The Unbearable Lightness Of Being Green: Earth Day & Green Building 2004

Bill Walsh - April 19, 2004

For inspiration this Earth Day, April 22, look to the green building movement. In word and deed, green building professionals have shown us the unbearable lightness of being green.

Start by reading the comments to the US Green Building Council concerning Council governance (trade association membership) and LEED standards (a disputed PVC credit).[1] The opinions of the Council's core constituency, architects & designers, are unambiguous: NO to trade association membership, YES to a PVC-avoidance credit. Years of well-financed lobbying and public relations campaigns by companies that have a financial stake in LEED policy decisions had put these initiatives at the forefront of the USGBC leadership agenda. By rejecting them, the Council's primary stakeholders reclaimed their organization's unbearably simple vision, once characterized by outgoing USGBC Christine Ervin in this way: "to help set a high bar for expectations," "accelerate progress," and eschew "lowest common denominator results."[2]

Jim Pate and Bruce Hampton, AIA, put these sentiments into action. Together they supervised the construction of a PVC-free Habitat For Humanity Home for Shylia Lewis and her four children. The project will finish on time and on budget, by Earth Day, using best practices for green material selection.[3]

Green building is not Jim's primary mission. As Executive Director of Habitat's New Orleans Affiliate, his mission is "to serve as a catalyst to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action."[4] But he recognized a matter of conscience when Greenpeace proposed to sponsor a PVC-free house in order to prove that affordable housing can be built without materials whose manufacturing has hurt low-income communities throughout Louisiana.[5] The very definition of "decent shelter" is enhanced by a house with fewer environmental and human health impacts all along its lifecycle, including occupancy by children at statistically higher risk from environmentally-related illnesses, such as asthma.[6]

Green building is Bruce's life calling. His firm, Elton+Hampton Architects, as members of the Hickory Consortium, are pioneers in designing and building green buildings for low-income occupants.[7] Their Erie-Ellington Homes project in Dorchester, MA won numerous awards for excellence.[8] The Healthy Building Network asked Bruce to work with the standard Habitat design and specify ecologically superior materials that would still bring the completed structure within the typical Habitat budget.[9] He did. Then he flew to New Orleans and built the front porch and roof.

The Vinyl Institute predictably attacked this effort with a well-choreographed public relations campaign. They questioned Jim's judgment in a public letter to Habitat founder Millard Fuller.[10] They enlisted Habitat staff from other chapters (which they sponsor) to characterize Bruce's contribution as a publicity stunt. For possibly the first time in history for either Habitat or the green building movement, the effort received skeptical press coverage in the hometown paper.[11]

But Earth Day will dawn with one more decent home for a deserving family in New Orleans, and a clear mandate to the USGBC leadership.

Earth-to-Green Builders: Thanks.


Footnotes

[1] Comments available at http://www.usgbc.org.

[2] "Building A Legacy," Christine Ervin, Special Edition: USGBC Update March/April 2000 at http://web.archive.org/web/20001002112030/http://www.usgbc.org.

[3] Greenpeace USA http://www.greenpeaceusa.org/index.fpl/10386/article/1018.html.

[5] Rachel's Environment & Health News http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/bulletin.cfm?Issue_ID=1060&bulletin_ID=48.

[6] Healthy Building Network. Update on the Environmental Health Impacts of PVC as a Building Material: Evidence from 2000-2004, p. 13. http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/news.html.

[8] Excellence in residential energy efficient design for a cold climate by the National Association of Home Builders, and for Green Building by both the Boston Society of Architects' Committee on the Environment and the NorthEast Sustainable Energy Association. See http://www.hickoryconsortium.org.

[10] Letter from Tim Burns, President and CEO of the Vinyl Institute, to Millard Fuller, President and Founder, Habitat for Humanity International (Feb. 26, 2004).

[11] See full copy of the Times-Picayune story (April 8, 2004) and the Healthy Building Network letter to the editor (April 12, 2004) at http://www.healthybuilding.net/pvc/T-P_chemical_reaction.html.


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