Saturday, April 26, 2008

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.

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