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Your Green Home

(Each issue of Green Living features a new aspect of green building. This is an interview with Alex Wilson, whose organization, Environmental Building News has become the national repository for information on this subject. SM)

Biophilia is, literally, a love for nature. "It is a concept that should guide building design," says Alex Wilson of Brattleboro, author of the new book Your Green Home (New Society Publishers, 2006). Wilson knows what he is talking about. As founder and currently executive editor of Environmental Building News, he has "green cred" within a state that is an epicenter of enlightened building practices.

The state is dotted with examples biophilia, from the space age company headquarters of NRG in Hinesburg (that produces 90% of its own electricity) to the madcap houses of Prickly Mountain outside Warren built by young design/builders in the 1970s, to the permaculture features of the 10 Stone development in Charlotte, to the Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Waitsfield where the alumni of Prickley Mountain now dominate the faculty, to the offices of the trend-setting Journal of Light Construction just outside Richmond. Even if they can't spell or define it, Vermonters take biophilia seriously.

But being ahead of the rest of the world isn't good enough for Wilson. "Given the magnitude of the benefits that can be realized through biophilic design-especially the healing benefits\0x2013 it is remarkable that there hasn't been more interest in carrying out research."

Now, for really the first time, Wilson has distilled his thoughts on biophilia and encyclopedic knowledge of green building into a book aimed squarely at homeowners looking to build an environmentally responsible home.

Wilson, and his company, have been incredibly prolific in generating and cataloging information on green building. The organization has been producing its definitive paper newsletter since 1992. Its roster of products now includes Green Building Products, a book featuring nearly 1,600 products from its GreenSpec\0xAE database, BuildingGreen Suite, a powerful online tool that integrates articles, reviews, and news with product listings and project case. It also sponsors an annual conference held in Boston in March where the greenest of the green builders, architects, and product designers gather to explore the future of building.

We caught up with him in EBN's decidely high-tech offices located in the low-tech former warehouse complex that formerly housed the Estey Organ Company on Birge Street in Brattleboro.

Who is driving the demand for 'green" homes, enlightened consumers or enlightened contractors? Or is it technological advances?

Wilson: It's being pulled by homeowners wanting healthier, more affordable, and more environmentally responsible houses; and it's being pushed by design and construction professionals who are committed to these issues and wanting to make a difference. In some cases, incentives are helping to advance green building.

Is Vermont the epicenter of green building? Between EBN, Vermont Green Building Network, and Yestermorrow it would seem to be. What are the origins of this?

The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (originally the New England Solar Energy Association) had it's origin in the Brattleboro area in the early 1970s; that's what first brought me here in 1980. The back-to-the-land movement, with people like Helen and Scott Nearing, also had a strong Vermont connection and, to some extent, the green building movement evolved out of that movement.

How did you personally become involved in this field?

At a young age,12 or 13, while my friends were thinking fireman or astronaut, I was thinking environmental protection. I became active in the late 1960s to ban DDT and to protect wilderness. My college degree is in environmental biology, but in 1976 I got involved in renewable energy. I saw it as a chance to be for something, rather than opposing things like power plants or chemicals or pollution. After college (and following six months in Washington learning that I didn't want to live in a city) I got a job with the New Mexico Solar Energy Association, where I began writing about renewable energy. In 1980, I was offered a job as executive director of the New England Solar Energy Association then in Brattleboro. After five years, I ventured out on my own in 1985, starting what is now a 17-person company, BuildingGreen, Inc.

Can you comment on the fact that most renewable energy installers and green builders in the area seem to be working on huge second homes? Is that an accurate generalization?

There certainly is a lot of work being done on these "starter castles." For better or worse, the wealthy often have the available money to invest in the more expensive and highly visible systems like PV arrays. I always push for downsizing a home as the best starting point in home design.

Any truth to the statement that houses are more toxic today than the average house of 100 years ago due to the use high-tech building materials produced by the petroleum industry and construction techniques that make houses too tight without enough natural air infiltration.

Yes, there is certainly some truth to that. One hundred years ago, we didn't use binders to create plywood and particleboard, we didn't have wall-to-wall carpeting made from various plastics, we didn't have brominated flame retardants and phthalate plasticizers. On top of that, our houses were really leaky, so any indoor contaminants inside a house would quickly leak out. On the other hand, we burned wood in open fireplaces and coal in boilers, and pollutants from those made people sick, and we didn't use fans to bring fresh air into homes and exhaust stale air--lots of fresh air came in on very cold or windy days when there was a pressure difference between the indoors and outdoors, but during swing seasons, spilled smoke in a house might remain there for a long time.

Meanwhile, on the average building site, the construction process seems to be a study in creating waste, much of which could be recycled, but is instead hauled to the local landfill. Is the ecological message getting through to the average builder?

Probably not to the average builder--yet. In commercial construction, the mainstream industry has come along a little faster. The mainstream homebuilding industry has some catch-up to do.

What are the most encouraging trends in green building today?

Growing awareness about three things: 1) the volatility of energy prices and the generally upward pressure; 2) our health and the fact that since we spend 90% of our time indoors we better make sure that our homes and workplaces are healthy; and 3) the changing environment and the realization that global climate change is real and that we need to collectively do something about it.

The most discouraging...?

The magnitude of of change that is needed to head off the truly frightening prospects of full-blown global warming--with tens of meters of sea level rise, Atlanta's climate coming to Vermont, loss of sugar maples in the autumn--things like that.

For whom is your new book specifically written?

It's mostly written for people thinking about building a new home and wondering what the questions are that need to be asked and the decisions that need to be made.


Your Green Home
Alex Wilson

There are many reasons to build a green home. Perhaps you want to provide a safe, healthy place for your children to grow up. Or maybe you're concerned about rising energy costs. Your priority might be comfort, or durability \0x2014 knowing that the house will last a long time with minimal maintenance. For a growing number of us, building a green home is about doing our part to protect the environment, helping to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren. A green home is all of this, and often much more.

This book is written to help you understand what green building is all about, and then show you what's involved in applying these ideas to your home \0x2014 whether you are having that home custom-built, looking for a house built by a speculative builder, or building a home yourself.


The term green building is used to describe design and construction of buildings with some or all of the following characteristics:

Buildings that have minimal adverse impacts on local, regional, and

Buildings that reduce reliance on automobiles;

Buildings that are energy-efficient in their operation;

Buildings and grounds that conserve water;

Buildings that are built in an environmentally responsible manner from low-environmental-impact materials;

Buildings that are durable and can be maintained with minimal environmental impact;

Buildings that help their occupants practice environmentalism, e.g. by recycling waste; and

Buildings that are comfortable, safe, and healthy for their occupants.

Quite often, when people think of green building, what comes to mind is the use of recycled-content building materials \0x2014 insulation made from recycled newspaper, floor tiles made out of ground-up light bulbs, and so forth. Materials are indeed an important component of green construction, but this way of building goes much further.

Green building addresses the relationship between a building and the land on which it sits; how the structure might help to foster a sense of community or reduce the need for automobile use by its occupants; how to minimize energy use in the building (energy consumption being one of the largest environmental impacts of any building); and how to create the healthiest possible living space.


Green building can trace its origin, in part, to builders of solar homes during the 1970s and '80s. Many of the architects, designers, and builders who were involved with solar energy back then had gotten involved because of concerns about energy shortages and the environment. Since solar energy is a clean, renewable energy source, designing and building homes to make use of solar was a way to reduce impacts on the environment, creating homes that required less fossil fuel or electricity.

These designers and builders began to realize, however, that their focus was too narrow, that reducing conventional energy use was just one part of a much bigger picture of resource efficiency and healthy building. Sure, those solar pioneers could build a house that used solar energy to keep its occupants toasty on cold winter nights, thus saving money and helping the environment at the same time. But what about where these houses were being built? What about their durability? What about the materials used in construction? Was the wood coming from clear-cut old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest? What about the alarming increases in asthma among children? What about ozone depletion? And what about comfort? Some of those houses with extensive southfacing glass overheated or experienced glare problems during the day.

Environmentally aware designers and builders began to broaden their focus. They recognized that North America's buildings accounted for a huge percentage of its energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, ozone depletion, resource use, and health problems (see figure 1.4). And instead of simply being part of the problem, these pioneers wanted to be part of the solution. A few professional organizations, including the American Institute of Architects and the Urban Land Institute, formed new committees or divisions to address environmentally responsible building. New organizations were created, including the US Green Building Council. New publications were launched addressing green building, such as Environmental Building News. Even the mainstream industry magazines, such as Builder and Architectural Record, began running feature articles on green building. A shift began that will forever change the way we design and build.

Homebuyers and commercial building owners are also encouraging the green building movement. People want to live or work in buildings that are healthier and better for the environment.

Opinion polls regularly show that the public is willing to spend more for something that's better for the environment; it only makes sense that this concern extends to our homes and workplaces. In commercial buildings, research shows that people working in green buildings (with features like natural daylighting, healthy air, and operable windows) are more productive; they get more done in less time, whether manufacturing widgets or processing insurance forms. Because the labor costs of running a business dwarf the costs of operating a building,improving the productivity of workers can yield tremendous financial returns. Similar studies are showing that students learn faster in classrooms that have natural daylighting. A highly detailed 1999 study of hundreds of classrooms in the San Juan Capistrano School System in southern California, for example, correlated the rate of learning with the presence or absence of natural daylighting. The researchers found that learning progressed 20% faster in math skills and 26% faster in verbal skills in classrooms with the most natural daylighting compared to classrooms with the least daylighting.

While much of the green building movement is very new, there are also aspects that have been around for a long time. Many of the ideas being advanced by environmentally concerned designers and builders are drawn from the past. Landscape architects in the American Midwest are studying how Native Americans managed the tall-grass prairies using fire and are using those practices at some large corporate office parks. Ideas from pioneering individuals \0x2014 such as Frederick Law Olmstead, 19th-century designer of New York City's Central Park, Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1900s, and landscape architect Ian McHarg beginning in the 1950s \0x2014 are referenced widely in the green building field today. Some of the underlying principles of passive solar design date back to prehistoric cliff dwellings. Green building is still in its infancy. Not only does the building industry not yet have all the answers about how to build green, it often doesn't even know the right questions to ask. There have been tremendous strides made since the early 1990s in understanding the environmental impacts associated with building (for example, scientific studies of the life-cycle impacts of building materials), but we still have a very long way to go. Some of the ideas presented in this book will probably become obsolete as the green building movement matures over the coming years and decades. But we now know enough to provide clear guidance to someone who wants a home that will have a lower impact on the environment, and that is the purpose of this book.

Reprinted with permission from The New Village Green Living Light, Living Local, Living Large By Stephen Morris and the Editors of Green Living

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