Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Lynn Underwood's Green Story

I grew up on a farm and ranch and learned to conserve materials, avoid waste, and to respect the soil that sustained our family’s livelihood. While these concepts weren't rooted in environmentalism (they were rooted in conservation) they went along with a respect for nature. We avoided over-taxing the land. We were cautious about garbage and waste. We knew it was the right thing to do.

During a tour of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps in Viet Nam, I saw the results of a poverty-stricken country embroiled in war. Waste was unheard of there. South Vietnamese citizens scraped their Earth for simple survival. After three years, I left the Marine Corps, returned home to New Mexico. and started college. That's where I met a young woman who suffered from an ailment caused by air pollution. Together we organized the first ever anti-pollution effort with consciousness-raising. I even got the local mayor in Las Cruces, New Mexico to sign a proclamation declaring it to be Clean Air Week in 1972. Within a few years, my friend passed away because of that ailment, but she left me with a zeal for environmental health.

In 2000, as a Senior Plans Examiner in Pima County, Arizona I had been asked by the Building Official to coordinate a training event that would facilitate a dialogue between promoters of sustainable design and building safety professionals. I started by recruiting David Eisenberg, Director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology in Tucson, Arizona. Together we sponsored the first-ever Alternative Building Materials/Technology Exhibition in Tucson, Arizona. With a little over a month of planning we attracted over 1000 attendees who were able to learn about sustainable design and green building materials from nearly 40 vendors. There were over a dozen separate classes for the public with topics that ranged from how to install adobe blocks to installation of insulated concrete forms to green roofs to photovoltaic technology. This got my juices going. I wrote an article describing what we did and it was printed in the Building Standards Magazine published by the International Conference of Building Officials (July-August, 2000).

To me, green building means leaving a small environmental footprint while providing a safe, durable building that will endure natural forces such as wind, seismic and flooding. Green building means beginning at the design stage with thoughtful consideration for the all of the elements that provide a safe, comfortable home. It means making use of renewable natural resources. It's smart site selection and proper orientation. It's selecting the materials that provide the most durability while bringing the least harm to the environment. While there are many shades of green, all green homes are better homes. Green homes consume fewer natural resources and deliver high energy efficiency while avoiding unnecessary damage to the site. They last longer and live better because they're designed to meet your needs, instead of being designed to be large.

The building code can halp you build green. There is a long history for my profession of accepting and embracing the movement toward green building and environmental sustainability. It appears to be a well-kept secrtet, but it's there nonetheless. You can see it in black and white on page 2 of the 2006 International Residential Code:
R104.11 Alternative materials, design and methods of construction and
The provisions of this code are not intended to prevent the
installation of any material or to prohibit any design or method of construction
not specifically prescribed by this code, provided that any such alternative
has been approved. An alternative material, design or method of construction
shall be approved where the building official finds that the proposed design
is satisfactory and complies with the intent of the provisions of this code,
and that the material, method or work offered is, for the purpose intended,
at least the equivalent of that prescribed in this code. Compliance with the
specific performance-based provisions of the International Codes in lieu of
specific requirements of this code shall also be permitted as an
Because I'm so interested in helping people build their house the way they want and with the materials they desire, this section is like music to my ears.

As building safety professional, I believe it is my duty to embrace green building and support acceptance of these principles into the Code itself. Building Officials have always known that innovations and improvements move faster than the Building Code, so section 104.11 is a great tool for helping us to accept new methods and materials. This is the part of my job that I love; helping people getting what they want as long as they’re safe doing it!

--Lynn Underwood is Chief Building Official for the City of Norfolk, Virginia

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