By Michael Goetinck
I went to the Better Building by Design Conference in Burlington, VT this February. Attendees who heard Bill McKibben give the keynote address had opportunity to ask themselves this question even before the standing ovation. Bill gave us a brief history of 350.org and how it became a global movement that has transcended socio-economic and cultural boundaries. Most of the slides were of people all over the world expressing their concern about climate change and its impact. Among the many moving and powerful images, one stands out for me: someone was holding a sign that said “What you do, affects me.”That was their way of holding others accountable for their actions. The correlation is, “What I do, affects you.” This is taking personal responsibility for my own actions. Thinking about it is an interesting intellectual exercise. Putting it into practice I’m finding is something else altogether. I’ll share some of the things I’ve been considering, but at this point I don’t have confidence that I’m being as much of a low impact builder as I would like to be.
Deep energy retro-fits and high performance building are specialties within the construction industry. They have the potential to dramatically reduce the carbon footprint of our housing stock. I use the word “potential” deliberately because the very nature of the work itself has implications for the planet in terms of resource use before, during, and after the job is done. Here’s a sobering thought: everything we make or use comes from the planet we inhabit. The more we make and use now the less we have for later. Here’s another sobering thought: much of what we make or use for our buildings has undesirable consequences.
I once had to file a worker’s comp. claim when I got hurt on a job. As part of the intake process, I filled out a form asking me to identify which harmful substances I was exposed to in the normal course of my job. The list was three columns wide and a page long. Single spaced. Small font. I checked almost every single one. The products and materials I was using as part of my job were harmful to me. The homeowners were also being exposed to these products and materials when they lived in their newly completed project.
What about when buildings burn? Firefighters have one of the highest cancer rates of any profession in the United States. Paints, solvents, plastic foam, petroleum based products, adhesives, the plastic coating on Romex wiring, etc., all give off toxic fumes when they burn. The self-contained breathing apparatus and protective clothing that firefighters wear are only so effective at keeping these harmful fumes out of their bodies. What affect does a burning building have on the neighbors? How far do the airborne toxins travel? What do they do when they land?
So much of what we do is mandated by the various codes and regulations that govern our work. I recognize that they are necessary to ensure a basic level of safety and performance and I am not categorically opposed to them. I do wish that there was more flexibility in how the intent of the code could be achieved. I’m sure that there are many ways to create safe and durable buildings without requiring the use of toxic and unsustainably produced materials. Unfortunately there is no one in Vermont who has the authority to make those kinds of decisions so everything “has to be done by the book.” Some cities and towns in New Hampshire have code officials and I have found them to be very willing to consider non-prescriptive approaches.
One of my friends in the construction business tries to use products and materials that he would feel comfortable composting in his garden. He admits that he doesn’t come close to meeting the goal, but that mindset guides him as he’s making his decisions. Another builder I know is focused on natural materials in new construction, but when we get into conversations about retro-fits and renovations we both see more challenges than solutions at this point.
I’ve been urging customers to think about impact for quite a while and recently one of them asked me to take it further. She has a small house. She wants a small house with a small footprint. The goal is to do a deep-energy retro-fit and make some modifications to the living spaces while keeping our impact on each other and the planet as low as we can. If you have any suggestions please send me an email. Thanks.