Why I started EcoMajority

April 30, 2010

For the better part of last year, I’d been kicking around a website — a community really — that allows homeowners, architects and contractors to build greener, more sustainable homes.  When I left DDB at the beginning of the year, I decided it was time to build it.

It is essentially a forum where people can share their knowledge, research and experience around the sustainable building process. As I’ve said before, there is little that is black and white about making “green” choices — everything is a thousand shades of gray. Add to that the difficulty of finding information and perspective, it’s no wonder that precious few people make sustainable choices — opting instead for the “tried and true.”  I hope that by building this community, we can change that.

Originally I wanted to do product reviews. I could have done that and spent tens of thousands of dollars. Instead I chose a path that would cost much less (in the hundreds of dollars) by using the Ning Network.  I’ve chosen more of a forum format where discussions can take place, helpful links, pictures and experience can be shared.  While I believe this idea is filling an important information gap, I want to prove that there is, in fact, a community that will find this helpful. We shall see. It’s the contributions the community makes to it that will make it live or die.

As you may have guessed, after much exploration, I decided to call the site EcoMajority. I landed on this after thinking about Geoffrey Moore’s book “Crossing the Chasm.” While it is more about technology adoption, the lessons certainly apply.  It looks like this:

As opposed to Geoffrey Moore, I’m not so concerned with the “chasm” present among early adopters, but the power of the majority — the masses — when they decide to adopt new ways of doing things. The reality is that this market will really begin to take off when the majority not just begins considering these options for their homes, but when they actually begin to implement those changes. When the majority does this — the EcoMajority — good things will begin to happen. More innovation will happen. Production will rise, competition will increase and there will be more options from which to choose.  With that, prices will come down and people will buy more. And a positive feedback loop will emerge. And that will be good for the environment.

But there’s a lot between where I am today and that reality in my mind. First, I need a community. An active, engaged, contributing community willing to share their knowledge and experience. That’s you. And your many friends.  My contributions are not enough. So please feel free to pass this message along to your friends and colleagues with your endorsement. Blog about it, Tweet about it, tell your friends about it on Facebook.


We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 5: Demolish or deconstruct?

July 21, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

This decision, it seems to me, is increasingly coming down to three things, in descending order. 1. Philosophy. 2. Timing. 3. Cost.

Essentially, if you’re going to take a house down, you need to decide how important it is to you that as much of those materials are reused and diverted from landfills.  That’s a value question, no doubt, but probably an easy one for most people dependent upon the next two issues, timing and cost.  Timing is a big factor because there’s no doubt that deconstructing will take more time if the deconstruction contractor really takes the time to preserve as much material as possible.

By way of example, here’s what happened on our project.  Ironically (and unfortunately for our neighbors), our house began deconstruction the same day that the house across the street began demolition. By the time I got home from work, the house across the street was gone. Nothing. On our house they were still busy removing windows and case work.While our neighbors were done in a day, our project was in the deconstruction phase for between two and three weeks. (In all fairness, though, there was no pressure on them to move faster because we were going to be delayed with the other sitework and foundation work that needed to happen — so deconstruction was slower than it probably needed to be.)

Time is money — that’s certainly true in construction. But in this particular phase, there are more things to consider than just straight estimates between the two options. In demolition, the cost of labor is low because the track hoe is doing all the heavy lifting, literally. You probably have one, maybe two days of equipment rental — so that’s cheaper. But you have the considerable expense of disposal fees.

On the deconstruction side, the house is literally taken apart piece by piece and either sold, or donated for reuse. If something is sold, you get the funds (or at least that’s how it worked with our contractor). And for everything that is donated, you get a tax write-off. (This can be tricky, make sure to check with your accountant or tax adviser — and make sure your donation is to through a charitable organization.)

BenninkFor us, the costs weren’t exactly a wash between the two choices — but it was pretty close. And at that stage we weren’t in a big hurry to move things along. So for us it was a clear choice that we should reuse and recycle as much as possible. For the most part, all that went into the landfill was old drywall, insulation, and old bug-infested logs that were used as part of the foundation.

Side note: I was talking to Dave Bennink of Re-Use Consulting when they were a couple of days into taking down our house. He mentioned that he needed to get to the store the current issue of Forbes Magazine had an article on him and his deconstruction practice in it.  Here’s the article.


We’re building a (green?) house, ed.4: To LEED or not?

July 14, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

If you are going to build a green house, seems like you’d want some sort of gold star for the effort, right? That’s where I was coming from when we started our project. Of course — why not?

LEED, developed by the US Green Building Council, is the gold standard. What started out as a means of encouraging, measuring and verifying commercial building projects, it has since moved into residential construction projects as well. I won’t go into all of the details about LEED, but it’s a checklist-based system that offers guidance, consulting, and how to lessen you building’s impact on the environment and create a healthier home in the long term. You, your architect, your contractor and a LEED consultant work from checklists that guide you to better choices. And then an independent verification and your home becomes certified at whatever level it meets — I believe the levels are silver, gold and platinum.

Bottom line is I wasn’t big on going after gold stars in school, and evidently I haven’t changed much. We didn’t go down this road. Looking at it, LEED accreditation seemed expensive and cumbersome.  There was fees to pay, consultants to hire, and considerable extra time in project management that would be needed by our contractor in order to be in compliance. In the end, it seemed to me and my wife that what was important was our intention. We figured that with every decision along the way, we could look at our options, always ask the sustainability questions about the proposed materials, look at alternatives, and make the best decision we could, all things considered.

At the end of the project, I’m not sure we’ll be able to look back and defintitvely answer the question, “how green is your home?” But who cares? Building a green home is a thousand shades of gray. We’ve learned that, if nothing else. Some people could look at our project and be impressed with the decisions we made and the lengths we’ve gone to. Others could look at it and decide that we didn’t go far enough. (I suppose that’s why there’s a question mark after the “green” in the headline — ultimately this is subjective.)

If we were planning to turn around and sell the house, we might have made a different call so that we could have the LEED tools and certification to help us sell the house. But for us, all that really matters is that we’re satisfied with the decisions we made along the way. And we are.


We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 3: home site and design

July 9, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

Once you decide you’re going to build a new house, the next question you face is multi-faceted, with long-term, far-reaching ramifications.  What kind of house are you going to build? How big should it be? Remodel, or all new construction? How should it sit on the site?

Big questions because if you don’t tear a building down, less goes into the landfill. And the bigger the house you build, the more materials that will be needed to go into it, and the more resources necessary to service it.  Where it’s located and how it’s positioned on the site will either allow you to make good use of the sun’s energy … or not.

The trend, of course, has been going in the wrong direction for the last couple of decades. I recently read a statistic that the average size for new home construction has grown by 20% over the last twenty years or so. I was shocked at that number — mostly because I couldn’t believe that the number wasn’t larger.  I walked through a home under construction recently that was probably just shy of 10,000 square feet. As I toured the home, I literally couldn’t imagine the purpose for the various rooms. Given the generosity of space, it was clear that Jon & Kate+8 (or Kate+8) weren’t moving in. I couldn’t help wondering how much the home would cost to heat in the winter, how much to repaint when the time came, and how much stuff you would need to fill a house of that size.  Eeesh.

Just to jump to the punchline, the house we are building adds up to just about 4000 square feet. It breaks down like this: our 4-bedroom house is 3100 square feet. Our art studio space and office space above and next to the garage add about another 900 square feet.  (It looks bigger in the wide angle pano shot).

A good sized house, no question about it. And a minor bone of contention as we worked with Lane Williams and Zeke Busch of Coop15 Architects. Lane is a big proponent economical and efficient use of space (check out the Coop15 blog posts on sustainable building). If I recall correctly, most of the home he designs are between 4000-5000 square feet — and trending downward. Given the technology boom in the NW and Microsoft wealth in our area, keeping custom-home sizes down has probably been a tough sell at times.

One of the question we lobbed back and forth was whether we really needed a guest room or not. We thought we did, and Lane politely questioned that. His solid reasoning was given the number of nights per year that you actually have guests, they could sleep in one of the kids’ bedrooms and our kids could double-up. Given that we’re on an island with ferry service, we wanted our guests not to feel rushed — and if they wanted to spend the night, that they would feel well accommodated. Though that may have added a 200+/- square feet, we felt strongly. So we have a guest room. But as we walk through the house (at this writing, nearly a month before move-in) a lot of the rooms seem on the small side. We are trusting our architect and believe that when we move in, we’ll have a Goldilocks moment and everything will feel just right. Lane has said that he’s never had a client come back to him 10 years later and tell him they wished the home were bigger — but he has had a number of clients who wish they’d been more restrained and built a smaller house.

Though we reused the existing foundation (for the part of the house that had a foundation) and the existing garage, there wasn’t much else that was usable for us. So we had to think about demolition and the filling of landfills — or deconstruction which takes significantly more time and, perhaps, more money. More on that in the next post.

Because we used the existing foundation, there were no choices to be made in regards to siting the house. It was what it was, which is one of the main reasons we bought where we did. Because of the western exposure, sun will help to warm the house significantly. And in the summer when the sun really beats through the windows, blinds and cross ventilization will help to keep things cool. Also critical to us was the fact that our site has unobstructed access to the southern sky — which means solar can be an option for us as well. More on that in another post as well.


We’re building a (green?) house, ed. 2

July 8, 2009

NOTE: Updates of this post can be found at EcoMajority, my web-based forum focused on sustainable home building.

The house project is going well. We’re just less than a month from move-in.  As things wind down, and most (if not all) of our material choices have been made, I’m having a chance to reflect a little bit on our goals from the very beginning of the project and where we find ourselves now.

There were a number of things that caused us to up-root from Queen Anne and move to Bainbridge Island, but I’ll save most of those reasons for another post. One of our main goals was to build as sustainable a house as we could manage. To do that, we knew we would need to balance aesthetics, costs and practicality.

What I hope to do over the next several weeks/months, is to review how we did. But the bottom line is it was a ridiculously hard process. I kept thinking to myself how hard it is to be green. There are few, if any, decisions that are clear and simple.  And finding products and information — even with the amazing power of the Web — often fell between futile and simply a waste of time. Admittedly, I am not a green-building expert. I’m just someone who has built or remodeled a few homes. My wife was an architectural designer for more than a decade. We like this stuff, but that didn’t make it any easier.  (By the way, I have some ideas for how making green choices could be made easier in the future but I’ll save that, too, for a future post.)

Purists may say we copped out on some of our choices. Pragmatists may say that we were highly idealistic, and overspent in some areas and in some ways.  Both are probably true.  I’m hoping that others might learn something based on our decisions — not because they were the “right” decisions from a green perspective (because certainly many weren’t), but because of how and why we arrived where we did.

Stay tuned. I’ll probably tackle decisions in roughly the order they came up in the design and development process.


Greencollar jobs: a coming boom, or myth?

April 18, 2008

An Inconvenient Screen Shot

I was in the car the other day listening to KUOW (Seattle’s NPR affiliate) and the story was about whether “greencollar” jobs are a real, potential economic boon, or just a bunch of hype.  They interviewed a guy named Todd Myers from the Washington Policy Center, a “free market think tank.”  Mr. Myers said that all of the talk about new opportunities is “almost a hundred percent political.”

It’s his opinion that we’re not creating any new jobs, we’re simply moving them from one segment of the economy to the other — old tech jobs to new tech jobs.

As I drove along (yes, alone, but at least in a Prius) I found myself shaking my head thinking that it was such a waste to be minimizing growth opportunities.  Who’s going to win from such an argument?  (Yes, I understand that some people will win, but at what cost?)

If you saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, perhaps you recall the same eureka moment I had realizing how big the opportunity is ahead of us, should we choose to embrace it as citizens, consumers and businesses.  It was 71 minutes into the movie (according to my DVD player) and Gore is making the point that when thinking about the climate crisis, many people move directly “from denial to despair”  without pausing to consider the business opportunities that are created if we respond in the right way.  He talks about the “false choices” many promote, claiming that we have to make a choice between the environment and the economy.  (As an aside, the screen shot above is from when when Gore explains a slide from a presentation he attended at the first Bush White House where the presumption is that we have to choose between nice, shiny gold bars and the entire planet.  It’s one of many moments in the movie where you see that Gore reaally does have a sense of humor).

As I watched that movie, it was blindingly obvious to me that great economic opportunity is in front of us.  Gore cites the examples of the markets that might be available for American made cars if our fuel economy standards weren’t the worst (by far) in the world.  As my wife and I gather resources to build a new home — one that we’re striving to be as sustainable as we can feasibly do — we see it.  We’re talking to people and companies that probably didn’t exist three years ago.  I’ve attended the Built Green show and Greenfestival here in Seattle and there sure are a lot of people who seem to be making a living at this.  Granted, they didn’t all just crawl out from under a rock — they are likely moving from other jobs.  But it sure smells like opportunity to me.

What do you think?


What is the future of Environmentalism?

September 24, 2007

I just got back from a  conference in Beijing — a place where the air quality is enough to strike fear into your heart about the future of this planet.  At this conference, I gave a brief talk on the Green movement seen through the lens of my own consuming patterns over the course of the past year or two.  I’ve made strides, no doubt.  But I’ve never really considered myself an environmentalist, per se.  At least not by the traditional measures of environmentalism.  Environmentalists are, after all, those people like Julia Butterfly Hill who sat in a Redwood tree in California for 738 days.

Julia Butterfly - web

I mean she was literally living for — and perhaps willing to die for — the environmental cause.

Not me.  I’ve got a couple of little kids at home, and a lovely wife.  I just want to do things a little better.  So I’ve made what I consider to be small changes.  We replace light bulbs with compact fluorescents, we recycle and we drive hybrid cars.

So, I found the cover story in the most recent issue of Fast Company to be particularly interesting.  It talks about whether Adam Werbach, formerly the youngest-ever head of the Sierra Club, had sold his soul to consult with Walmart on their Green initiatives.werbach2

His view, if I may encapsulate, is that the future is going to come from converting the masses, and getting them to make small choices in their  daily lives.  Small changes that, when taken together, can have a more profound impact than a tiny majority acting at the extremes.

I tend to agree, and I admire what he’s doing.  Read the article and judge for yourself.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.