happening and pretend it does not exist the longer we go without some type of resolutions that will allow the planet to continue to sustain life.

There is one thing you can do to help the planet: Contact the Members of Congress, especially those so set against Cap and Trade and urge them to reconsider their position on this issue. It may not be perfect but it is better than nothing and we all know what nothing has wrought.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Grow Old with me the best is yet to be...

That is a common turn of phrase heard at marriage ceremonies. Well much like the state of marriage, aging in America is also a no go.

With the increasing decline in the economy (and deny or pray it won't get worse all you want) it is what it is. And we have to come to terms with what that means and our role in its decline - meaning living off credit, beyond our means, insatiable lust for cheap goods, greed and the rest to what it means to make it better - saving more, learning to live in smaller homes with less stuff, walking, taking public transport, being nicer to people and talking to each other.

Technology and financial growth has its rewards but it came at a massive cost. I watched one business of mine fold and turn into another, which I saw as a plus not a negative, although it was nonetheless challenging at the time; I have seen friends lose their jobs or their businesses decline and more importantly I have seen the decline of community.

I just finished Bowling Alone an excellent book on the subject matter. And as a woman of "a certain age" I have to look to the community to fill the gaps where marriage and family should but do not. I made my own choices but I am still shocked that as a woman over 40 how little valued and respected my contributions and choices are regarded.

I read today about a Boomer Temp Agency that only hires workers over 45 as they are more productive and reliable. This on the heels of numerous articles about how the over 45 worker is finding it difficult to find and maintain work at matchable skill and salary levels. I wonder if Obama and Michelle were to leave office what would happen if suddenly they too were in the no man's land of too old - not old enough? That purgatory is causing many of us to wonder what is to happen when you still have passion and pleasure for work, the desire and the talent only to be relegated to Starbucks barista the position once thought of as entrance to the work force as opposed to exit from it.

Many people, regardless of age, are stuck in places of singular thinking. I recall talking to a Contractor almost 2 years ago about moving his business forward to more "green" orientation, modern communication and marketing and re-thinking how he did business for the future. The more transparent, open style that I advocate today and is becoming increasingly necessary if one is to stay afloat.

My conversation with him was pleasant and he called me a "spitfire" which I knew immediately was the kiss of death. When anyone, male or female, provides you with a label they are dismissing you. Would you say that to Bill Gates? Would you say that to the young man whose book I just read, Tom Szaky. No. You might call them focused, determined. But when you label them "intense" you have given them the male equivalent of "asshole." Labels are great way of excusing your own ignorance and unwillingness to see beyond your comfort zone.

Young hiring managers that see "gray" hair see "old" "set in their ways" "intimidating" rather than "experienced" "knowledgeable" "valuable" and I have to wonder who taught them those values... well the gray hairs that raised them, the society that perpetuates them (Botox anyone?) and the very Grey CEO's that hire them to do their dirty work. Bernie Madoff hired family which will not question him as the Patriarch that feeds and the rest of his staff eager young things that had neither the experience nor skills to ask questions that might have exposed him.

Young people need mentors and they need education and guidance. I think back to another great book, The Best and The Brightest, by David Halberstam, who wrote this book on another idealized President, Kennedy. The difference was that the title belied the fact that they were not the "best" or the "brightest". We value youth and discount age. Perhaps its fear that we will age ourselves or we will do so in a manner that evokes say Madonna (50 and with surgery to prove it), Cher (102 and the equal number of procedures to her age) versus a Diane VonFurstenberg or Meryl Streep who look their age well and act it as well.

As for that Contractor, he of course, as I expected, canceled the meeting the next day.. by email. I was not impressed. And I see now he has joined the revolution, joining a social business network, revitalized his website and attempted a blog. Of course none of it updated since its inception and no, no green products or business mentioned. Well I may be a spitfire for my age and in this case I am grateful.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Why buying local is not about "protectionism"

I received an email from my local Sisters in the Trade alerting me to the problems found in homes built using Chinese drywall.

There has been much of late with the Stimulus package's debate on the "Buy American" clause is a form of protectionism. Well in some ways it is. And it is what it is.

We have had a continual decline in a manufacturing base in this country for the past 20 years, contributing to the systemic decline in wages and long term employment opportunities for those not planning to go into the "white collar" world.

Building materials are another area in which the Chinese have dominated the market, from steel to copper and the basic of building materials, drywall. The last few years has been scandal and notice after notice of the problems associated with varying products produced in China, toys with lead paint, milk with melamine and so on.

It is one of the reasons that I have been such an ardent pessimist when it comes to Ikea products. They have literally dominated the home furnishing and more importantly the cabinet making market. And while Ikea is certainly not the sole purveyor of all things made in China, there is this "belief" that Ikea is European and the products made for them are made to the European standard of low PF (phenol formaldehyde) emitting particleboard and MDF.

Ikea North America is NOT the Ikea Europe. These stores are franchises and not held by the parent company and it is highly unlikely that any of the products made for American shores are built and produced with the more costly and less toxic PF resins/composites found in European products. It makes no sense when you are aware of how much these cost in comparison. Agriboards, Kerei, Wheatboard are significantly higher in cost and could no way be mass produced at that level in China when domestically it is not available. Perhaps this is the "ancient Chinese secret" that they can produce these woods cheaper and easier in another form of global domination in building materials.

I am not Xenophobic, I am a great advocate of free trade. Who doesn't want to see the elevation of the world's poor, the availability of various products and at competitive prices? However, I take issue when it is done with risks to both the worker and the consumer. Neither should suffer for our own need for cheap stuff.

And when it comes to our homes haven't we learned that value of them is essential for our own financial and emotional security so why short yourself on what you build them with or put in them.

This just seems to further validate the need and the reasoning behind "buy local." You are doing a WORLD of good.

Homeowner Problems With Chinese-Made Drywall Spread

Wall Street Journal

Complaints about foul-smelling Chinese-made drywall that first emerged in a few dozen homes in Florida in January have spread to hundreds of homes in several states, fueling controversy over the Chinese import.

Fearing that the construction material is making them sick, homeowners are moving out of their houses, filing lawsuits and demanding help from lawmakers. Two U.S. senators have proposed a temporary ban on certain Chinese drywall imports. A Chinese government agency is also investigating, according to a Chinese news report.
[building backlash]

The actual health effects of the drywall, which is commonly used to construct interior walls, are still unknown. While homeowners attribute bloody noses, sinus problems and headaches to the drywall, the Florida health department said there is no evidence that gases being emitted from the construction material pose a serious health risk.

"It seems most likely that it's a nasty odor problem, as opposed to something acutely toxic," said Morton Lippmann, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University, who reviewed recent Florida health department's findings on Chinese drywall for The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Lippmann isn't involved in any of the lawsuits that have been filed against drywall manufacturers.

Other researchers said the sulfur-based gases coming from the drywall may exacerbate existing sinus issues and cause respiratory problems. The type of drywall at issue is made primarily from the naturally occurring mineral gypsum. Some of the drywall has been traced to a mine in the Shandong province of China, according to a spokeswoman for one drywall manufacturer, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin Co., a subsidiary of a large German construction-material company, Knauf International GmbH, that used the mine.

"Sulfur compound gases, even at low levels, have been found to cause respiratory problems," such as asthma, said Nachman Brautbar, a toxicologist and clinical professor emeritus at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, who also reviewed the health-department findings for the Journal, and isn't involved in the legal dispute. "This clearly needs more study."
[Black oxidation covers a copper air-conditioner pipe. The owners of the Stuart, Fla., townhome where they discovered faulty drywall say a sulfur gas is being emitted, and it is corroding copper wiring and pipes in the wall.] ZUMA

Black oxidation covers a copper air-conditioner pipe. The owners of the Stuart, Fla., townhome where they discovered faulty drywall say a sulfur gas is being emitted, and it is corroding copper wiring and pipes in the wall.

In China, some industry officials defended their drywall's quality and suggested the controversy may be stoked by protectionism.

"The U.S. credit crisis has caused the real estate market to collapse, and as a result domestic drywall manufacturers have seen their sales suffer and their product is relatively expensive compared to the Chinese-made drywall, so we should also consider these issues," Xu Luoyi, head of the National Building Materials Industrial Technology Supervisory Research Center, said in a recent Chinese news report.

A big obstacle facing U.S. authorities investigating the matter is that the Chinese manufacturer isn't always clearly identified on the drywall.

Executives at one Chinese manufacturer named in a drywall-related lawsuit, Taishan Gypsum, couldn't be reached for comment. Meanwhile, Knauf Tianjin said it has been cooperating with U.S. and Chinese authorities. Knauf Tianjin officials said the company has been unfairly singled out because it has acknowledged the issue, while other manufacturers have been less forthcoming.

The U.S. imported roughly 309 million square feet of drywall from China during the housing boom from 2004 to 2007, according to the Gypsum Association, a trade group. While that is a fraction of the drywall used in the U.S., it is enough to build roughly 35,000 houses. The number of houses containing Chinese product could be higher, however, because some houses use a mix of domestic and imported drywall.

Not all of the Chinese drywall is likely to lead to the type of problems that homeowners in Florida, and now Virginia, Alabama and other states are reporting. Drywall problems are also surfacing in the New Orleans area, in homes that were refurbished after Hurricane Katrina.

Some homeowners who have found Chinese-imported drywall in their newly built houses, say their jewelry, pennies and electrical wiring have turned black. Researchers believe the sulfur-based gases from the drywall may be corroding the metal.

The drywall issue is touching nerves that have been frayed by the housing crash. "When the housing market comes back, my home's value isn't coming back," said Rene Galvin, who has moved out of her Bonita Springs, Fla., home that she bought for her retirement and is suing her builder and the drywall manufacturer because of drywall concerns.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

An Eco-preneur Story

I was sent a copy of a book by Tom Szaky, called "Revolution in a Bottle." I had heard of Tom in the green community as he had been the speaker du jour on the circuit, but who he was and what he did I had no clue (In my continual effort to be fully honest, I rarely stay or listen to keynotes for no other reason than large groups stress me out and I cannot really listen to the message as a result)

So when the book was sent, I did what anyone does, put it in my briefcase with the intent of getting to it later. But then I saw another notice mentioning this young man and his Terra Cycle product and as I do not garden and have the dead plants to prove it, I was not surprised that I had not really had an inclination to learn more. I admit that my first thought was here was someone going to proselytize his "vision" as the founder of this "Eco-centric" company. And in this day and age that is becoming increasingly common so I wasn't sure he was anything or anyone that special.

But because well I promised to read it and then write about it, I picked it out of the briefcase and began to read. Part diary/blog, part biography and part business manual 1.0, I wondered if there was something in it for me. And yes there was.

And while this tome is not going to win any great Pulitzer's for writing I did find his venture an interesting one.

Tom started his business with a very green venture.. Weed. My first thought was well he could have been the inspiration for the Showtime show of the same name but unlike the hausfrau, Nancy, he went down a different path.. the path of poop. Well we all go there eventually.

Tom and his Princeton pals (just once I would really like to read of about someone other than white boys from the Ivy League making it in business. Aren't there some savvy entrepreneurs from Howard University with the next great Green thing?) decided to go legit because the dope they were growing had done so well fertilized via worm compost it seemed more reasonable, not to mention legal to look into the poop thing. As all good entrepreneurs do, green or otherwise, they saw a need and filled it and from there Terra Cycle was born.

And like the white boys in the Dot com days they had a vision, a half assed plan and the ambition and connections to make it work. (Come on Howard boys and GIRLS we got Obama in da house!) They also had hubris, naivete and the smarts to know that all plans should be written in PENCIL. That is something they clearly are not teaching in Business school, the need to go with the flow. Sometimes that attribute gets appointed as a young person's thing as they less adverse to risk but many smart and clever people regardless understand that need to change when the time requires it.

Tom had also found the right partners and he gives them credit. I respect that. Again as anyone will tell you you are the sum of many parts and without them there is no whole.

While I did not LOVE the book, I like the fact that he is a business person who sees "eco" solutions to business problems. There is no evangelical bend, no moralizing, just common sense. And while he probably should not have dropped out of Princeton as his business advice is well generic and not universally applicable he has a spirit that any entrepreneur could find useful.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Green Heroes

I have long endorsed the concept that being Green is being involved in the community. It doesn't take much, you can give by being there. Helping a neighbor by running an errand combined with yours, donating books to a school, just picking up litter in your neighborhood are all simple Green things to do. And they can be done at your convenience and without a massive "carbon footprint."

I have many times said while I love Architecture I find many architects divas... and who doesn't love a diva. But many are talented, passionate artists who love to share what they love and do with those who appreciate it. And for that I am grateful.

The only Architecture blog I follow and actually subscribe is BUILD BLOG. They are funny, honest and very active. Passionate and interesting, if the time ever comes where we can work together I would love it. Something tells me that while they lean towards diva-ish behavior... they rarely include non-architects in their local outings is one of those diva things that annoy.... they are still one of the most interesting reads out there.

Today I received this blog update and I truly commend them. Even Diva's have their moments... read and share and well maybe you too will be inspired.



Put us to work
Posted: 13 Apr 2009 05:29 PM PDT

Years ago we were introduced to a father of 6 who had just lost his wife to cancer. He and his children all lived off the father’s modest income in a single-wide mobile home in unincorporated King County. He was notified by the county that the septic hookup to the drain field on his property did not meet code and he would be required to disconnect the sewer line serving his home. The news was delivered with references to unfamiliar building codes on file at the building department, and the county didn’t provide any alternatives or means of assistance.
Several years after that, a friend suffered a terrible accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down and confined to a wheel chair. He owned a home on a steep slope and was no longer able to access his yard or safely get to the street. He required a ramp to access the street and desired a deck so that he could spend time outside.
County and city building codes are complex and often difficult for the non-professional to navigate. Hiring professionals to coordinate these issues can quickly become infeasible largely due to financial constraints. Neither of these individuals was in a position to deal with these circumstances and, without assistance, both were facing unhealthy and harmful living conditions.
We were contacted about both projects through friends, and it was occurrences like these that helped us set up the BUILD pro-bono program. Either project would have been frustrating and difficult for these owners to coordinate to the point of being prohibitive. Most design build firms, however, deal with such issues as necessary components of larger projects on a regular basis and have the ‘tools’ (experience and know how) to resolve these issues. Having a brand-name, a professional license and a letterhead doesn’t hurt either. Solutions to both situations were devised and coordinated efficiently, effectively, and free of professional fees by the team here at BUILD.
The point of this post isn’t to fish for sympathy or give ourselves a pat on the back. It’s to shed a bit of light on the fact that, as professionals, a few hours of our time and informed discussions can produce considerable results. Donating a few hours of our time can solve substantial problems and greatly add to the well-being of people’s everyday lives. And isn’t this one of the primary reasons we’re all here anyway?!
These are tough times and we feel that it’s all the more important to support each other. Applying our expertise in places where it is of the most use seems like an exciting place to start. We love practicing architecture, we’ve trained most of our lives to do architecture, and we’re pretty good at it. If there are situations where we can be of benefit – our (blog) ears are open.
So here’s the deal: if you or someone you know is in a compromising situation related to their home or built environment and their life could be made significantly better with the assistance of a licensed architect, drop us a line. Now keep in mind, candidates have to be in need. We’re not interested in designing up that dormer addition that your buddy can no long afford since his tech-stock plunged. We’re interested in working with people or groups without the financial means to solve a problem that may be in our field of expertise. So send in a proposal and let us know how we can be of use. If the situation meets our pro-bono criteria we’ll address it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is Energy Efficiency a Green Thing?

I am frequently asked if Energy Efficiency is mutually exclusive from Green Build. The answer to that is both Yes and No.

I would put energy efficiency as a part of the "Green" Industry in so much that is addresses reduction of carbon emissions leaking from residential dwellings. It also deals with a reduction in energy use via modern appliances that utilize less energy in their operations, more effective lighting via CFL's or LEDs, and the overall review of a home's structure that will ultimately reduce energy output.

But having an Energy efficient home is also something that can be obtained without any further measures or concepts of Green Building. In existing homes you are simply fixing leaking ducts, poor insulation issues, cleaning up outdated appliances, putting in low flow toilets and faucets and upgrading the heating of the home and water units to be energy efficient.

I have been in Energy Star rated homes that have nothing Green about them. They possess vinyl siding, flooring, windows, standard carpeting, MDF cabinets, doors, trim with formaldehyde, carpet, attached Garage and well you get the picture. Not a very green picture.

Green Remodeling is a larger concept that takes into consideration the entire home's landscape and architecture. From outside in, Green Remodeling is holistic. It looks at all aspects of how the home, its relationships to the outside as well as the inside works as a collective unit. There is everything from how you landscape, irrigate, power the home, how you heat it and how you live in it. The paints, the wood, the finishes, the fixtures, everything that is used is evaluated for its aspects in sustainability and Eco-sensibility.

But I have been in Green Homes that were massive in size, had multiple shower heads in a single bath, had Ikea cabinets and large landscaped yards.

There are levels of greenness to even this...from dark green to light green there are many many options on how to remodel or build a home that is simply more than one that is "energy efficient."

Just like the word "green" there are many layers and options and debates on what constitutes a "green" product. Such as vinyl or laminate and why granite and corian is not.

Well in my definition vinyl is not green. It is made of the PVC a product that is both toxic and not biodegradable at any point. The long term affects to the environment are well noted but I have been in many green builds and found many windows made of vinyl (not to mention the piping) because of the energy affordability they offer (I have yet to hear why the piping and can assume that Pex which has issues of its own is still working the "kinks" out with use.)

Why Formica and Laminate are green are because of the sustainable aspects. A true greenie would pass on them both but the way they are made the companies are pursuing a more enviro-friendly process and there are laminates now made with low/no VOC's. They are pale green but green they are.

Why granite is not afforded that pass is that it is blown from the ground and less than 7% of the product removed is used for countertops. But I have been in homes where Marble is given a green pass and that is no less invasive but its sustainability is undeniable.

As you can see green comes in many shades and there are no clear nor easy answers.

I like to think that Green has few chemicals in the manufacturing and maintenance process. Its why I like Engineered Quartz as it is crushed with resin but its long lasting, anti microbial properties and sustainability long overshadow its shipping across the ocean. Another is Stainless steel, however, even that is not made next door.

We have to accept that making the Green judgment on what you select to remodel your home is one not taken lightly. It must be analyzed based on need, long term goals, personal beliefs and finally budget. Accommodating all those is much like a stimulus package making its way through Congress.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Green Inspiration

Today in the Home Section of the New York Times there was a great article about a home that I call the perfect shade of green.

The home owner, a high end contractor by day, artist by all the other time, built this green home from all recycled and reclaimed materials.

While not practical for the everyday home owner, his approach and aesthetic and ideas behind green build are rooted in what has become synonymous with Green Build, the perfection of certification. Something defined by expense and unrealistic expectations and standards I am afraid that are not for the everyman.

While again I appreciate the work of any of these ideals, I am a great believer that when it comes to your home it doesn't need a plaque to distinguish the fact that it is already gold.

Enjoy the article and I provided a link for those interested in seeing the pictures of his fantastical home.


The Master Builder Cuts Loose

Published: April 8, 2009

ON the front porch table was a pile of rocks and blue cast-glass nipples fitted with aluminum collars that looked like the tops of space-age baby bottles. Bullet holes puckered the glass of several window panes. A swing rigged from a galvanized water tank groaned in the dusty wind. And Suzie, a dog who splits her time between this property and a neighbor’s, tipped her food out of its cast-iron skillet and thrust a wet nose into a visitor’s hand.

“I like stuff that has a patina, and that you can drive a hand-truck into,” said Randy Polumbo, who owns the house, which also has a bathroom ceiling made from ammunition cases and a loft railing made of rusty mattress frames. (“Rust never sleeps,” a sign tucked into a shrine-cum-garden of cactuses, rocks and old handguns observed.) Mr. Polumbo, a sculptor with a day job as a high-end contractor in Manhattan, is part of the most recent wave of artists for whom Joshua Tree’s cinematic bleakness and fringe Americana are aesthetic catnip.

Cleaved by the Twentynine Palms Highway, the town’s lunar landscape — Flintstonian boulders set off by the curious shapes of the Joshua Tree, the yucca relative from which this town takes its name — features a local architectural vernacular of midcentury stone-and-wood shacks.

These were embellished in the 1970s by off-the-grid hippies and survivalists, who supplied add-ons like rooms made from half a geodesic dome or a Quonset hut. They were further refined by contemporary artists like Andrea Zittel in the 1990s, as well as newer pioneers like Mr. Polumbo, who began to use the town’s end-of-days vocabulary in their own work.

Mr. Polumbo’s handmade “trash house,” as he describes it, fits easily into this environment. But it couldn’t be more antithetical to the sleek perfectionism of the rarefied Manhattan environments that his company, 3-D Laboratory, has made for architects like Santiago Calatrava, Maya Lin and Rafael Viñoly.

It amuses Mr. Polumbo — “A LEED-accredited professional” in his day job, he said, referring to the construction industry’s standard for measuring building sustainability — to note that back in New York, the phrase “green construction” generally refers to the latest technologies and costs a fortune.

“Out here,” he pointed out, “people have been off the grid and making do in their bootleg houses for decades.”

Mr. Polumbo recalled a neighbor’s recipe for making hot water: paint an oil drum black, leave it outside and run a hose from it. “And what could be greener,” he continued, “than building out of trash, as they’ve been doing here since the ’70s?”

The other day, Ann Magnuson, the performance artist, explained how “ingenuity is king in Joshua Tree.” On the phone from her home in Los Angeles, Ms. Magnuson, a part-time resident here for the last five years, described the local agora, the swap meet in next-door Yucca Valley at which the town’s disparate tribes congregate every Saturday to pore over offerings like rolls of rusty barbed wire, broken ’70s-era furniture and pulp paperback novels.

It is a measure of the strong libertarian streak that unites this contrarian crowd — “the tweakers and the Los Angeles hipsters,” Ms. Magnuson said, ticking them off, “the right-wingers, Marines, art folks, granola-eaters, rock climbers and gun freaks” — that everyone finds a uniquely personal use for what’s there. For Mr. Polumbo, the swap meet has yielded two prospectors’ pans that he turned into sinks and a blacksmith’s forge that became a cabinet.

“In Joshua Tree,” Ms. Magnuson said, “everything gets reconstituted. It’s certainly a place where the concept of outsider art is in, and Randy polishes it to a high sheen.”

Mr. Polumbo arrived in 2004 for a one-month artist’s residency at a ranger’s station in the Joshua Tree National Park. He had been making art out of found items, wind-up mechanisms and what he calls “libidinal objects” — sex toys, condoms, bright blue Viagra pills — that he turned into puckish and lovely whirligigs and gizmos.

In the park, he said, “I got interested in how Native Americans made stuff with just sand and fire.” He began casting glass, from bottles and telegraph insulators he found in the desert, into natural shapes: corn, for example, or insect shapes like a mosquito hawk or a cockroach. (Roaches have been a persistent theme for Mr. Polumbo: in the 1980s, when he was attending the Cooper Union, he said, he liked to catch the roaches in his apartment on Avenue D and gold-leaf them.)

Mr. Polumbo also got hooked on the area. After he finished his residency, he bought a couple of acres in nearby Burns Canyon, where he fashioned a house out of shipping containers and a restored 1937 trailer. His daughter, Nico LeMoal Polumbo, now 11, called it “Boring Land” until she met a snake or two and tried out the giant porch swing he’d hung from two beams.

He soon fell in love with a local artist and musician, Shari Elf, with whom he started a gallery, Art Queen, on Twentynine Palms Highway. (On April 11, a show of Ms. Magnuson’s work — 30 pieces made in 30 days — opens there.) He completed another residency at the national park, and began to commute at least once a month from Manhattan. He was not in town, however, in early July 2006, when a wildfire destroyed 61,000 acres in San Bernardino County, including his container-house compound in Burns Canyon. “The name should have tipped me off,” he said.

IN 2007, Mr. Polumbo bought this property — 2 1/2 acres and a tiny rock cabin — for $120,000, at the height of the market. From the front porch, he noted the constant breeze and the presence of a huge cactus that looked like either a prop in a Road Runner cartoon or a giant phallus, depending on your point of view. “Given the nature of my work, it seemed like an omen,” he said.

The shack had been hand-built as a weekend place by “a crazy-in-love couple” named Bob and Lu Ferry, Mr. Polumbo said, according to the seller, a grandchild. Pennies embedded in the mortar recorded their progress from 1938 to 1942.

A bronze plaque stamped with the words “A Place in the Sun Ferryhaven” stolen by a neighbor, was returned after Mr. Polumbo moved in. “When we met, he said, ‘You’re pretty cool — you should have it back,’ ” Mr. Polumbo recalled.

In all likelihood, the house is an early example of a “jackrabbit homestead,” the collective name for a hand-built or prefabricated cabin erected on a five-acre plot sold by the government for a nominal fee between 1938 and the 1960s, as a result of the Small Tract Act of 1938. (Kim Stringfellow, an artist and associate professor at San Diego State University who is working on a cultural history of the homesteads, explained that the act was part of an effort “to dispose of so-called useless land,” and that the structures provided shade for the area’s ubiquitous jackrabbits, “who liked to lounge around them,” hence the name.)

When he bought the place, Mr. Polumbo planned only to install a septic system and fix some holes, he said, “to make a crash pad of the most rustic variety.” But he started sketching and lugging stuff around, and shipping things out from New York, and the project began growing.

To snatch some northern light, he built an 18-foot-high addition with a clerestory. In it is the kitchen, the living room and his bedroom, along with a loft level that serves as a guest room. The new bits have something of a “Lost in Space” vibe, which largely derives from a serpentine room divider and a sofa made of rocks and mortar, upholstered in a midcentury textile.

“I had very specific rules,” Mr. Polumbo said, “to use nothing new except steel — it’s already a recycled material. And no paint and no Sheetrock.”

Friends arrived to help him build, this being the sort of place where many locals are likeminded artists with time on their hands and a need for cash. Mr. Polumbo isn’t sure, but he estimates that he spent a lot less than $90,000 on the place.

It’s an amount in distinct contrast to what his company bills back home, where prices range from $500 to $800 a square foot. “We have a saying at work,” Mr. Polumbo said. “Less isn’t more, it’s way more.”

He described the precision of a job for Maya Lin, a Park Avenue apartment sheathed in American brown elm that was only available in sections, or “flitches,” that are three and fifteen-sixteenths inches wide. In what would seem to be a technical and mathematical impossibility, the place was made without a visible seam or half-flitch. “We challenged Maya to find one,” Mr. Polumbo said, “and she couldn’t.”

There was no such effort in Joshua Tree. For a bathroom window made of mortar and tequila bottles, Mr. Polumbo, who is not a drinker, deputized a team of Patrón fans, who imbibed 18 bottles.

For months, the two elderly proprietors of an antiques store collected wine bottles for Mr. Polumbo, who embedded them in the walls, butt-ends facing in, along with beer and soda bottles, to approximate the effect of stained glass. (Their eagerness, and the volume of their haul, prompted him to speculate that his project was perhaps not the most healthful.) One also donated a pair of eight-foot stained glass windows, salvaged from a church. An artist friend from New York flew out to build a tentacular chandelier out of flashlights and blue gels, from Mr. Polumbo’s design, and a local artist put together two more pendant lights out of mechanics’ lights.

A few weeks ago, Scott Monteith, the local artist, was painstakingly washing the dust off the blooms in “The Garden and Grotto of Manifest Destiny,” an installation of Mr. Polumbo’s that features glowing festoons of Easter-egg-colored rubber sex toys set inside a 1980s-era military vehicle. If you don’t get too close, its “blossoms” look like a fantastic Martian garden. (It is fitted with 6,000 L.E.D.’s, and powered by solar panels.) The “Grotto” has been a hard-working art piece: it traveled to the Burning Man festival in August and to Art Basel Miami Beach in December. Now it is powering Mr. Polumbo’s house through an extension cord.

Despite the abundance of enormous phallic items glowing, whirring or just flapping in the wind out here, Mr. Polumbo’s demeanor is hardly that of a macho artist. He speaks softly, with demure, downcast eyes, about the most embarrassing things. “I like the pretty-ugly continuum, like some cheeses and sex acts,” he said.

He recalled the day he went shopping for the ingredients for his first “Buttercup” — a bouquet of rubber sex toys in candy colors lit by L.E.D.’s and powered by solar panels, a clear precursor to the Grotto. “It was a store in Chelsea, and I took a friend because I was scared,” he said. “We had filled a cart, and the owner came up to us and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’ll give you a 30 percent discount.’ ” (Now, Vibratex, a maker of sex aids, is a sponsor of Mr. Polumbo’s work.)

The architect Lee Mindel, who described Mr. Polumbo’s contracting as “three-dimensional sculpture,” observed that under his “buttoned-up, churchlike demeanor is the most wonderfully demented, obsessive and thorough mind.”

For Shelton, Mindel & Associates, Mr. Mindel’s firm, Mr. Polumbo’s company built a triplex on Central Park West that Mr. Mindel called “one of the most complex and complicated spaces in New York. It was a maze of a miasma.” It also won an American Institute of Architects award for interiors last year. Now, Mr. Mindel said, the two companies are working on a celebrity penthouse “that we are taking through a sex change.”

Recently, Mr. Polumbo’s mother, Sarah Zacks, a former bookstore owner, was visiting from her home in Providence, R.I. Ms. Zacks was knitting her son a pair of socks in desert colors and remembering his earliest creations: boats made of the wax from Mini Babybel cheeses and twigs.

“He could do anything,” she said.

A bowling pin hanging from the ceiling, which was fitted with a tiny propeller, whirred suddenly, startling a visitor, who peered at the wall behind it. Tucked into the rocks was an artist’s wooden model, the bendable kind sold in art stores, embedded in a resin-filled condom.

Ms. Zacks sighed. “Naughty Randy,” she said.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Why I am not a LEED AP

I was asked the other day why I am not a LEED AP? Well the answer is simple. It is not something that would lend value to my work.

I work in Residential/Remodeling Construction. LEED for Homes AP just started their Beta testing last month and you must have worked on a LEED for Homes project to qualify. Those are not exactly breaking any doors down at the permit office anytime soon I imagine. And I tend to agree with the NAHB on the belief the perimeters of LEED are so chock full of details that if one was going to do them all to become at the highest level the cost is exorbitant.

And frankly I am against anyone doing anything with compliance to a checklist. If it builds knowledge, exposure, encourages and furthers green building then by all means use them! But there are trade offs in the process, such as extra costs, putting in features that add no real value and use but provide those valued credits and the fact that it is not a 100% guarantee to entrance to the Green Kingdom of Heaven. I would do it if I thought it lends to a higher assessment of your home's value (and on that note higher property taxes). Which follows, the next question, Do you get something in return? a Tax Credit, a lower mortgage interest rates, lower points, something to offset or balance the costs required in obtaining that "Certificate" At this point you do not. Commercial builders do however.

You do get tax credits and rebates for making your home Energy efficient. No third party verifications, no lengthy process of applications and paperwork, simple documentation in the form of receipts and work contracts should be enough and that does not cost extra.

I am not a LEED AP because also the focus is on the commercial sector and I have no interest in that nor experience. And at present in my area there are over 100 LEED AP's available for every one building. And I have met many LEED AP's and why they may possess the credential their building knowledge and experience is nascent at best and are not planning to verify/evaluate or consult anytime soon (and maybe that is a good thing.)

The test is not about being all knowing about green building its about the LEED credits and points and their program. The NAHB is the same although its an easy exam and open book open note as it should be because you would not "verify" a project without them so memorizing the credits seems well silly.

Both require "experience" in the building sectors but by experience that is wide ranging. I passed the Energy Star verification and I had no experience in insulation other than my installing it in some remodeled homes and that was hardly done with anything more than a code book at the time. But I can grasp building concepts and energy use and again it was too open book/open note so it was not reliant on super memory.

Here are some comments by prospective LEED AP's that I took from a forum..

I'm planning to start studying to take the LEED AP exam and I'm looking for some insight on how long on average it takes to prepare for this exam. My background is in utility and energy management for industrials so I do not have any direct experience with LEED but my company may be moving more toward that and I'd like to position myself. I've read thru many of the threads on this forum but can't quite get a sense for the scope of this exam.

One thing I meant to ask earlier, I don't have any architectural or building experience, is that going to put me at a bad disadvantage for the exam? I'm pretty good at memorizing stuff though.

If you are pretty good at memorizing information then you will do really well! The exam doesn’t really test your ability to do a LEED project. It tests more of your memorization of the facts and figures in the LEED reference guide. There are people who actually work on LEED projects with tons of experience and STILL FAIL the LEED Exam! It sucks but it’s true. answer your question, NO you are not at a bad advantage for not having building experience (I don’t because I’m a student). Slight interest in the subject matter (so you wont fall asleep reading) and great memorization skills will do the trick. That’s my 2 cents! Good Luck

I agree, you don't need any experience. I am a structural engineer and I had no experience with LEED or Arch. I finished school about a year ago so my mindset is still somewhat into studying. Make sure you know the credits inside and out and be able to write them down from memory.

took the test as a Junior in College. Passed the first time with a 180. I must have spent about 15 hours or so studying the week before the exam and that was about it.

As you can see there is no purpose for me to take a test that I cannot use in my professional life. It is simple another "cap" and frankly one I cannot afford. The costs and prep for this exam and credential would run me over $800 by the time all is said and done. Aside from being able to announce this at bars will it do anything to build my clientele or help my customers understand ways to green their homes? No, but it will allow me to raise my fees and put a nice logo on my business card.

I am a member of my local USGBC chapter and will look into the new "Green Associate" credential they are adding. That shows I support the program and its concepts but removes me from any confusion about what I will or will not do.

This is also the reason I don't do third party verifications for any organization, even the ones where I had passed the test in the past (Energy Star and NAHB) because particularly the NAHB, required an inordinate amount of liability insurance. And it was from that I realized that the potential for liability is high if you act as a verifier and the house/building fails to meet the promise "standards" you could end up being on the wrong side of litigation. Again those insurance costs were evaluated and I realized that I could do just as much for my clients by offering coaching and education at a rate they could afford than add verifying to my list of credentials and services and ultimately raise my fees.

I am not the only one with that concern, the NAHB is having a seminar at the Green Builders convention next month in Dallas about the subject matter. Other verifiers I know are discontinuing the practice and with the decline in new build, there is no advantage to a remodeled home to have this. It is a cost better put in the home's upgrades.

And if you need to comply vs doing it on your own then absolutely I encourage the use of qualified and capable consultants and verifiers. But if you don't well as Nike said in their ads JUST DO IT. Use the info, seek advice find qualified experienced consultants or mentors to start you through the process and either they or you can document all the materials, etc for the Home Owner's Manual.

As a "verifier" you are really selling the program. You are not an employee of the USGBC, NAHB, Energy Star, etc. You are not paid by them nor given any special financial considerations and you waive liability. So you are on your own and that is not something I wish to do in this economic time.

I appreciate the programs, I have all the documentation and information about them. I regularly participate in their continuing education and workshops, I attend the GreenBuilding convention, NAHB among others. I feel its my obligation to do so and offer that knowledge to my clients at rates and fees they can afford but without worry of unnecessary time and financial obligations to have their home "certified".

My Green House

This editorial was in the NY Times today and reiterates much of what I have written about in other blogs.

Older homes are worth saving and now more than ever is the time to do so, from tax credits to low interest rates, homeowners of all incomes will be able to take advantage of the Obama Administration's stimulus package. And in turn Contractors can get back to work doing what they do best, fixing homes and building their business.

There is of course a caveat to this process, indoor air quality. Sealing a home's envelope will lead to a reduction of airflow through the home. This cannot be sacrificed for energy savings and should be addressed at the same time. Very simply if you cannot add a HRV system (approximate costs 2-3K) add in house ventilation fan to the existing bath and kitchen ones you have. It can go in a laundry room or pantry located in the upper most region of the house and vented to the attic. Have a timer also put on and set it to run a few hours (8 is the suggested amount) daily. A system, such as programmable or zone thermostats or ventilation systems are only as good if they are used appropriately. Otherwise they serve no purpose and the long term goals are negated as a result.

I am a GREAT advocate of renovation over deconstruction and I also think that this type of service is a great way of adding to a Contractor's speciality. A simple hand held infrared device that monitors insulation issues is easy to learn, affordable (approximately $500) and can be added to the tool truck. You don't need a full performance blower test kit and training to do this and it can be ways to teach homeowners affordable ways to upgrade their home's efficiency. And later when budgets grow your relationship and communication built with them will remind them later than you can do more than just insulate their home. Window salesmen carry this very instrument to convince people that new windows are the way to go.. these pressure tactics are misleading and commit people to expensive and often unnecessary upgrades. Just ask those who have encounters with some and you will see the confusion and frustration regarding this. I think many window people have become the new "yellow page salesman" of the new era.

As the "expert" who is there to assist and inform you will come across as a legitimate source and reliable one who will be asked back and referred to many times that can help you grow your business and keep it growing during this difficult time.


This Old Wasteful House


NEVER before has America had so many compelling reasons to preserve the homes in its older residential neighborhoods. We need to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions. We want to create jobs, and revitalize the neighborhoods where millions of Americans live. All of this could be accomplished by making older homes more energy-efficient.

Let’s begin with energy consumption and emissions. Forty-three percent of America’s carbon emissions come from heating, cooling, lighting and operating our buildings. Older homes are particularly wasteful: Homes built in 1939 or before use around 50 percent more energy per square foot than those constructed in 2000. But with significant improvements and retrofits, these structures could perform on a par with newer homes.

So how does a homeowner go green? The first step is an energy audit by a local utility. These audits can be obtained in many communities at little or no cost. They help identify the sources of heat loss, allowing homeowners to make informed decisions about how to reduce energy use in the most cost-effective way.

Homeowners are likely to discover that much of the energy loss comes down to a lack of insulation in attics and basements. Sealing other air leaks also helps. This can be done by installing dryer vent seals that open only when the dryer is in use, as well as fireplace draft stoppers and attic door covers.

Experience has shown that virtually any older or historic house can become more energy-efficient without losing its character. Restoring the original features of older houses — like porches, awnings and shutters — can maximize shade and insulation. Older wooden windows perform very well when properly weatherized — this includes caulking, insulation and weather stripping — and assisted by the addition of a good storm window. Weatherizing leaky windows in most cases is much cheaper than installing replacements.

The good news is that the administration is taking steps to help homes save energy with a program that will invest almost $8 billion in state and local weatherization and energy-efficiency efforts. The Weatherization Assistance Program, aimed at low-income families, will allow an average investment of up to $6,500 per home in energy efficiency upgrades.

My organization is also working with the Natural Resources Defense Council and members of Congress on legislation to help cover the costs of making all older homes more energy-efficient. Under this proposal, a homeowner would receive a $3,000 incentive for improving energy efficiency by 20 percent, and $150 for each additional percentage point of energy savings. If 3,000 homes could be retrofitted each year, we estimate that after 10 years we could see a reduction of 65 million metric tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, and the equivalent of 200 million barrels of oil saved.

The labor-intensive process of rehabilitating older buildings would also create jobs, and this labor can’t be shipped overseas. The wages would stay in the community, supporting local businesses and significantly increasing household incomes — just the kind of boost the American economy needs right now.

Before demolishing an old building to make way for a new one, consider the amount of energy required to manufacture, transport and assemble the pieces of that building. With the destruction of the building, all that energy is utterly wasted. Then think about the additional energy required for the demolition itself, not to mention for new construction. Preserving a building is the ultimate act of recycling.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A Contractors Story

I think many of us think we could of or should of done things differently and somehow this would not have happened. Some are just hoping that this does not happen to them and some are well just lucky enough for it not.

For those in Construction we saw it early. I realized in July of last year that the Construction side of business was not making sufficient profit to generate income for either myself or my partner. We were strictly business associates and there was no way for us to remain in business together when we each had individual and personal obligations outside of the business. As the majority owner I had a vision and plan that was no longer a possibility if we were to remain in business. At that point I took majority control as established by my contract and my partner and I split. It was not contentious but it was not amicable. These things rarely are easy in any scenario.

Then I set about on remaking my business. I had a plan which I revised, I reviewed ways to reduce costs and lower overhead. I knew I had the experience and knowledge and started to build further skills in relation to Green Building. I canceled my bond and Contractor's insurance, sadly a policy held by AIG... that premium was a loss.

Next was getting another expensive L&O policy to attain third party verification status to accompany the varying credentials I was earning or planning to earn.. Energy Star, NAHB, and LEED AP. When I realized the potential litigation issues and liability those third party certs possess, I canceled that policy. I have again yet to see a return.

In the meantime I had to get a second job and now work full time on two. Trying to build and save a company while trying to just survive linked to an industry that is severely in hardship. I managed to remain keeping my rates low as I still believe that more than ever home owners and fellow tradespeople need the information and skills I have that will help them save, maintain and build value in their homes and businesses. But values and ideals sadly don't pay rent.

But I reprint this article because it discusses issues that are NOT just this man's story but more and more many peoples stories. It is clear we have much more work to do to see our lives even become close to what they were and perhaps they never will so we will all have more adjustments to make in the future.


A family's tale: From middle class to unemployed

A punishing wave of layoffs has pushed some people right over the edge financially. For a New Jersey couple and their 2 young sons, the recession has meant tumbling from a comfortable suburban life into a spiral of credit card debt.

In less than six months, Richard and Maria Lipowski went from solidly middle class to struggling to make the rent.

Last year started well for the family. A construction worker with the New Jersey Laborers' Union, Richard Lipowski was benefiting directly from the nationwide building boom then entering its final phase. He earned $60,000 to $70,000 a year, enabling his family to lease a comfortable suburban home and afford regular meals at local restaurants and family vacations to the Caribbean. The couple even had money left over to put toward the purchase of a house where their two young boys, ages 3 and 2, would have more room to play.

But by mid-2008, the housing bubble had burst, construction had slowed, and the Lipowskis' bills had ballooned out of control. In April, the Lipowskis' older son, Frank, had emergency surgery to close a hole in his heart. Nearly overnight, the family's savings turned into thousands in credit card debt. Frank is autistic, and that has entailed medical expenses as well.

Autism bills adding up

Then, in November, Richard Lipowski lost his job. His take-home pay was chopped in half, from $4,000 a month to about $2,000 in unemployment insurance. Despite spending cuts, the family's credit card debts swelled to $25,000.

"It's all on the credit cards," says Richard Lipowski, the family's sole breadwinner. "We are struggling with minimum payments."

Many in the middle class can empathize with the Lipowskis' circumstances. Years of high fixed expenses and negligible savings have left many middle-income families ill-equipped to sustain losses of income. Unemployment insurance often covers little more than a middle-income families' rent or mortgage. The rest of the living expenses often go on credit cards, leaving families buried in debt.

As the recession deepens, stories like the Lipowskis' are becoming more common. In February, the nation's unemployment rate reached 8.1%, a 25-year high. Economists say the March unemployment rate will prove to be even higher, perhaps 8.5%, when the U.S. Department of Labor releases statistics on April 3.

"Anyone who is in the construction industry, the real-estate business, the financial sector and the manufacturing sector . . . is in deep trouble," says Rebecca Blank, an economist with the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., public-policy think tank. Though manufacturing and construction employ only 15% of the labor force, those industries provide salaries for a disproportionate number of low- and middle-income workers, many of whom never fully recovered from the recession earlier this decade.

One in every five U.S. construction workers is unemployed, according to the Department of Labor.

Unemployment likely will worsen before it improves. Typically, unemployment peaks six months to a year after a recession ends, Blank says. She points to the recession of 1981-82 as an example. Unemployment remained high well into 1983, though it peaked in December 1982 at the tail end of the recession.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has targeted the end of this year for the economy to start recovering. If he is right and history repeats, the labor market won't improve until well into 2010.

"That is bad news particularly for young workers entering the labor force or for the people who have already become unemployed," Blank says.

More help for the unemployed

The government expanded unemployment insurance late last year. Previously, individuals in most states could receive benefits for a maximum of 26 weeks -- based on a percentage of their income that varies by state. The federal government extended that last year by up to 20 additional weeks for states with high unemployment and up to 33 additional weeks in states with extremely high unemployment.

The $787 billion stimulus plan also provides other aid for the unemployed. It ensures that the 20-week extensions will last through 2009 and, starting this month, provides an extra $25 per week in each unemployment check. It also expands unemployment programs to cover low-income folks who had not earned enough to qualify for assistance. It provides help for medical bills as well. Under the plan, the government will pay 65% of the cost of "continuation of health coverage" plans, known as COBRA insurance, for nine months.

Additional unemployment benefits will help families such as the Lipowskis pay the rent if jobs remain scarce. But it won't help them make a dent in their debts or stop racking up new ones.

In this economy, debt has become even more difficult to sustain. Credit card defaults are at their highest rates in more than two decades. Citigroup reported that more than 9.3% of its customers had defaulted in February. Capital One reported an 8% default rate for that month.

Such high default percentages have prompted some credit card companies to raise interest rates. Capital One recently sent customers notice of increases. Others, such as JPMorgan Chase, have begun charging annual fees of $120 to holders of cards with lower interest rates.

Higher rates leave families such as the Lipowskis in an untenable situation: unable to truly afford credit but unable to live without it.

Because Richard Lipowski's unemployment checks are slightly less than half his former salary, he pays an outsized portion of his monthly income on rent. About 55% of his unemployment payments go to rent. The remaining 45% is split among utilities, transportation, food and medical bills. Any other expenses go on the credit cards, some of which charge interest rates as high as 15%.

Medical costs alone could easily consume the rest of Richard Lipowski's unemployment insurance. He and his wife spend more than $700 each time their 3-year-old sees his autism specialist and gets refills for a long list of dietary supplements and immunity-strengthening vitamins. The ability of such supplements to help autism is a subject of intense debate, and many medical insurance plans do not cover them.

'You try to do whatever you can'

At first meeting, it's difficult to believe the Lipowskis' son is ill. A handsome boy with a broad smile, welcoming personality and curious nature, Frank seems like most young kids. He immediately recognizes a microphone brought by a reporter and sings "Happy Birthday" into it with the gusto of a kid preparing for "American Idol." But he can't conduct a conversation at the level of other children his age. The autism has slowed Frank's speech development so that while words come easily, sentences don't.

As a result, the Lipowskis buy their son special educational DVDs and books aimed at improving autistic children's communication abilities. Each DVD costs $25. There are no funds left over for these materials, so Maria Lipowski puts them on a credit card. And the bills increase.

"We will do whatever we have to do," she says. "Like every other mom, you try to do whatever you can for your child."

Not many jobs out there

For Richard Lipowski, that means showing up to work, even if there is no work to be had. Each weekday, he goes to his union's hiring hall in Jersey City in hopes of getting a job. His chances are slim. Jobs are offered first to the union members who have been out of work the longest, provided they have the requisite skills. Occasionally, a worker on the list is ill, freeing one job for the next person in the queue. It is also possible that a job may require skills beyond those held by the guys ahead of Lipowski in line. But with so few jobs available, the odds are against him.

He knows that, yet he still shows up.

Lipowski is hopeful that the billions earmarked for construction in the Obama administration's stimulus package will improve his chances. Construction-related spending in the package -- largely designated for schools, infrastructure and energy-related projects -- could top $160 billion, according to the Engineering News Record, an industry publication.

"Not only will it produce jobs through the local guys, it puts money back into the hands of suppliers, to the guys that transport all the construction material," says Richard Lipowski.

Maria Lipowski is looking for something else in the stimulus package: aid to parents of special-needs children. The package includes $12.2 billion in federal funding for special education.

To the extent that such aid could fund the cost of education for Frank, it could provide more help to the family than even a second income could. The slack labor market has made it difficult for Maria Lipowski to find work. Even if she were to land a job, her income would barely offset the cost of child care for her 2-year-old, let alone provide the specialized care Frank needs.

More valuable to the family at home, Maria Lipowski has concentrated her efforts on cutting the budget. All the food is cooked at home. She no longer shops for clothes or buys name-brand items. She entertains the kids in the house.

Even so, the cutbacks don't offset even the interest their credit cards rack up. Every day Richard Lipowski is out of work, the weight of his family's debt grows.

"It is taking a toll on me," he says. "It is definitely a struggle."