Monday, March 30, 2009

Green Festival Part Deux

Well I survived the second day without blows. Not that it did not cross my mind. Its hard to concentrate and maintain your professionalism when people dressed as peanuts, brown paper suits want to talk to you about what you do while using terms as "process." I like to think of myself as contemporary but when you are asked about your work and you try to somehow encapsulate that into a reasonable elevator speech as speakers, prospective customers and curiosity seekers are milling about. I have much to "process" myself.

I was thinking most of the time what a great cocktail shaker my Stainless water bottle was and tried at one point to see if at the organic beer garden they would fill it for me.

But I did meet great people who really had great ideas, were understanding and open to my business and what I was trying to do. I had fun bouncing off an idea with a man who wanted to go eco with his countertops and stay away from granite (although not because of its lack of greenness but its heat loss conductivity.. hey will take it anyway we can) to recycled tile. One down, thousands to go.

Its people like that who represent my ideal customers. Looking for simple solutions and ways to make their homes a little greener in ways that remain affordable and approachable. (We devised going with the 12x12 tiles as opposed to smaller ones as a way of reducing the grout line and making a smoother look.) And all of that was accomplished in 20 minutes.. yes even I give a free lunch sometimes too!

Its hard to refuse to help people and that was the problem with the fair. They had too many freebies, samples and again the lack of continuity that led people to think that it was okay to ask questions about the pros and cons of countertops (the number one next to flooring) or even one gentleman who wanted to know how to build a new home green. I said I am sorry that is too broad and too large to really spend anytime at this forum discussing even in moderation. I said my best advice at this point before even discussing this with a Contractor, etc was to read any number of great easy books on Green Building. This will give you a focus and idea before going into an expensive process that will end up adding to the costs. Sometimes you have to make choices. Its not about losing business its about maintaining a sense of ethics. Its unfair to again provide vast information to one person while simultaneously charging another for the same.

I walk a fine balance of wanting to be helpful but after a day of people trying to sell your their green product ideas, those looking to "process" what you do, those wanting to intern or have you teach among those using an opportunity to police or critique and those who are genuinely interested in getting advice its hard to find the appropriate balance.

Kermit is right, its not easy being Green.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Green Festival Blues

I am not one to attend trade fairs. I like small highly focused trade fairs, those for trade and not ones longer than a day at most. So I avoid Home Shows or those that have poor advertising and limited focus.

But this year as the economy has me rethinking my marketing strategy I attended the Green Festival. Highly advertised, an emphasis on Green Products etc, and limited in cities participating, I thought it would be a good way to brand and make broader connections to those outside my city limits.

Well I was right at some level but I was genuinely unprepared for the level of "weirdness" I was to encounter and by that I mean not the attendees (that I knew would be a collectivity of diversity) but by the vendors.

Vendors are usually a collaborative and cooperative lot. At many home shows you have competitors but everyone is there under the same umbrella and are aware that you are all in the same boat and there to work the show. This I am afraid is not the case at the Green Festival. Due to the massive diversity of what defines green, you have fair trade coffee, waste resources, green building, with Eco friendly jewelery, skin care and educational opportunities. This large cornucopia of "green" leads to little interest and even more weirdness than most trade fairs posses.

As a result you have vendors wearing ensembles of bottles to educate on the waste of buying water to those who are highly corporate trying somehow to represent their company while not being called a corporate whore. It makes for an interesting weekend.

In addition little is done by the show hosts to build a cooperative and friendly nature. There is no opening cocktail party or dinner, no hosts wander the show to offer advices, support or even feigned interest. There is no central area for vendors to congregate and commiserate and the feeling that you despite all the proclamations and superiority, this is nothing more than a trade show hawking nice things called "green".

What I also noticed was the fact that many participants were truly unfamiliar with what it meant to be a vendor. Many of them wandered around, rudely inspecting materials, asking questions, demanding attention and wanting information when guests and attendees who may be prospective customers went ignored. There was a great deal of posturing, interrogating and questioning about one's knowledge making it difficult to determine if they were trying to genuinely ascertain your knowledge or were trying to gauge your "green" level.

And yes many attendees were equally as guilty but ones expects random public to be of that nature. Along with the required assumption that my table is a library or sample source for the taking. I was amazed at how many people took EVERY type of printed matter I had available whether they needed or not, attempted to hijack my books or samples or simply expected me to consult with them there on the convention floor with little regard to the circumstances. When I explained that my fees are very reasonable and would be happy to continue this at another time when contracted, the indignation and anger was palpable. Many wanted the source information and were equally surprised that this was not listed on my website. I tried to explain that I am not a retailer but a consultant who has these among many other products in which to use on their projects and listing all the vendors/companies would take immense amount of resources as well as negate any reason for me to be hired subsequently affecting my living. Well you can imagine the response, if anyone thinks "greenies" are a pleasant lot with kind natures, think again.

They would then take pictures, notes and roll their eyes frustrated that somehow someone in business was not willing to give them what the want without payment. Yes Virgina there is no Santa Claus nor free lunch. Nobility thy name is not green.

I am not sure I welcome going back tomorrow but I know I won't be doing it again.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

So Now What?

Today the cover of the NY Times discusses the merits or in this case the failures of the CFL light bulbs. I don't have a single one in my home and the reason being is that I have recessed lighting which causes failures in their effectiveness. Plus I didn't like the price point, which made me spend time learning how to design lighting that maximizes effective daylighting coupled with appropriate task lighting. And while I am not a lighting designer I prefer LED over CFL for many reasons.

I have already written a blog regarding the problems surrounding Energy Star certification and is was only after receiving my Energy Star verifier qualifications that I begin to "question" what exactly Energy star did themselves to validate products and homes that were designated "Energy Star" As a result that is one of the reasons why I no longer do third party verifications. And again, Energy Star has suffered neglect due to administrations that did not sufficiently fund them, so its hard to solely blame them for failures about all things Energy. Unfortunately they too are signs of our times where relying on them as the sole credential for what makes a product/home Energy efficient is well "insufficient." Thankfully, the new Administration is much more green friendly and hopefully we will see improvements on that front in the not so distant future.

But I reprint the cautionary article about CFL's for your review.

Do New Bulbs Save Energy if They Don’t Work?

Published: March 27, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — It sounds like such a simple thing to do: buy some new light bulbs, screw them in, save the planet.

But a lot of people these days are finding the new compact fluorescent bulbs anything but simple. Consumers who are trying them say they sometimes fail to work, or wear out early. At best, people discover that using the bulbs requires learning a long list of dos and don’ts.

Take the case of Karen Zuercher and her husband, in San Francisco. Inspired by watching the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” they decided to swap out nearly every incandescent bulb in their home for energy-saving compact fluorescents. Instead of having a satisfying green moment, however, they wound up coping with a mess.

“Here’s my sad collection of bulbs that didn’t work,” Ms. Zuercher said the other day as she pulled a cardboard box containing defunct bulbs from her laundry shelf.

One of the 16 Feit Electric bulbs the Zuerchers bought at Costco did not work at all, they said, and three others died within hours. The bulbs were supposed to burn for 10,000 hours, meaning they should have lasted for years in normal use. “It’s irritating,” Ms. Zuercher said.

Irritation seems to be rising as more consumers try compact fluorescent bulbs, which now occupy 11 percent of the nation’s eligible sockets, with 330 million bulbs sold every year. Consumers are posting vociferous complaints on the Internet after trying the bulbs and finding them lacking.

Bulb makers and promoters say the overall quality of today’s compact fluorescents is high. But they also concede that it is difficult to prevent some problem bulbs from slipping through.

Experts say the quality problems are compounded by poor package instructions. Using the bulbs incorrectly, like screwing low-end bulbs into fixtures where heat is prone to build up, can greatly shorten their lives.

Some experts who study the issue blame the government for the quality problems, saying an intensive federal push to lower the price essentially backfired by encouraging manufacturers to use cheap components.

“In the pursuit of the holy grail, we stepped on the consumer,” said Michael Siminovitch, director of a lighting center at the University of California, Davis.

Compact fluorescents once cost as much as $30 apiece. Now they go for as little as $1 — still more than regular bulbs, but each compact fluorescent is supposed to last 10 times longer, save as much as $5.40 a bulb each year in electricity, and reduce emissions of carbon dioxide from burning coal in power plants.

Much of the credit for that sharp cost decline goes to the Energy Department. The agency asked manufacturers in 1998 to create cheaper models and then helped find large-volume buyers, like universities and utilities, to buy them. That jump-started a mass market and eventually led to sales of discounted bulbs at retailers like Costco, Wal-Mart Stores and Home Depot.

Consumers are supposed to be able to protect themselves by buying bulbs certified under the government’s Energy Star program. But experts and some environmental groups complain that Energy Star standards are weak, permitting low-quality bulbs with too high a level of mercury, a toxic metal contained in all compact fluorescents.

“The standard essentially establishes a floor, which sorts out the junk, with the expectation that the rest is good,” Mr. Siminovitch said. “It’s not.”

The government, which will begin enforcing tighter specifications this year, says it must seek a balance between quality and affordability to achieve its goal of getting millions of additional consumers to install the bulbs.

“Something that is perfect but not affordable wouldn’t serve the broad interests,” said Peter Banwell, the Energy Department’s manager of product marketing for Energy Star.

Alan Feit, vice president of Feit Electric, says he does not think the problems experienced by the Zuerchers indicate an overall quality problem with his bulbs. But he acknowledged the difficulty of keeping tight quality control on a cheap, mass-market item. “There are 40 to 50 components that go into these things,” Mr. Feit said. “While manufacturers try to inspect all incoming materials, one little mistake may cause a performance problem.”

Victor Roberts, an independent expert in Burnt Hills, N.Y., who conducts failure analysis testing on compact fluorescents, suspects that some suppliers — many of them in China — are using substandard components.

“Somebody decides to save a little money somewhere,” he said, “and suddenly we have hundreds of thousands of failures.”

The Program for the Evaluation and Analysis of Residential Lighting at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., tests Energy Star-certified bulbs to see if they still meet requirements.

In the 2007-8 tests, five of 29 models failed to meet specifications for such categories as lifespan, luminosity and on-off cycling and were removed from Energy Star’s list of qualified products. Because of performance concerns, the government is expanding the watchdog program, vowing to test samples of 20 percent of the thousands of certified bulb models each year.

In California, where bulbs have been heavily encouraged, utilities have concluded that they will not be able to persuade a majority of consumers to switch until compact fluorescents get better. That is prompting them to develop specifications for a better bulb.

The effort aims to address the most consumer complaints: poor dimming, slow warm-up times, shortened bulb life because of high temperatures inside enclosed fixtures, and dissatisfaction with the color of the light.

“Because of the aggressive goals in California, we have to be pushing the envelope at all times,” said Roland Risser, director of customer efficiency at Pacific Gas and Electric.

Experts and bulb manufacturers say that consumers need to play a role in solving the problems by learning more about the limitations of compact fluorescent bulbs. The Federal Trade Commission has begun to study whether it should force improvements in the labels of the bulbs.

Better labels might have helped the Zuerchers, the San Francisco couple. Initially, they put regular compact fluorescents in virtually every socket in their home, including enclosed ceiling lamps, dimmable fixtures and areas where lights are turned on and off frequently.

But some of those applications require specialized, more expensive bulbs, something the Zuerchers say was not made clear on the label of their Feit bulbs or on any sign they saw posted at Costco.

“We’re both college-educated and pay attention to labels we read,” Ms. Zuercher said. “It feels like someone forgot to put a place to find the information.”


Friday, March 27, 2009

We've come a long way baby

This Friday is the Women in the Trades Employment fair which encourages women to participate in fields that are long dominated by men. Over the years I have seen that certainly change and it hasn't been easy. Sisters in the Trade an organization which I belong as well as Women In Construction encourages and supports those currently in the field, those curious about it and those hopefully willing to join us.

I get a lot of e-mails from women who are forming their own companies wanting to get into LEED and Green Consulting. In fact one of the bigger Green Consultants in the area is owned by a woman. Many women run Construction firms around the area and are there without the assistance of a husband or family member. And not that there is anything wrong by using that connection to enter a field, many firms would not have succeeded without these women behind the helm, but its not easy being a woman who is not traditional in fields that have certain characteristics and skills associated with them.

Many women who run Contracting firms are in fact former Carpenters or are Architects, some are excellent managers and their entrance to the business came when they were working for someone else and like anyone want their own business.

Regardless of how they got there their gender is often a point of interest. Mostly by other women who frequently ask me "I find subs very condescending towards me" Well I cannot say that I found "subs" or "crews" any different than any job. Sexism still exists and not just associated to the trades. Its not easy being a minority of any kind in any situation but how you handle yourself, your knowledge, your demeanor, your work ethic and more important your management skills should circumvent any real issues.

How anyone handles themselves in business regardless of gender is a big factor in how you are perceived. I recall interviewing with many Construction firms and some owners had never swung a hammer and they simply bought an existing business or franchise and found crews who knew how to do the labor. I met many couples who decided to leave their teaching professions when one spouse wanted to go out on his own and try something else. (I was a former teacher and you see a lot of those, it might be the loner part or the puzzle part that appeals) These people deserve as much attention and respect as any "veteran." I have met many veteran owners who were so intractable that regardless of gender they would be difficult to work with. I also found a Remodeling Company in Pennsylvania founded by artists who use those skills to "create" living environments while still pursuing their passion of art. Construction if anything attracts individuals who enjoy the creative process.

I would like to see more women and more people of color. I meet many Contractors and few and far between have faces of color. Just like the Green Movement, Construction appeals to a "type" of individual and its time to find those whose skills are not the usual, try business that is not normal and think more outside the box in order for it to be a member of the new economy.

So what does a woman need to succeed in this business? The same as men. Patience, perseverance, talent, business sense, construction knowledge or education and a willingness to work hard during down times and in up times. I found myself loving that side less and and less and falling back on my education background loving the knowledge I was gaining and sharing more than the scrambling for jobs, making them work and worrying about the next job and when it was going to come. That is the toughest side of being in Construction.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Survey Says.....

In the second article from Eco Home, this one surveyed home owners with regards to their attitude about purchasing Green products. What has significantly changed is the reasoning and that is less "environmental" and more emphasis on the "practical"

This doesn't really surprise me as I mentioned in the previous post I found over the last year clients wanting to talk about green but little true commitment. And those truly environmental were very knowledgeable and mostly self directed, meaning they had little interest or use in hiring anyone to assist them in their goals of greening their homes. Many clients, I find, are inherently curious but lack the resources, time, and/or believe they already have the knowledge necessary so hiring specialists in the field are not essential. Which on some level means what I have always said, truly talented and skilled Contractors and professionals can easily adapt and learn what is needed to complete the job, but in that respect it also leads to errors and confusion.

I recently heard from a woman who undertook the project of entirely upgrading the insulation of her home. They did such a successful job by sub contracting out only the labor necessary but not realizing that once the house envelope is sealed there would be a need to add extra house ventilation to accommodate the now tight house. As a result the home was now highly humid and mold was present. The budget was spent and now how do they "repair" this. Had she consulted a specialist in insulation or a Contractor familiar with the steps required this may not have happened. When you end up trying to save money you may end up spending more. Planning in advance, understanding again trade offs is the only way you can be efficient on on every level.

So while I believe that ultimately money is the primary factor in why one pursues something, I can forgo the more lofty esoteric reasons as long as its done with forethought. Reaching out to those clients who are concerned about their resources, intrinsic or otherwise is all part of finding the balance when going green.


Study: Consumers Willing to Spend on Green Products—If They Get Green in Return
Recession focuses homeowners on energy efficiency, but saving money now trumps saving the environment.

By: Jean Dimeo

They’re worried about the faltering economy and job security, but consumers say they are willing to buy energy-efficient products if they see immediate savings, according to a national survey released today.

The survey, one of four conducted annually by The Shelton Group, found that 71% of the people surveyed cited saving money as a reason to buy energy-efficient products. Fewer chose to “protect the environment” (55%) or “to protect the quality of life for future generations” (49%). That is a notable change from Shelton surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007, before the recession started, when respondents cited “to protect the environment” most often.

“Americans are concerned about their jobs, their homes, and their bank accounts. They’re now more focused on saving money than saving the Amazon,” Suzanne Shelton, president of The Shelton Group, said in a statement. “Yes, conserving energy is the greenest thing anybody can do, but consumers are not buying more efficient products because they want to save the world. They want products that can save them money in the long run.”

According to the survey, respondents said they are likely to take steps to reduce their utility bills over the long term. Among them:

44% would install a programmable thermostat; 32% already had.

43% would install additional insulation; 26% already had.

42% would install a higher-efficiency water heater; 26% already had.

The study by the Knoxville, Tenn.-based agency specializing in sustainability marketing showed that 53% of those who purchased Energy Star-rated appliances, completed renovations to boost energy efficiency, or participate in utility programs reported seeing a reduction in their utility bills.

But 32% said they had not seen a reduction. This is most likely due to rising utility rates or because they have more electronics plugged in, Shelton said.

Then there is the third possibility: the “Snackwells effect.” “A lot of us buy a box of Snackwells and think, ‘They’re low fat, so I can eat all of them.’ Then we wonder why we haven’t lost weight,” Shelton noted. “Buying an energy-efficient product can create the same type of effect. We’ll say, ‘I just got a high-efficiency air conditioner, I can lower the temp and make my home even cooler in the summer.’ Then we get frustrated that our new air conditioner isn’t reducing our utility bills.”

The advertising executive said she believes that’s why it’s important for utilities and product manufacturers to help customers change their behaviors.

The Utility Pulse 2009 survey was conducted by telephone with 500 respondents in January. Demographic quotas were set for gender, age, race, region, and education to match the overall U.S. population demographics. The Shelton Group said it’s 95% certain that the attitudes and opinions found in the study closely match those of all U.S. homeowners.

Green for the Future

I found a couple of articles today in EcoHome Magazine about the future of Green Building. One from an industry standpoint that indicates the future is green the present is I am afraid not. And with that I agree. I shuttered my Green Construction arm of my business in July after realizing that while many clients were interested and curious, their commitment was not. Costs may have had something to do with it or the fact that we were a small company and we could not offer the glamour associated with what has been associated with Green in our market. We were not interested in attaining awards, participating in Green Slams or worrying about creating dream study houses for rich investors using them as tax breaks.

We wanted to provide simple home upgrades and renovations with an emphasis on modern ideas and products, in addition to encouraging recycling and re-using when possible. These are not projects featured in magazines nor ones that enabled us to maintain a level of sustenance. After years of profit working for myself I found doing it for others not profitable. I also found that I prefer consulting and educating as it is something that works for me independently and can do so without worrying about my partner and building a business while simultaneously trying to keep up on my own education and knowledge. I know I am not unique to many of my colleagues who find themselves struggling with similar issues in this trying period.

So the issue remains how does a contractor in this time find ways to generate business, build or even maintain a business when those larger around him fall. Well that is one advantage a smaller company has. Individual or small companies can network effectively and build a community of like minded professionals sharing the same goals. I call it the umbrella but others call it hunting packs of small businesses each with the same concepts and goals but each offering unique aspects of the same service.

So Contractors lose the notion that EVERYONE in the business is your competitor and taking away from your bottom line, but instead find those who can add to it. Find a quality Plumber, Electrician, Painter, Interior Designers, Architects, Green Consultants and other, YES OTHER, Contractors who want to share resources, building a community to exchange knowledge and business. If we are to make it we are to grow together by working together.

Here is the article........................

Green Building and the Economy
Is green building really helping companies weather the recession? It depends.
By: Rick Schwolsky

Do you think green building is helping your business survive today’s market conditions?

EcoHome’s National Economic Survey of architects, builders, remodelers, and contractors shows a mixture of sad reality, cautious optimism, and strong hope for green building when the markets finally recover. And while most of the results were split between “green” respondents already working in green building and “non-green” respondents not yet involved, a large majority of all respondents agreed on the positive direction and potential for green building to emerge when the recession ends. Even 57% of non-green respondents believe that green building will lead all other trends when the housing industry re-emerges.

Results are based on 451 completed surveys returned from building professionals in 48 states: 64.5% of respondents design or build green homes; 35.5% do not; 92% of all respondents work in new single-family detached, 24% also design or build new single-family attached, and 24% are active in multifamily markets.

Compared with market conditions three years ago, only 7% of respondents described their markets as growing, 9% as about the same, 13% reported a 5% drop, 18% said their market was down 5%–10%, 17% reported a 10%–20% drop, and 36% reported a decline of more than 20%.

Are green builders in your market doing better than non-green builders over the last three years?

Most of the green respondents (60.4%) feel that green building is helping their businesses survive. And there is a strong perception among non-green respondents that green building could help their companies weather the storm; 71% of these respondents said they believe that now would be a good time to enter green markets. As one non-green builder put it, “Now would be a good time to revise our product, both for the good of the environment and future sales.”

However, just a minority of respondents shared the perception that green builders are doing better than non-green builders in today’s markets: Only 38% of green respondents and 11% of non-green respondents said this is true in their locations.

Many of those surveyed in both groups identified cost control as one of the greatest challenges facing green building, and this has become even more meaningful these past few months with pros seeking to reduce hard costs to remain competitive.

When asked how much cost green features add to their projects (if any), most green respondents (39%) reported increased costs of 10%–19%, while 34% of them said their features add 5%–9% to their costs.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Going Green or Bust

I found this article in the Wall Street Journal threatening those Contractors, etc who are not embracing their Technicolor Green Coat. Of course this once again lauding the benefits of LEED, which only got their Homes pilot program off the ground last year, but again when you are the only game in town its easy to be the most successful. But when you have an arduous and expensive process with regards to commercial I worry what that does to green and affordable for the rest of us.

USGBC have a powerful lobbying group and were the first out of the gate but again being a LEED AP does not mean you are the be all and the end all to knowing what needs to be done to make any building green. I have met many LEED APs who studied the book, understood the materials to take a test and passed without any real building or construction background. The test, which is largely based on how the credits apply not on the nuances and trade offs and the highly technical aspects of green building. And while some I am sure willing to put in the time to learn but without knowing what their background and experience is with regards to Construction, I am not sure a "test" is a sufficient barometer of how well you could "consult" on the project. I could easily pass the test but my "experience" relates to Residential and frankly adding that AP credit for me is an expensive and unnecessary credential that lends nothing to my work and adds an expensive cost and ultimate liability issue that will ultimately be passed on to my clients in a rise in fees.

LEED is changing the way they offer the test, making the AP designation more challenging and specific. But it does little to change the fact that being a LEED AP does not make you the single source for all things Green Build. Many talented Contractors and Architects, among others do not need that credential to designate business practices and skills highly transferable and "green."

Again not a condemnation to LEED, I don't third party verify for any number of organizations that I have been trained and/or acquainted with - NAHB, Energy Star or Built Green. I think it takes much more time and knowledge to actually consult and work on the project than what a checklist provides.

And Green Building is project centric. Each case, each job should be weighed on for its own merits, ambitions, budgets and plans. Finding resources, seeking options and developing knowledge is ongoing and not something simply rectified by attending a course. Having skilled teams to maintain a fully integrated and collaborative eco-charrette should be the ONE consistent when it comes to Green Build.


Green Gap

As environmentally friendly construction takes off, a question looms: Who's going to do all the work?

Demand is booming for environmentally friendly construction. But it's booming so fast that there aren't enough skilled professionals to do the work.

Green building demands a range of specialized knowledge that most builders don't have -- everything from where to obtain recycled materials to how to orient a building to maximize natural heating and cooling. So, contractors, architects and other pros are rushing to get up to speed, often through their trade groups, which have started offering more training in green techniques.

Every developer I have ever met has told me that educating their team on green is crucial," says Kristen Bacorn, a green-building consultant in New York. "Green is such a new and developing field that professionals don't necessarily know it, and they're craving education."

That's also the experience of Chris Hurst, a green-home builder in Tuolumne, Calif., who runs seminars in green construction. "The plumbing and electrical guy gave me a funny look at first, but then they said, 'We want to learn this because green is the future,' " Mr. Hurst says.

A Leg Up
For builders, the stakes are potentially huge. Rising consumer interest and a raft of new government regulations are driving green building forward, even as the larger real-estate industry craters. Builders who aren't familiar with eco-friendly construction methods may be at a big disadvantage in this new market, experts say.

"I think builders who can say they are a certified green professional have a leg up on the market," says Philip LaRocque, executive vice president of the New York State Builders Association. "As new-home sales plummet, [green homes are] penetrating a much higher percentage of the marketplace."

Fear of liability is also driving builders to get trained. Already, numerous green-building jobs have gotten botched because of a lack of knowledge -- and, in some cases, that has led to lawsuits or insurance claims.

In one recent case, an architect recommended that an owner use a green product from a new manufacturer without doing any research on the reliability of the supplier. As it turned out, the supplier couldn't deliver and the project was delayed, says Frank Musica, senior risk-management attorney for Victor O. Schinnerer & Co., which insures many of the country's major architectural firms. The delay led the owner to file an insurance claim and the contractor to demand more money to cover higher overhead and other considerations.

Course Work
For an indication of how quickly the pros are scrambling to get up to speed -- and just how far there is to go -- consider the LEED certification. Nine years ago, the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council created Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design guidelines for certifying buildings as environmentally friendly. Over time, LEED has become one of the best-known green standards.

Now contractors, consultants, attorneys, architects and others are rushing to get certified by the USGBC as LEED Accredited Professionals, which involves passing a test to demonstrate LEED expertise. In the past two years, the number of such professionals has doubled to over 60,000 from 30,000. But that's still a small part of all the professionals involved in the U.S. building industry. The National Association of Home Builders alone has 235,000 members.

To meet demand, the USGBC has bolstered its course offerings. The organization used to hold about eight to 10 courses per month across the country, with about 60 people attending each. Now it has expanded to about 50 workshops a month, with a maximum of 80 people per class.

Meanwhile, the major architects', contractors' and builders' associations have all rolled out their own education programs on green building. The Associated General Contractors of America, for instance, created a full-day LEED course in March 2008. And the American Institute of Architects recently passed a continuing-education requirement that all members take four hours of sustainable-design course work each year, as part of the eight health, safety and welfare credits required annually for membership.

Some builders are taking training into their own hands. New York-based Turner Construction Co., which embraced green building over a decade ago and helped found the USGBC, trains every new hire in green-building skills. Michael Deane, chief sustainability officer, says Turner sometimes even has to train subcontractors in the proper methods.

He says any contractor or subcontractor who doesn't learn green building practices will go out of business. For instance, he argues, standards are changing so drastically that class A office buildings not built to green specifications won't be considered class A anymore. "I think that green buildings and in particular LEED buildings are going to become the new normal," he says.

Good Food is always Green

The Sunday New York Times had two different articles responding to the Obama's new Victory/Recession/Green Garden. Whatever you want to call it, the Obama's are a modern couple who reflect very much the values of a modern albeit sophisticated urban couple. (aka "Buppies) But it was nice to see Michelle in her designer garden wear, Martha would be proud, digging soil to plant a White House veggie garden.

Now for all of us without the requisite Wellie's and shovels, or land either, what does that mean with regards to food? Well as a advocate of just eating locally, what is available, fresh (organic or not) and less overall (particularly meat) I applaud anything that draws attention to how we eat.

But on that note our government let food regulation go the way of Wall Street regulation as in non-existent. I have lost count on how many food scares we have had the past decade. Salmonella scares are not just for Jack in the box when lettuce, a perfectly good example of healthy food, was recalled. Death is not the exclusive purveyor of fast food when even peanut butter a staple in most homes is also a danger food.

Eating "organic" when it is not in season, shipped in from Chile is not really contributing to the whole idea of sustainable. And learning to cook and eat simply and well is an art long gone with Sunday dinners and family meal times. It has become arduous to cook for many and the idea that you have to go to the store, shop for organic produce and foodstuffs seems to be another luxury to the upper class.

Its not about the food its about what we eat, how much we eat and how to prepare and use that food in an easy, tasty manner. When you watch Top Chef somehow massive ingredients, subtle flavors and copious use of the words sous vide and mise en place further removes the idea of cooking from the everyman.

And there is Mark Bittman. Not Anthony Bourdain's favorite TV personality, well one has to have personality to be on TV, however the man knows how to make simple tasty food. Standing next to Mario Battali and Gwenyth Paltrow would make anyone seem boring in comparison. And unlike the personalities that comprise Food TV, a channel intent on killing the concept of food being both good and practical (and yes I hate Rachel Ray) Mark does make cookbooks that make food and cooking easy.

Here is his submission in the growing marketplace or lobby of why Americans need to change their dietary habits. Its for the economy stupid! And living to 100! Or not but how about just living.


Eating Food That’s Better for You, Organic or Not

Published: March 21, 2009

In the six-and-one-half years since the federal government began certifying food as “organic,” Americans have taken to the idea with considerable enthusiasm. Sales have at least doubled, and three-quarters of the nation’s grocery stores now carry at least some organic food. A Harris poll in October 2007 found that about 30 percent of Americans buy organic food at least on occasion, and most think it is safer, better for the environment and healthier.

“People believe it must be better for you if it’s organic,” says Phil Howard, an assistant professor of community, food and agriculture at Michigan State University.

So I discovered on a recent book tour around the United States and Canada.

No matter how carefully I avoided using the word “organic” when I spoke to groups of food enthusiasts about how to eat better, someone in the audience would inevitably ask, “What if I can’t afford to buy organic food?” It seems to have become the magic cure-all, synonymous with eating well, healthfully, sanely, even ethically.

But eating “organic” offers no guarantee of any of that. And the truth is that most Americans eat so badly — we get 7 percent of our calories from soft drinks, more than we do from vegetables; the top food group by caloric intake is “sweets”; and one-third of nation’s adults are now obese — that the organic question is a secondary one. It’s not unimportant, but it’s not the primary issue in the way Americans eat.

To eat well, says Michael Pollan, the author of “In Defense of Food,” means avoiding “edible food-like substances” and sticking to real ingredients, increasingly from the plant kingdom. (Americans each consume an average of nearly two pounds a day of animal products.) There’s plenty of evidence that both a person’s health — as well as the environment’s — will improve with a simple shift in eating habits away from animal products and highly processed foods to plant products and what might be called “real food.” (With all due respect to people in the “food movement,” the food need not be “slow,” either.)

From these changes, Americans would reduce the amount of land, water and chemicals used to produce the food we eat, as well as the incidence of lifestyle diseases linked to unhealthy diets, and greenhouse gases from industrial meat production. All without legislation.

And the food would not necessarily have to be organic, which, under the United States Department of Agriculture’s definition, means it is generally free of synthetic substances; contains no antibiotics and hormones; has not been irradiated or fertilized with sewage sludge; was raised without the use of most conventional pesticides; and contains no genetically modified ingredients.

Those requirements, which must be met in order for food to be labeled “U.S.D.A. Organic,” are fine, of course. But they still fall short of the lofty dreams of early organic farmers and consumers who gave the word “organic” its allure — of returning natural nutrients and substance to the soil in the same proportion used by the growing process (there is no requirement that this be done); of raising animals humanely in accordance with nature (animals must be given access to the outdoors, but for how long and under what conditions is not spelled out); and of producing the most nutritious food possible (the evidence is mixed on whether organic food is more nutritious) in the most ecologically conscious way.

The government’s organic program, says Joan Shaffer, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, “is a marketing program that sets standards for what can be certified as organic. Neither the enabling legislation nor the regulations address food safety or nutrition.”

People don’t understand that, nor do they realize “organic” doesn’t mean “local.” “It doesn’t matter if it’s from the farm down the road or from Chile,” Ms. Shaffer said. “As long as it meets the standards it’s organic.”

Hence, the organic status of salmon flown in from Chile, or of frozen vegetables grown in China and sold in the United States — no matter the size of the carbon footprint left behind by getting from there to here.

Today, most farmers who practice truly sustainable farming, or what you might call “organic in spirit,” operate on small scale, some so small they can’t afford the requirements to be certified organic by the government. Others say that certification isn’t meaningful enough to bother. These farmers argue that, “When you buy organic you don’t just buy a product, you buy a way of life that is committed to not exploiting the planet,” says Ed Maltby, executive director of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance.

But the organic food business is now big business, and getting bigger. Professor Howard estimates that major corporations now are responsible for at least 25 percent of all organic manufacturing and marketing (40 percent if you count only processed organic foods). Much of the nation’s organic food is as much a part of industrial food production as midwinter grapes, and becoming more so. In 2006, sales of organic foods and beverages totaled about $16.7 billion, according to the most recent figures from Organic Trade Association.

Still, those sales amounted to slightly less than 3 percent of overall food and beverage sales. For all the hoo-ha, organic food is not making much of an impact on the way Americans eat, though, as Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, puts it: “There are generic benefits from doing organics. It protects the land from the ravages of conventional agriculture,” and safeguards farm workers from being exposed to pesticides.

But the questions remain over how we eat in general. It may feel better to eat an organic Oreo than a conventional Oreo, but, says Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University’s department of nutrition, food studies and public health, “Organic junk food is still junk food.”

Last week, Michelle Obama began digging up a patch of the South Lawn of the White House to plant an organic vegetable garden to provide food for the first family and, more important, to educate children about healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables at a time when obesity and diabetes have become national concerns.

But Mrs. Obama also emphasized that there were many changes Americans can make if they don’t have the time or space for an organic garden.

“You can begin in your own cupboard,” she said, “by eliminating processed food, trying to cook a meal a little more often, trying to incorporate more fruits and vegetables.”

Popularizing such choices may not be as marketable as creating a logo that says “organic.” But when Americans have had their fill of “value-added” and overprocessed food, perhaps they can begin producing and consuming more food that treats animals and the land as if they mattered. Some of that food will be organic, and hooray for that. Meanwhile, they should remember that the word itself is not synonymous with “safe,” “healthy,” “fair” or even necessarily “good.”

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Green Life

Well I thought I was finished my discussion on death but alas the Reaper is drawing me back.

This morning on the way out I caught a few minutes of Dr. Oz touting the benefits of living to 100. He is an Oprah acolyte and was also on her show today continuing this discussion.

I am not sure I want to live to 100. That would put me with another half century in which to surely repeat the same mistakes I made the first time around, the opportunity to watch the world restore/implode and fill in the blank again. I have already lived through what is now 4 wars... Vietnam, Iraq I and II, Afghanistan, massive terrorism on U.S soil, big recession in the late 70s and 80s, a modern day Depression, death of numerous friends to the AIDS plague and environmental crisis that which we may never fully restore or recover. So I visualize my 100s as a cross between Soylent Green and the sci-fi films of my youth, none of which were particularly optimistic.

Are we so afraid of death that living until we are 100 is that important. And do we really think that 90 will be the new 40 which was the new 30? Are you kidding? We age and we grow old. And we live in a world that devalues age and experience and fears wrinkles as if they are cancer. Well it is easier to get treated for them given the state of our medical care. So I am unclear exactly why I WANT to live to 100.

I would like to live a healthy life, avoid dying a painful and sick death, I would like to leave a footprint that is less carbon and more neutral, I would like to have more importantly lived a productive and functional and independent life. All of those seem more precarious than before as I watch my savings deteriorate, my business fall to precarious lows (so much that I have a second job that now has oddly become my first job), a divorce, friends who are dying and the world in such chaos that it seems no one really knows what or how to fix it.

Yes maybe living to 100 might allow me to get over some of that or not. But in a society where our standard of living declines as we age, our work life's relegated to Wal-Mart greeter, where members of the opposite sex look to those generationally younger to fill their time, where our faces become so distorted by numerous surgeries on the quest to hide the facts, where despite all our best efforts the truth is we are born to die.

The world has finite resources and the longer we live the more the resources we use to maintain that life. Despite our denial, despite our desire we are not as productive or as useful to the world. Certainly there is some 30 something or in that case a 50 something who would look to these Centurions and think "why are they still here?" Well someone has to recall the good old days, I guess there would be just more of us recalling them at the same time.

Accepting death is the ultimate in accepting the cycle of life. Sustainability is understanding how long something is useful and when it no longer provides its use how to dispose of it in the most unobtrusive and destructive way is essential. Well from the Undertaker we can figure out how to do that to ourselves like we do our Pc's.

Born to be Bad

Some things from their inception haven't a chance to be successful. And none more true than Green Build gone bad. This article has made the rounds and I of course being the true cynic I am I feel compelled to reprint it here.

I hope this is not seen as a condemnation for LEED. There are enough naysayers with regards to the program that adding mine seems superfluous. And frankly I like the principles of LEED but then again I already have my issues with any organization that is the exclusive purveyor of all things Green Build.

Since this post additions are coming along.. one being the new LEED certified Carl's Junior restaurant. Nothing says green more than fast food I like to say! Maybe they have the LEED Jr. on the menu.

Here are the top 10 dumbest Green Buildings reprinted from Green Building Elements.


The 10 Dumbest Green Buildings on Earth

Written by Alex Felsinger
Published on February 16th, 2009

LEED certification, in all its greatness, does not take the building’s intended purpose into account; this leaves us with some hilarious, unabashedly self-contradicting buildings. Here are the ten of the most laughable green buildings:

1. BP’s Helios House Gas Station - Los Angeles, Cal.

Yes, there is an LEED-certified gas station. It’s actually a nice building, complete with rainwater collection, solar panels, recycled building materials, and LED lighting. However, don’t think you’ll be able to refuel with biodiesel or charge up your electric car—they’re only in the petroleum-dealing business. How green of them, right?

2. Justin Timberlake’s Golf Course/Lodge - Woodstock, Tenn.

So Justin Timberlake decided that he wants to buy a golf course and fix it up with an LEED-certified lodge. While it’s an improvement compared to most other golf courses, the fact remains that maintaining a golf course takes chemicals and lots of water. In the United States alone, golf courses total more than 1.7 million acres and consume around 4 billion gallons of water every day. How does a green lodge counteract the water used to maintain the course? Justin, if you really want to be green, you should have turned it into a wildlife sanctuary instead.

3. Nestle Pure Life Water Bottling Plant - Boiling Springs, Tenn.

While this isn’t the only LEED-certified water bottling plant, it’s listed for having the most greenwashed name. Ozarka, Arrowhead, Ice Mountain, and Deer Park water bottling plants also have LEED certifications of some sort, but they couldn’t compete with Pure Life in the name department. If anyone needs a reminder of why bottling water is a bad idea, here are five reasons to ditch the bottle. Oh, and Nestle as a whole won’t be getting an award for their treatment of the planet and its people any time soon.

4. Logan Airport Terminal A - Boston, Mass.

Activists in England have put their freedom on the line protesting against a third runway at the enormous Heathrow Airport; do you think they’d be more satisfied with the runway if the airport terminal was LEED certified, with solar panels and the whole bit? You’d be right to assume they wouldn’t, because whether they take off from a green building or not, airplanes are still one of the top causes of global warming.

5. Toyota Car Dealership - Rockwall, Tex.

While Toyota is almost synonymous with green when it comes to cars, in reality they’re not much better than any other car company. They have a full line of vehicles, including four-wheel-drive SUV’s, some of which are 8-cylinder. In fact, their entire fleet’s average gas mileage is worse than Chevrolet’s. Perhaps they should clean up their cars before trying to green their dealerships?

6. Antilia Tower - Mumbai, India

While this probably will not be LEED certified, it has been often mentioned as being one of the greenest building concepts on the planet. While it does look beautiful and will act as a giant carbon sink in the middle of the city, there’s a major problem: it will be the home of one family. No matter how green this building is, that is a complete waste of space in a city known for its overcrowding.

7. Civic Center Parking Garage - Santa Monica, Cal.

The only green parking garage I want to see would be located at a train or bus station for people to drop off their cars to finish their commute on mass transit. To quote every politician involved in the 2008 campaign, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

8. Vacation Home Development - Las Vegas, Nev.

You only need one house, people! Granted that seven of these eight homes are 1/12 shares, these homes are being built in a desert (Las Vegas) and if anyone needs a water-capture system, it’s people who live there year-around. Simply due to their excess, vacation homes may be the least environmentally-friendly structures on earth.

9. Spaceport America - New Mexico

Another case of the rich attempting to make the rest of us think they’re doing the world a favor. Recreational space travel, at least with the current technology, is a huge and unnecessary carbon polluter. But hey, the spaceport will be LEED certified, so everything’s going to be fine, right?

10. Every Fancy New Building - Dubai, United Arab Emirates

I know, I know — I cheated on this one. I could not pick just one since they’re all ridiculous for the same reason. The government is intent on making Dubai one of the biggest, most gaudy places on earth. Perhaps to compensate for unending excess, they’ve mandated that all new buildings must have specific eco-minded properties, but when you take all of it in at once, you know it’s nothing but a giant waste of resources.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sustainability defined (for me)

Each time I receive SBIS' newsletter I think how soon into it will I begin rolling my eyes. I have read Green to Gold and thought when it flew across the room a couple of times, my ire was more about the idealistic and almost dated aspect of a book only a year or two old.

As the economy continues to disintegrate, I worry that all this Sustainable talk is just smoke and mirrors while businesses either wait for bailout money (backdoor or front door, whatever door), restructuring (as in someone help us and buy us or let's just layoff people until we are in the faux black again) or battering the hatches to reemerge later on doing what they always did only with fewer people and even less competition.

Then finally tucked on the side was an article submitted by Mark McElroy, A Sustainable Consultant, who wants companies to do more than say they are committing supply side sustainability. To actually take those aspects further and become more transparent in their accounting and business practices.

One of the real reasons, I believe, banks and businesses are reticent about taking TARP or TALF money (no not just because the acronyms sound like a cat vomiting) but because the salary caps make the salaries public! When you have an equal playing field and fully disclosed salary and benefits how can you compete to hire the best and crush the worst. When salary levels are hidden they can also hide how the discrepancies among equal players are paid... paid because of gender bias, educational "connections" or good negotiation skills. When you have transparency you have equality and egalitarian business is not good business, right.

If you are truly sustainable you have no fear of having that open kimono, you make yourself better by simply being better. If businesses with hundreds of year old histories behind them can fold in an instant then one has to wonder how solid they really were, if ever. Transparency may actually help that and allow everyone from Governments, to competitors, to employees and investors a better way to make decisions on how to grow or fix the company if necessary.

Here is the article. Its rather lengthy but its well worth reading.


Corporate Sustainability Reporting - Where's the Context?

Call me old-fashioned, but I think a sustainability report should actually tell us something about the sustainability performance of the organization it describes. In order to do that, though, it must include context. By Mark McElroy


Imagine for a moment what financial statements would be like if bookkeepers, accountants, and CFOs failed to include costs or expenses in their reports. How could people possibly be expected to know what the true financial performance of a company was, if only its revenue, and not its costs, was reported?

Ridiculous, isn’t it? Yet this is precisely what passes for normal in non-financial sustainability reporting every day. What's up with that?

The key issue I mean to raise here is the general absence of context in mainstream sustainability reporting, or more specifically what the Global Reporting Initiative, or GRI – the leading sustainability reporting standard in the world – refers to as sustainability context (see Table 1, below).

I've seen literally hundreds of corporate sustainability reports prepared in accordance with GRI, but I have never seen one that adheres to this most basic of principles. Even GRI itself, in publishing its own sustainability reports, fails to do so.

Before we consider the implications of this, let’s first be clear about the manner in which context always comes into play in financial reporting. It is costs, in particular, that constitutes context in such reports, in the sense that sustainable financial performance is defined as instances in which revenues exceed costs. If revenues consistently fall below costs, we can say that the organization is not financially viable or sustainable. Costs, then, establish a kind of threshold of performance, below which organizations must not go. If they do, they will fail. Indeed, accountants have a special word for this – they call it insolvency.

What, then, comprises context in non-financial reporting, and can there be meaningful sustainability reporting without it?

Non-Financial Context

Perhaps the simplest illustrations of context in non-financial, CSR or sustainability reporting can be found on the environmental side of the subject. Take water use, for example. Imagine two manufacturing plants owned by two different companies, one located in New England and the other in the southwest. Assume that both plants use the same amount of water and produce the same amount of products, and that apart from location and ownership, are identical in every respect. Let us also say that in 2008, each plant reduced its use of water relative to 2007 levels by 10%.

How, then, according to conventional sustainability management, would these two companies report their plants' sustainability performance in terms of water use? Well, for starters, each of the two companies would publish a report claiming that their plant's water use was "more sustainable" in 2008 than in 2007, since overall use declined. They might even have set some reduction or efficiency goals and then reported progress against them. So far so good, right?

Not really.

Unless each report in our case also included information about the general state of water resources in the regions where the plants are located, we'd really have no basis for drawing conclusions of any kind regarding the sustainability of their water use. For all we know, groundwater resources in the southwest, for example, are on the brink of extinction. And similarly, in New England, where water resources are still plentiful, the same question would apply: "What was the volume of available renewable water resources at the plant's location, and was the plant's use of them sustainable?"

Indeed, in both cases, if all that is reported is the net volume of water used, crucial contextual information regarding the status of local hydrological conditions would be conspicuously missing, just as the absence of costs in financial reports deprive them of context. Without such context, performance reports of any kind simply fail to deliver – at best, they are top-line reports, not bottom-line reports.

As for the reduction of water use by 10%, even declining levels of natural resource use can be unsustainable, since the availability of the resources involved could be falling at a greater rate. Thus, the declining rate of water use by the plant located in the southwest could actually be hastening the loss of water resources there, not slowing it. But how can we tell? In the absence of information as to what the actual state of water resources was at the place and time of the report, it is impossible to say. Sadly, however, this is what passes for best practice in contemporary sustainability measurement and reporting.

Not very encouraging, is it?

Call me old-fashioned, but I think a sustainability report should actually tell me something about the sustainability performance of the organization it describes. In order to do that, though, it must include context. By that standard, few, if any, published sustainability reports have ever actually made it possible to understand the true sustainability performance of the organizations they describe.

Thus, a practice that can actually lead to criminal prosecution and jail time in financial reporting – intentionally leaving context out, that is – routinely passes for best practice in non-financial reporting, and is thereby considered acceptable. Even GRI, by systematically excluding context in its own reports, is complicit in the matter.

So let us pause here for a moment and make a critically important distinction, on a theme I intend to come back to on these pages in the weeks and months ahead – namely, context-based versus context-free reporting. It is my contention that context-free sustainability reporting is an oxymoron, and that it fails on its face. There can simply be no meaningful reporting – financial or non-financial – in the absence of context.

Sustainability reporters who prepare their reports in the absence of context are therefore, in a sense, engaging in fantasy, or dreaming. They tell us how much water they’re using, for example, without making reference to the quality or sufficiency of supplies, as if supplies were irrelevant. Pay no attention, they seem to be saying, to cases in which the quality or sufficiency of water resources may be inadequate, and pay not attention, too, to questions of equity or fairness in water use . This is not just greenwashing, it's dreamwashing, and we should have none of it.

Indeed, some of us really do want to know whether the impacts of the companies we invest in, work for, or are affected by are sustainable. And if they are not, how wide is the gap, what are the risks, and what are they doing about it? Context-free reports cannot possibly address these concerns, yet they are the norm in mainstream sustainability management, and are fed to us as if they can.

Breaking the Pattern

Let us now take a more positive tack on the issue, assuming there is one to be had. Could we, in fact, say that there is an opportunity here, and if so how might individual companies seize it and turn it to their advantage?

Well for starters, if everyone is engaging in the kind of dreamwashing and mass hysteria I describe above, shouldn't there be an opportunity for individual companies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace by simply stepping away from it all, loudly and conspicuously? God forbid a truly sustainability company should proclaim and reveal itself as such by including consideration of context in its reports.

If you're an investor or simply a consumer, and you genuinely care about the true sustainability performance of the companies you own or the products you buy, you will necessarily give preference to businesses and products that are described in reports that include context. How else can you know whether a company and/or its products are truly sustainable?

By the same token, if you are a company that is seeking to operate on a truly sustainable basis, or appeal to consumers who are genuinely trying to differentiate between sustainable suppliers and non-sustainable suppliers, you too will give preference to developing reports that include context. How else can you explain whether your company and/or its products are truly sustainable?

Of course industry could always continue to engage in the kind of foot-dragging and dreamwashing I describe above until regulators and litigators catch up, but why take the risk or forsake the opportunity? Why not step out now, ahead of the pack, and grab the early-adopter, first-mover advantage? Who will be the first company to measure and report their non-financial sustainability performance in a comprehensively context-based fashion, I wonder? Who, that is, will be the first company to produce a sustainability report that actually tells us something meaningful about the sustainability of their operations?

In the weeks and months ahead, I will be returning to this theme by explaining how to include context in the measurement, management, and reporting of corporate sustainability performance, including case studies taken from my own consulting work here and there.


Mark W. McElroy, Ph.D. is executive director and chief sustainability officer at the Center for Sustainable Innovation, a Vermont-based nonprofit that offers training, consulting and R&D in the area of corporate sustainability measurement, management and reporting. He is the creator of the Social Footprint Method and other advanced tools for measuring and reporting the sustainability performance of organizations.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Energy Mortgages

An associate in the industry, Gary Smith of Green Building Inspector, offered this post as something he wanted to share. Gary, as do I, agree that we need positive support to those homeowners worried about the deteriorating values of their homes, the increasing expense in maintaining them and concerns on how to save money while building equity.

There is no question that by upgrading a homes energy efficiency offers the most payback and value to the home either in the case of everyday maintenance or for resale. Homes that are "green" are selling faster than those without current upgraded green renovations. And none more so than those relating to energy efficiency.

As I have said on many occasions, my "expertise" centers on residential "green" remodeling and renovation. I am affiliated with Energy Star, NAHB, Green Advantage among other organizations and am anxiously awaiting Passive Haus training this year. All of them are highly attentive to the energy usage and long term goals of reducing homes energy consumption and cost savings.

But on that note, I focus on the tax credits available to aid those interested. Any financing related issues I elect to refer to those who do know. So at this point I can only say to begin by contacting your bank or mortgage holder with regards to an EM Mortgage.

However, I would like to add that financing rates now are at at all time low, there are banks who want to work with qualified consumers and for those looking to make those upgrades. The summer is coming, contractors are more available and willing to negotiate more than ever and all of that lends to a great opportunity for those who are seeking to improve their homes after what has been a trying winter for many.

If you have questions or would like more information, please do not hesitate to contact Gary. His site and contact information is listed after the article.


EM Your Way Into a Green Home

Let’s say you’re shopping for a new or remodeled home and you find one that:
· Is well-built
· Saves water usage
· Has lower-than-average projected energy costs
· Is easier to maintain…and
· Requires no additional income to purchase!
Would you stop shopping and pull out your check book?

I have good news! This kind of home is being built all over America! So, what’s the catch? There isn’t one. Ask your realtor to show you the “Green Built” homes in your area. How can you afford the purchase? Get an EM - Energy Mortgage!

The EM mortgage is unfamiliar to many home buyers and believe it or not to many real estate agents. How does it work? An EM increases your buying power by enabling the mortgage lender to count the monthly energy savings as extra income. There are two kinds of energy mortgages:
1. Energy-Efficient Mortgage: They credit the savings from a home that is already efficient into the loan qualification process and capitalizes the improved features into the appraisal.
2. Energy Improvement Mortgage: That loan increases the buying power of a consumer by financing energy improvements that are shown to be cost-effective and it capitalizes the ensuing monthly savings into the mortgage loan.
Most all the national secondary mortgage markets--conventional as well as federally insured programs--offer energy mortgage products. So, as you shop this spring for a new home ask about the EM. Your pocket book will thank you…

Contributed by:

Gary Smith
NABH Green Building Verifier

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Green isn't always Great

In line with the earlier article about why Green Build fails on some level, I found this article from Newsweek published last year about the issues surrounding green buildings.

As stated before design is essential in making a building fully sustainable. And by design not just the exterior but the interior working functions as well. From plumbing to mechanical all elements must coalesce in making a building green. Yes using LEED is the ultimate and for now only accreditation in the commercial field that many states recognize as the ultimate guide in how to build green. And in many situations offering tax credits for compliance. And the USBGC are very active lobbyists when it comes to challenging their monopoly on Green Building.

And while I am not picking on LEED I want to caution anything that is the singular and sole method, concept or function when it comes to making buildings and the environment a better place. Have we not learned from the most recent economic implosion that without competition and innovation from multiple sources we have information that is controlled, manipulated and implemented for the benefit of a few. Now I can imagine people thinking how would anyone in the Green movement be susceptible to such deception or greed. I would like to point out that I am sure some were convincing themselves of a higher goal as they wrote one fraudulent sub prime mortgage after another that they were getting people to own homes and that is not a bad thing is it?

There have to be competing ideas, alternatives and opposing perspectives to find out why things work, what things don't and what things can be improved. I don't like the idea of any one body controlling the information or the product. Monopoly is not a good thing it stifles growth and more importantly creativity.


The Bad News About Green Architecture

Sustainable buildings are virtuous, but they can be ugly. Only a few designs are truly great.

By Cathleen McGuigan | NEWSWEEK
Published Sep 6, 2008

I hate green architecture. I can't stand the hype, the marketing claims, the smug lists of green features that supposedly transform a garden-variety new building into a structure fit for Eden. Grassy roofs? Swell! Recycled gray water to flush the toilets? Excellent! But if 500 employees have to drive 40 miles a day to work in the place—well, how green is that? Achieving real sustainability is much more complicated than the publicity suggests. And that media roar is only getting louder. The urge to build green is exploding: more than 16,000 projects are now registered with the U.S. Green Building Council as intending to go for a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)—or sustainable—certification, up from just 573 in 2000.

Among those are various plans to build at least 50 million square feet of new green resorts in Las Vegas, where ecoconsciousness is suddenly as hot as Texas Hold 'Em. The largest LEED-rated building in the country is the 8.3 million-square-foot Palazzo Resort Hotel and Casino, which opened there last January. As it happens, the state of Nevada offers developers property-tax rebates—up to 35 percent—for LEED certification. Don't worry about the tons of jet fuel that will be used to deliver millions more tourists to Vegas each year—those visitors can help make up for that by reusing the towels in their hotels.

When it comes to green, people don't want to hear that size matters. We keep building not just bigger entertainment complexes but bigger houses. "Green McMansion" is one of my favorite oxymorons. Currently the average new house is 2,500 square feet, up 1.5 percent in size from last year—though the shock of this winter's fuel bills may finally slow the trend. Building green houses—or at least advertising them as green—is on the rise, though there are no national standards about what constitutes a green home. People are attracted to sustainable houses partly as a cool novelty, when in fact green dwellings have been around for eons. Think of igloos, tepees or yurts—they took advantage of readily available local materials and were designed to suit their specific environments. Shelters around the world tend to be situated to benefit from the sun in the winter or to shield their inhabitants from chilling winds. But we forgot those basic principles when we plunked down every possible style of house into our sprawling American suburbs.

If you want to understand what makes sustainable sense, check out the classic old shotgun houses of New Orleans that best survived Katrina (and just got a pass from Gustav): these modest homes are built high off the ground to resist flood damage; they are made of local wood that dries out; they have high ceilings and cross ventilation to deal with the stifling summer heat. But the houses that were ruined—whether in the Lower Ninth Ward or more-affluent neighborhoods—tended to be low-slung ranch houses, a style originally developed for the climate of California.

What bugs me most about the fad for green architecture is the notion that virtue makes for better design. OK, I suppose an ugly green building is better than an ugly nongreen building—but it's still ugly. So when I come upon a beautiful sustainable building that doesn't scream green, it cheers me up. The California Academy of Sciences, opening later this month in San Francisco, is a perfect example. It replaces the old science museum that was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Its design is sensitive to its place and history: the new building doesn't gobble up more space on its spectacular site in Golden Gate Park, and its architect, Renzo Piano, was careful to go no higher—36 feet—than the original structure. The most obvious ecofeature of his elegantly simple glass-sided pavilion is the green roof: a rolling 2.5-acre terrain, inspired in part by the surrounding hills, it cleverly disguises, under its two biggest bumps, the domes of the planetarium and of the rainforest exhibit underneath. The roof is planted with 40 native species (unlike Golden Gate Park itself, which was created out of a sand pit and includes such glamorous nonnatives as palm trees). The plants are kind of low and scrubby—though they bloom at various times—but they were chosen less for prettiness than hardiness, and the fact that they won't need irrigation.

There are lots of examples of innovative green technology in the building, but perhaps the most surprising is in the museum's offices where, says the executive director, Gregory Farrington, you can see hardware that's rare in today's buildings: handles to open the windows. That's because, amazingly, there's no artificial cool air. The only air conditioning is provided free of charge by the breezes that blow off the Pacific—including those that are naturally pulled down by that curvy roof into a lovely open piazza at the center of the museum. "It's a building that breathes with nature," says Piano. And all the gizmos that make this building even greener—the weather sensors that dim or brighten the artificial lights; the thousands of little solar cells tucked into the roof overhangs; the old denim jeans recycled as insulation—are so carefully integrated into the overall architecture that you hardly notice them. Of course, the green features will be explained in the museum's education programs—each year, 50,000 San Francisco schoolkids will visit its aquarium, alligator pool and other exhibits of the living and the dead. But personally, I like that Piano's trademark gifts for inventive design and great craftsmanship seem to make the sustainable elements disappear. "Making green buildings is a practical answer," he says in the accent of his native Italy. "But architecture is about desire; it's about dreams."

Spoken like a true romantic, but the point is right-on: sustainability is about the practical systems of building, not the beauty of great design. Established architects like Piano—he's 71—have learned to integrate green into their practices, depending on where they're working (the rules are strict in many countries of Europe, where Piano is based). But for the next generation of architects, sustainability will be second nature—they're learning in architecture schools how to incorporate green into design, and some of them will become the innovators who'll devise ever more efficient ecological solutions. And the U.S. Green Building Council is continuing to evolve its suggested standards: access to mass transit, rather than the necessity of cars, gets credit, as does adapting to a specific climate—a principle central to the sustainability of the California Academy of Sciences. It's expected to score a LEED platinum rating, making it the greenest museum in the United States. But I wish we didn't have to trumpet that achievement in the same breath as praising its design. I look forward to a future when green architecture won't be discretionary but required of every architect and builder. Then we could all shut up about it. Sustainable features would become as exciting as the plumbing systems and as essential as a roof that keeps out the rain.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Being Green Even After Death

I was walking home this morning from coffee and saw a truck roll by with a sign saying they carry "green" coffins. I thought well there is little about most coffins that would relegate the "green" logo but I thought I would investigate that further.

Let's face it you are dead and how you plan to move into the next phase is always awkward and well discomforting but worrying about your carbon neutrality when you are turning into carbon seems redundant. No question, there is a great deal of green in death and not much of it is related to being "green." Coffins are these great waste of resources and cremation takes an immense amount of resources to properly immolate a body.

Then we have cemeteries. While they are wonderful places to remind one of the personal history and offer a type of legacy and memorial to those gone, the amount of natural resources utilized to maintain them is significant. And they are finite. With the ever growing population the condos for the dead may be a reality sooner than later.

I thought of the funeral pyres of India and while I like them they too are not exactly environmentally friendly but it gets to the point. Or I could walk like an Egyptian and mummify myself and truly just turn into dust in the wind. I would just forgo the whole temple thing as that again seems a bit of excessive waste of space.

And then I found this article in the NY Times about Green Funerals. I thought well once again back to my inspiration for all of this The Little House on the Prairie. Yes everything old is new again.


Eco-Friendly Burial Sites Give a Chance to Be Green Forever

Published: August 13, 2005

MILL VALLEY, Calif. - Tommy Odom's remains lie on a steep wind-swept hill at Forever Fernwood, beneath an oak sapling, a piece of petrified wood and a bundle of dried sage tied with a lavender ribbon.

Adent last year, Mr. Odom, 41, became the first of 40 people at Fernwood cemetery to move on to greener pastures - literally. He was buried un-embalmed in a biodegradable pine coffin painted with daisies and rainbows, his soul marked by prairie grasses instead of a granite colossus.

Here, where redwood forests and quivering wildflower meadows replace fountains and manicured lawns, graves are not merely graves. They are ecosystems in which "each person is replanted, becoming a little seed bank," said Tyler Cassity, a 35-year-old entrepreneur who reopened the long-moldering cemetery last fall.

With Fernwood's debut, Mr. Cassity, who likened Mr. Odom's burial to the musical "Hair," became an impresario in a fledgling movement that originated in England.

Fernwood, which has designated about half of its 32 acres green, tries to make death palatable to baby boomers and to simplify an inevitable aspect of life dominated by "the black suits" in America's roughly $15 billion funeral industry. In the United States, the "green" concept is now in use at a handful of cemeteries, compared with about 140 woodland cemeteries in England.

In the green scheme of things, death becomes a vehicle for land conservation and saving the planet. "It is not enough to be a corpse anymore," said Thomas Lynch, an author, poet and Michigan funeral director. "Now, you have to be a politically correct corpse."

But just what is a politically correct corpse is an increasingly thorny issue. In recent months, there has been a struggle for the soul of the emerging industry between Mr. Cassity, an enfant terrible of the funeral business, who has made a fortune producing A&E-style digitized biographies of the dead, and Dr. Billy Campbell, who pioneered the movement in the United States and who has the studious intensity of a somewhat nerdy birder.

Dr. Campbell, a small-town physician prone to quoting John Muir and Coleridge, opened the first of the United States' green burial grounds, the 350-acre Ramsey Creek Preserve in Westminster, S.C., in 1998. There, the departed are buried dust-to-dust-style without embalming - a practice called toxic, artificial and bizarre by critics - in biodegradable coffins or cremation urns that make impervious coffins and grave liners obsolete.

Dr. Campbell was consulting until seven months ago on Fernwood, where eco-interment, also known as an "easement," can cost upward of $15,000 for a prime plot or as little as a few hundred dollars for a scattering of ashes.

Frustrated that conservation easements were not yet in place, he left to form a nonprofit group and a consulting firm in Marin County, Calif, dedicated to land conservation and "little boutique cemeteries with a social justice component," in the words of Joe Sehee, 44, a former Jesuit lay minister and marketing consultant, who is Dr. Campbell's partner.

Dr. Campbell and his former partner are a study in contrasts: Mr. Cassity fantasizes about being buried in cashmere; Dr. Campbell, in a shroud made up of old T-shirts, including "inflammatory ones from the last election," he said.

They are vying for the millions of baby boomers who are expected to die by 2040. The generation of composters who wrote their own wedding vows and opted for natural childbirth is expected to look for something different in death, as a lead character in the HBO series "Six Feet Under" did recently, receiving a green burial in a wooded nature preserve.

"There is a huge generation of people entering accelerated mortality who grew up with the first Earth Day," said Dr. Campbell, who started his eco-cemetery after he was left cold by the prepackaged funeral for his father. "People are ready for something more meaningful."

Mr. Cassity, a GQ-ish sort with rock-star stubble who wears sunglasses indoors, has cultural feelers well tuned for the business. He previously did an extreme makeover of Hollywood Memorial Park, the formerly bankrupt final resting place of Cecil B. DeMille, Tyrone Power and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sr. With his brother Brent, 38, he runs Forever Enterprises, a Missouri company with cemeteries, cremation societies and a coffin business.

Together, they transformed the once-derelict cemetery into Hollywood Forever, a pastoral "Sunday on La Grande Jatte" of death, where weekend screenings of classic films projected onto the side of Rudolph Valentino's mausoleum attract 2,500 picnickers.

As Forever Hollywood tapped into the zen of Southern California, an oasis for the Rodeo Drive dead, so Mr. Cassity anticipates Fernwood will do for the mountain-biking, Luna bar-eating culture to the north.

"We're in a market, Marin County, where 81 percent chose cremation, an extreme and unprecedented number," Mr. Cassity said.

"Death goes in cycles," he continued. "My best guess is we're finished with the nihilistic 'Let's get it done quick and throw me into the sea thing.' Now, it's, 'Return me to nature and help save the planet.' "

The presence of Fernwood, where the official hearse is a black Volvo S.U.V., in the cool verdant shadows of Mount Tamalpais, reflects Northern California's status as the nation's capital of alternative, artisanal death. The area is home to the death-midwifery movement, supporting home funerals, as well as a cottage industry in plain pine boxes and Funeria, a fraternity of funerary artists who have their own Biennale in San Francisco.

Those opting for eco-burial at Fernwood can buy coffins made of wicker or bamboo, shrouds in a hemp-silk blend and soon, $5,000 "Eco-pods" - a British import made from recycled newspapers and non-toxic glue meant to be a cross between a sarcophagus and a seed pod.

Near the forest path here lies Carolyn Reese Sloss, who died this year at age 84, her cremated remains interred in a biodegradable papier-mâché urn.

Her daughter, Martha Sloss, 52, a psychotherapist, and son-in-law, Murray Silverman, 62, a professor of management at San Francisco State, have reserved their easements in the natural part of the cemetery, a woolly landscape devoid of conventional headstones and navigated by a handheld GPS system. (To come is a lightweight computer that will allow strollers to view digital biographies.)

"As an American, I take up too much of an environmental footprint already," Mr. Silverman said. "To me, taking up more of one after I die is pathetic."

This year, Dr. Campbell, 49, "went ballistic," he said, when he discovered that Fernwood was not adhering to strict environmental precepts, planting inappropriate trees in coastal prairie and digging up land reserved for natural burial with a backhoe.

Dr. Campbell also said he thought that refrigeration would be promoted rather than embalming, which still endures in the older, conventional part of the cemetery, accomplished by a freelance embalmer, known as Dead Ed, on a bicycle.

Dr. Campbell's nonprofit Center for Ethical Burial is developing environmental standards and a strict eco-aesthetic that will preclude hothouse flowers or "gaudy markers marching up the hill," he said.

Ernest Cook, senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land, the national conservation group, who is on the center's board, said that although cemeteries were by nature essentially open spaces, conservation easements to nonprofit land trusts or government agencies would ensure that "the environmental values and concepts you're buying into would be absolutely guaranteed in perpetuity."

If the cemetery is part of a larger landscape undergoing conservation, people who wish to be interred or their heirs could bequeath money to the cause. "If land can be preserved and restored," Mr. Cook said, "it could potentially change the way Americans feel about burial."

The future of green burial may lie with people like Jerry Draper, 53, a computer systems analyst and organic farmer in San Anselmo who is thinking about putting in a green cemetery on an 11-acre lot he owns to avoid selling it off for subdivisions.

"It's about taking responsibility, leaving the campground cleaner than when you left it," he said. "It's about being a Prius instead of a Hummer."

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Deconstruction is a Good Thing

I am a big proponent of Design for Deconstruction. I think as you build or remodel you have to think of the long range goals and plans of the project. If you are building a home and using SIP's panels, remembering that you may want to make changes and by doing so you are literally removing a structure in place that also has no real recyclable properties. So that panel has a 200 year life so it may not be the best for those looking to either grow or shrink a home over the course of its life. Same for ICF's.

Now with homes being foreclosed many are being damaged as they sit empty and idle. Some are done so by thieves and squatters or by the owners as they left the property and others just simply nature taking course on a home that has no water or heat to properly moderate the humidity contributing to decay. Many homes were neglected prior to the process and then those companies that come to vacate are not interested in the property's sustainability. Banks may have some maintenance routines but a house neglected is a house on the decline.

My favorite charity and the one that taught me the entire concept of Green on a budget, Habitat for Humanity, is getting into the Deconstruction business. By possessing this valuable skill on taking apart a home to salvage as much of the working construction products available the benefits are endless. Habitat runs in many cities ReStores that are excellent sources for great products to re-use in other projects and homes. The whole concept of Recycle, Re-Use and Renew is one firmly in place at Habitat, as well as other great places that encourage the same.

This is a reprint of an article in today's NY Times discussing their growing venture into the deconstruction movement.


Habitat Adds Demolition to Its Mission

Published: March 18, 2009

SAGINAW, Mich. — The ordinary scenes of Habitat for Humanity — volunteers with saws and hammers creating homes from scratch on empty dirt — are being upended here.

Volunteers are learning to rip down plaster, pull apart walls and tear off roofs. To the nonprofit group’s long-held aim of constructing houses for those in need, Saginaw’s affiliate has lately added to its mission by doing the opposite.

As part of an agreement with the city, and with at least $500,000 from the state and federal governments, the Habitat for Humanity volunteers and paid workers plan to demolish two vacant, dilapidated houses here a week, every week, over the next two years. As for creating homes, they will build or refurbish eight houses this year.

The shift in the organization’s focus is a sign of the times in Saginaw, a shrinking city northwest of Detroit where at least 800 houses sit empty and doomed, and offers a glimpse of what increasingly empty neighborhoods in many cities may soon face as foreclosures continue.

International leaders of Habitat for Humanity, an organization more than three decades old, say their focus is changing to meet the demands of a changing economy. In cities where so many homes sit empty, the group is leaning away from building new houses and instead fixing up old ones, said Ken Klein, the vice chairman of the group’s board.

In recent years, about 100 of the organization’s affiliates around the country have done the same, removing recyclable items, like cabinets, floorboards, plaster and light fixtures, from condemned houses and, in a few cities, even razing some structures.

In Saginaw, city leaders acknowledge that some people have been skeptical, or at least puzzled, by the notion that Habitat for Humanity would tear down houses. But these leaders contend that the move makes sense: workers will remove (and resell) reusable housing material rather than send it to landfills, some homeless or unemployed people will be paid to work on the program, and money earned through the demolitions will go toward the organization’s longtime goal of getting poor families into new or rehabbed homes.

“You have to look at the mission; the mission is to make housing more affordable,” said Paul Warriner, the executive director of Saginaw’s Habitat for Humanity affiliate. “And when you think about this, that isn’t too much of a stretch.”

Still, it is an untested realm for volunteers, many of whom have spent years hammering nails and painting boards in new houses, never thinking of trying to take one apart. Last week, a chilly group from Habitat for Humanity, including several people fulfilling community service requirements and one who was staying in a homeless shelter, ripped wallboards and windows from a house as a fire still burned in its fireplace.

“It’s more challenging than building, where you go in linear steps,” said Chuck Aubin, a longtime volunteer who helped lead efforts to demolish a credit union — one of the affiliate’s first tests in taking apart a building here. “With deconstruction, you don’t know what you’re getting into until you tear that panel off the wall.”

Saginaw, with some 56,000 people, was, by some estimates, nearly twice as populous when the automobile business boomed. These days, the biggest employer is the health care industry, city officials said. Saginaw, a 100-mile drive from Detroit, is a city of contrasts: neighborhoods of enormous, well-kept homes (this was, after all, a lumber town before it was a car town) but also blocks of vacant lots and shuttered houses.

“The problem is endemic throughout the Midwestern, older industrial towns,” said Darnell Earley, Saginaw’s city manager. “It’s going to be very difficult to catch up with it.”

On the city’s east side on a recent afternoon, a mail carrier stepped onto the porch of what appeared to be the only occupied house in sight and then drove off, past a whirring bulldozer demolishing the remains of a burned house and past every other house on the block, boarded and abandoned.

There is something jarring at the sight of hundreds of houses sitting empty, while many poor families need a place to live.

“Yeah, we might have enough homes here,” John C. Stemple, the city’s zoning and development coordinator, said, peering around the empty neighborhood. “But they’re not quality choices.”

Many of the houses exceed Habitat for Humanity’s modest size requirements.

“A lot of these are just too big for us to use,” said Mr. Warriner, noting that there was no point in restoring a house that someone then could not afford to maintain or heat. “Some of them are not in real good areas, perhaps. And some of them are just too far gone, too dangerous.”

Inside Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, where the group sells discounted items from demolitions, the floor is lined with sink basins, cabinets, doors, bathtubs, counters and wood. Leaders here hope that the program will ultimately pay for itself, that the profits from selling recycled items will one day cover the cost of taking down homes.

In a nearby office, Cameron Brady, Habitat for Humanity’s development manager, shows a visitor the latest photographs from a project. There are the volunteers, ripping away at walls and pulling down pieces in one of the few buildings they have removed so far. In later scenes, tired workers stand proudly in all that is left, a foundati