Every time we travel on business, and that is far too often nowadays, I find myself remembering that old adage, “home is where the heart is”. When practically the first thing you do upon returning home is start booking flights and lodging for the next trip, it is impossible to ignore just how great it feels to be “home”, even if you know that the light at the end of the tunnel is your next encounter with the “FASTEN SEAT BELT” sign. But I digress…
Last month we were all witness to the ridiculous debacle inside the beltway as our elected officials disgraced themselves and our system of government while playing “chicken” with our economic future as if it is all a schoolyard game. Both sides of the political spectrum displayed their selfish lack of responsibility while the rest of us mostly watched in dismay and disgust.
At the time, I was struck by how frequently one spokesman or another would attempt to claim the imaginary high ground by declaring “what the American people want”, as though he or she spoke for the majority and not just some narrow slice of the electorate, essentially the special interest group from their district who got them elected and who now holds them hostage to their ideology.
The same thing happens every day when it comes to what people want and expect in their homes. Economists, sociologists, politicians, marketers, manufacturers and trade associations spew endless propaganda in our direction in their efforts to convince us that they know what homeowners and homebuyers want, all of which is designed to gain some advantage in reaching their goals.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I know what I want. I want “home” to be the place where I feel the most comfortable, the most secure, the most at ease. I want to rest assured that it will shelter me and the ones I love from the storm and from the chaos and confusion that unsettles so much of daily life in these turbulent times.
I want to have a certain level of confidence that I can be self reliant, that if the power goes off or the highway bridge to town gets washed out we are going to be just fine. I want to know that I can rely on my neighbors and that they share that assurance because at the end of the day we know we are in this together and that no matter what a bunch of egomaniacs and zealots waste their time (and a lot of our money) on, we will be here long after they are gone and forgotten.
Home, I think, is the only place we really trust to keep our hope, the place where we can plan for the future and let our hearts dream.
Posted: 11/27/2013 11:54:41 AM by
Mary Kestner | with 0 comments
On a clear day, a phenomenon that for many people occurs less and less frequently now, you not only hear the endless warning whistles of the diesel-electric engines but you can actually watch the coal trains that rumble by day and night, twenty-four/seven past towns, cities, farms and fields as they transport countless tons of strip-mined coal from the parched steppes of Wyoming and other distant locations to gigantic holding yards at power plants in places like Texas and Georgia.
What most of us never see, perhaps because we don’t really want to, is the process by which that mile and a half long load of former living matter, the product of ancient sunlight rendered toxic over geologic time, is skillfully dumped by powerful hydraulic lifts in a matter of minutes into a holding yard approaching the size of the island of Manhattan and then efficiently incinerated in roughly eight hours, making room for the next delivery, which, though only hours behind, is still a state or two away, but right on schedule.
The people who consume the cheap electricity being generated there will surely see the light it delivers at the flick of a switch, the entertainment and information it enables them to access at the touch of a remote, and the way it makes their appliances come to “life”. They apparently don’t notice the empty hopper cars leaving trails of black dust as they head back to the coal fields for another load, and if they do see the mountainous piles of ash and the choking, blinding torrents belching from the smokestacks they seem to have learned to ignore them.
They also seem to be unaware that each kilowatt of electricity generated in this manner consumes approximately thirty gallons of fresh water in the process, all this at a time when huge regions of the country remain under severe drought conditions. Are we oblivious or do we simply put our own convenience and self interest ahead of every other consideration?
Earlier this week the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a landmark case challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to curb greenhouse gas emissions from “stationary sources”, like power plants and factories. The case, American Chemistry Council (ACC), et al, v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, will be briefed and argued through the fall and winter and a decision is expected in late spring 2014.
Make no mistake, this is a case that pits the profit making ability of special interests - the aforementioned ACC, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others - against those who would argue that the greater good, that is, the health of humans and other species, as well as the viability of water and air that we all depend on for life itself, should trump financial interests and that we need to take steps, even those that adversely affect the corporate bottom line, to prevent further destruction of natural systems.
Sadly, on Wednesday the National Association of Home Builders issued an e-release announcing its support for the suit stating that:
“NAHB is pleased by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to hear…(the case)…to challenge EPA’s plan to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.”
Interesting, I suppose, but I have been a dues paying member of the organization continuously since 1989 and no one asked my opinion before issuing the statement.
The release goes on to say, “Because of the way EPA has interpreted the statute, many NAHB members might be forced to obtain an expensive pre-construction permit for greenhouse gas emissions, which would bring most multifamily and mixed-use development to a halt. Some single-family and even some master-planned community development would also be affected.”
This comes in spite of the fact that buildings, including homes, are the largest consumers of electricity in this country and the majority of that power is produced by coal-fired plants.
The organization’s announcement follows closely on the heels of final action hearings conducted by the International Code Council (ICC) in Atlantic City that included decisions on proposals by the NAHB that would have reinstated tradeoffs in home energy performance, intended to relax the standards and eliminate gains in the energy codes made over the previous two code update cycles, effectively rolling them back to 2006 levels.
The code officials voted down the most significant of the proposals, and for the third straight cycle, supported energy efficiency in residential buildings which proponents, including many of us in the building industry, believe to be in the long term interests of the home buying public, and indeed, the population as a whole.
As October began, we celebrated the opening of the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Decathlon, held for the first time in southern California and featuring nineteen projects designed and built by university student teams from across the U. S. as well as Canada and Europe. We were treated to innovation and creativity of the highest order and we were inspired by the excitement and commitment of the next generation of builders as they strive to come up with solutions to challenges in the built environment.
Unfortunately we simultaneously learned that for the first time since records have been kept, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was measured at four hundred parts per million, a level that takes us to the brink of what most climate science experts describe as irreversible climate change.
Is it still possible that we can learn to set aside our special interests, as individuals and as specific industries, and recognize the long term consequences of our short term strategies? Do we have the capacity to see through the smoke and undertake the incremental changes that are needed in order to make a successful, sustainable future possible? On a clear day, what does tomorrow look like?
Posted: 10/17/2013 1:59:31 PM by
Mary Kestner | with 0 comments
Just before my October column was due to our editors I was headed to northern Colorado on business and had carved out time to take part in a daylong workshop that would involve “pitching” a yurt, like the ones seen in this issue of Green Builder. It was something that sounded like fun and I looked forward to a day in the sun, the learning experience and the team exercise. However, Mother Nature had ideas of her own and instead the site of the workshop and an area the size of many eastern states was inundated with what the weather experts referred to as “floods of Biblical proportions”.
The importance of the cancelled workshop quickly evaporated as we witnessed the destruction of entire communities through the live reports of multiple television news crews throughout the affected region. Stories of heroic rescues intermingled with real time camera coverage including heartbreaking scenes of swollen rivers bloated with automobiles that looked like discarded toys and chunks of completely deconstructed buildings.
One news clip, still impossible to forget, showed a lone horse, apparently hitched to a fence post, standing knee-deep in a raging current. As the helicopter camera panned back it became clear that the poor beast was left in the middle of what had essentially become a massive lake where there had once been a farm.
After almost a week, the storms finally moved eastward but they left behind the images of natural disaster based tragedies that we are becoming all too familiar with in this country; hundreds of miles of ripped out roads and bridges, entire neighborhoods and business districts still underwater, floating livestock and rotting crops in muddy fields, unsafe drinking water supplies and infrastructure damage that will take months, if not years, to rebuild.
Several people lost their lives, more than a thousand were unaccounted for as friends and families waited anxiously for contact from them, tens of thousands of homes and businesses were either totally destroyed or suffered significant damage. The financial losses quickly became unimaginable.
Yet, the lasting impression we are all left with is one of hope, the same hope and determination expressed by people who have endured other floods like these, by the survivors of Katrina and Irene, the many communities hit by tornadoes, hellish wildfires, and Superstorm Sandy. The vast majority these people refuse to see themselves as victims and they vow to rebuild, no matter what it takes.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if your intent is to construct a city or simply to pitch a yurt. To build something is one of the noble acts we have left to us as human beings. To rebuild it, is to transcend to an even higher level of expression of the human spirit. My hope is that we can learn to turn these tragedies into opportunities to provide a more sustainable set of solutions for the future as we humbly acknowledge that, despite all our suggestions to the contrary, nature is still in charge.
Posted: 10/10/2013 1:50:18 PM by
Mary Kestner | with 1 comments
On a recent afternoon I was working at my desk when, within seconds of each other, email messages appeared in my Inbox that illustrate just how schizophrenic we are when it comes to the topic of responsible housing.
The first message contained an article spotlighting one of the entries in the upcoming Solar Decathlon, scheduled for early October in Irvine, California. The assertion of the author was that we can all feel good about the direction homes are headed based on the work of the students who are designing and building the entries.
In this particular case, the demonstration house is less than 900 square feet in size, manages light intensity, temperature and humidity on a room-by-room basis, features walls with “phase-change” materials that absorb and release heat as needed and a photovoltaic roof that will produce about 10,000 kilowatts of energy annually. Oh yeah, it also harvests all the rainfall it receives. The author seemed to be correct, and the story had me feeling pretty optimistic.
But then I read the second message, this one reporting that new home size in this country has just hit a record high. The article reports that the trend toward smaller homes and the corresponding lighter footprints has been reversed. Figures for the most recent period indicate that new home starts are reflecting an average size in excess of 2300 square feet and slightly more than two and half baths. It goes on to say that the number of new houses with garages for three or more cars has risen as well, to over 19%.
The theory is that we only thought the trend toward smaller houses was the result of greater awareness on the part of consumers, who want to control energy, maintenance and operation costs, but actually resulted from traditional market factors such as tight credit and prevailing interest rates.
I suppose one could have rationalized and called it a draw, after all, the two stories pretty much cancel one another out but then the hammer came down a short time later when I was talking by phone with the director of a national non-profit organization who has been working with public officials in central Oklahoma to help provide direction for a sustainable recovery after the horrific tornado events there earlier this year.
He was incredulous when officials confided that efforts to require more resiliency in replacement buildings were meeting with stiff opposition from the local home builders association. He expressed confusion, anger, disgust and finally embarrassment, admitting that he should have known better because he had heard the same thing before when working with public officials, from Kansas to New Jersey.
I still hope the first article was right, but it’s damned hard to keep the faith sometimes.
Posted: 9/19/2013 10:59:50 AM by
Mary Kestner | with 8 comments
(Ron Jones makes a plea for the building industry to “cowboy up”)
Sorry folks, but there is no neutral ground left where the uncommitted can wait for the rest of the world to determine which direction we are going to steer the future of the built environment. The time has come to take a stand and decide which side of the issue you are going to be on.
At stake is more than how houses and other buildings are going to perform, how much energy they will consume, how well they manage an increasingly precious water resource, how successfully they withstand unpredictable temperatures, precipitation and intensifying weather events. At stake is more than the comfort, physical safety and financial security of people who depend on the building industry to provide shelter in all its forms, even as important as all those things are.
What is really at stake is the integrity of our profession.
For decades the majority of the people I worked alongside as we built projects and handed the keys to our customers chose to leave it to “somebody else” to set the course for everyone in the business. Like many of my fellow builders, I was reluctant to get involved in “the politics” of the industry, leaving the advancement of building science and corresponding developments of codes, standards and regulations to people I didn’t really know.
When I became involved with my local home builders association I did so reluctantly and only after the repeated requests of many of my suppliers and subcontractors. I hoped that I would be able to lead by example, to serve as a positive role model to those who would follow. After a couple of decades of trying to make a difference from the inside I ultimately came to understand that trade associations don’t work for guys like me, or for others in the industry who aspire to excel.
I finally understood that, sadly, trade associations serve the interests of the lowest common denominator, not those who would move the profession toward better performance and higher quality, but those who want to be left alone unfettered to construct the poorest buildings they can legally get away with in their pursuit of profit.
Finally accepting that I was not going to be able to move the boulder any farther up the hill I decided to take matters into my own hands and along with a small group of determined, committed individuals joined forces to found an alternative to the trade groups. We call it the Green Builder Coalition and we are looking for men and women who want to once again be proud to tell people that they are part of the building industry.
We talk a great deal about sustainability these days. I recently read an explanation of sustainability provided by Stephen R. Kellert, Professor of Social Ecology and co-director of the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He writes: Being sustainable means keeping something in existence, and we only sustain those things we feel a deep affection and attachment for because we perceive that their special qualities convey enduring meaning and value.
Sure, we want each and every honest business person to experience financial success and for the industry to thrive in communities across the land. We also want to assure that the people we are working for are benefitting from the best we have to offer as an industry and that our children and grandchildren enjoy what is left of the incredibly abundant world we have all been blessed with.
Being a builder is an honor, and with it comes responsibility to deliver the best product possible. Don’t leave it to others to decide what our level of professional performance will be. Get off the fence and come down on the side of progress. Help us to rediscover our integrity and sustain our profession by adding your voice to the Coalition as we build something of value together.
Posted: 8/28/2013 2:13:20 PM by
Mary Kestner | with 3 comments