Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jennifer Corson's Green Story

My great grandfather was a stone mason who moved from Italy to Canada with his two brothers. Together they built some of the most significant structures in their small Canadian town. If I had made the connection to my building roots, I would have gone straight to the construction trades to gain experience. Instead I followed some wise(?) person’s suggestion to combine my interests in math and the arts and enroll in an architecture program. One thing led to another and next I knew I was building earthen structures in West Africa on a thesis term. The proverbial ‘light bulb’ moment occurred, standing in remote Guinea, realizing that the nicest places to sleep is built with local materials (not being able to afford or access things from afar), cooled with natural ventilation (simple holes in an earthen wall), and designed with whatever creative details that can be done with simple materials and your hands.

Back on North American soil, these ideas of ‘local’, affordable, recyclable and renewable and beautiful have stayed prevalent in my design work. Although no longer building earthen structures, our design company’s mandate is to design green – always, and without question.

My second official title is as ‘salvager’ (which I believe is the Scottish side of my family lineage). A client’s design job reignited the salvage-minded approach that I witnessed in Africa. In designing a solar-oriented, energy-efficient home, the added request was to have it look 100 years old upon completion. It seemed ludicrous to me to specify new wood and beat it up to look old. I went ‘dumpster diving’, talked to contractors and realized there was the opportunity not only to salvage enough doors, flooring and hardware for this project but to divert tons of materials that was otherwise going to the landfill. The result, now 14 years old, is Nova Scotia’s oldest all used building material facility.

Green building to me refers to an ultimate goal, still intangible, that we have yet to achieve. It is a lot of fun and hard work learning how to design and build ‘green buildings’ (a term that is already over- and inappropriately used). Every project we touch gives us a learning experience that we use on the next project to help us get to that goal.

Being a parent of two youngsters has influenced the pace that I want to get towards good green building. It seems imminent that our natural surroundings are changing, species, habitat and view-lines disappearing with screwed-up examples that are anything but green.

--Jennifer Corson M. Arch. is an architect with Solterre Design and president of Renovators Resource Inc., an architectural salvage and dismantling business in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Matt Golden's Green Story

I grew up around building. My dad was a developer, so I got all the really horrible jobs! I started my adult career in high tech, but my interest in building remained. I began studying architecture, but part of the way through I realized I couldn’t draw. I made the jump to the solar industry just after the first net metering regulations were passed in California, which really was the genesis of the solar industry as we know it today.

I’ve always been committed to living a sustainable lifestyle and being conscientious about my personal impact on the environment. I decided in 2001 to align my career goals with my environmental goals and became an energy consultant focused on commercial and residential solar power. In this role, I worked with homeowners and businesses to develop solar power systems, but I soon realized that what I was doing only offered a point solution; it didn’t really help people to make their homes and lives more sustainable.

In the United States, residential housing accounts for almost 21% of the carbon footprint. Even if every home built from here on out was a “green building,” we still have all of this existing housing stock that is not efficient, and will continue to leave a huge carbon footprint. I realized that even if we implemented solar power systems on existing homes, we still were not attacking the underlying issue of maximizing a home’s performance by properly sealing ducts, or installing insulation that would help lessen energy loads to make solar systems more efficient.

In 2004, I developed the concept of Sustainable Spaces. Our focus was to use science and technology to qualitatively and quantitatively upgrade and retrofit homes to help homeowners improve the comfort, efficiency and health of their existing homes. We work with homeowners to create a roadmap for improving their home’s performance. Not everyone can make their home 100% green and zero energy in the first-pass, but by creating a comprehensive plan homeowners can begin the path towards sustainability and see real results on almost any budget.

To me, green building means beginning with the basics and fixing what we already have. Building new, efficient housing is not the greenest thing we can do if we aren’t already working to improve what we already have.

--Matt Golden ownes Sustainable Spaces, an energy retrofit company in San Francisco, Calif.

Dan Morrison's Green Story

I've completely stumbled into almost everything I've ever done. Except maybe college, I stumbled out of that. After graduating college with a biology degree, I worked as a field biologist in Oregon and on the Bering Sea. Living in the woods or spending half the year on a fishing boat aren’t exactly conducive to family life, so I looked into a more local career choice.

I had stumbled into a piece of land in the mountains near Drummond, MT that needed a cabin, so I got a job as a laborer on a framing crew. Because I was good at math, had good balance, and wasn’t worried about heights, I stumbled into being a decent framer.

My college training focused on ecosystems biology and conservation biology, so my interest in environmental conservation is pretty well developed. As it turns out, most of the problems with ecosystems were because of people doing dumb stuff (whether they realized it or not). After building houses for a while I stumbled into this thing called building science. It addressed questions that had been occurring to me as a framer and remodeler: how can the roof venting requirement possibly be the same for a high mountain desert, like Montana, as for a warm, humid climate like Tennessee? And what about crawlspaces, why are their venting requirements the same for both places? These rules seemed dumb to me, and because of my scientific training, I was wary of dumb stuff.

Studying building science satisfied my curiosity about the dumb rules. I stumbled into the fact that building houses to work better allowed me to charge more money, so I dug in.

I suppose working on a framing crew in Nashville and watching guys cut up and burn slightly-used 16 ft. 2x4s to keep warm stumbled me closer to what’s now called green building. Those 2x4s had lumber stamps from western Montana, where I had come from, and that bothered me quite a bit.

Green building to me is a pretty simple concept: don’t do dumb stuff.
  • Don’t build a house out of stuff made with poison.
  • Don’t build a house that will rot before it’s paid off (don’t build one that will rot, period, but certainly not before it’s paid off).
  • Don’t use more wood to frame a wall than you need to use (those walls are heavy to lift).
  • Don’t burn 16 ft 2x4s to keep warm when pulling the nails out of them and stacking them will make you warm, save money and save wood.
  • Don’t design an ugly house that nobody will want to live in or maintain.
  • Don’t hire subcontractors that do sloppy work because it’ll lower the quality of the house, increase the cost, and trash your reputation.
  • Don’t run your business on a shoestring because you’ll be of no use to your customers if you go out of business.

After a bad day on an icy roof, I stumbled into a job at Fine Homebuilding magazine and I never stumbled back. Over the holidays last December, I snuck into the office to pick something up hoping that I wouldn't be spotted and forced to work. I was spotted and offered a job building a Green Building product for Taunton Press and BuildingGreen with Peter Yost, a guy I stumbled upon a few years ago...

--Dan Morrison is managing editor of He lives in Torrington, Conn.