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BuildChat: Discussing green building with "Green Curmudgeon" Carl Seville

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With so many factors to consider, from training and certification to use of location and materials, building green can be complicated. We caught up with green-building expert Carl Seville@GreenCurmudgeon on Twitter — to find out where builders should start when breaking into the brave new world of green building.

“Green expert” may be a bit of oversimplification. How would you best describe what it is you do?
I got into green through remodeling about 10 years ago, and I liked it so much that I left the remodeling business to do green consulting. Right now, I mostly do certifications — LEED, EarthCraft, ENERGY STAR and NAHB on single and multifamily buildings. I consult with owners and contractors on how to make their projects better — greener, more efficient. I also lecture, teach, and write. I am wrapping up the first residential green building textbook, published later this year. I continually study the subject, get more credentials, and try to push the envelope wherever I can. I don’t see myself as an “expert,” but more of an aggregator of information that I communicate to others.

Explain the “curmudgeon” bit. Any background story there?
I like to think of myself (very wishfully) as a cross between comedian Lewis Black and “sports curmudgeon” Frank DeFord. I tend to be pretty blunt about my opinions, although I am learning to temper the way I say things when necessary. Thankfully, Green Building Advisor allows me to write about whatever I want without any restrictions.

Before we completely file away 2010, how would you mark last year’s progress in the green building arena?
New homes were still pretty slow with too many foreclosures competing. Money is tight so it is hard to find remodeling financing. Affordable multifamily housing is one of the bright spots in the industry and most of it is built and certified to green standards.

We read on your blog you were a faithful seminar-goer at IBS. Any big takeaways this year?
Not sure if “faithful” is the right word. I went to a few — some I stayed in, others I left after a while. (Short attention span.) Most conference seminars have too many speakers, and don’t go deep enough. I think conferences need to be completely rethought. Seminars should be available online, with fewer speakers in each and more advanced topics that break new ground. Few do this now.

Your consulting site has a lot of info about green certification. What’s the value of certification to the average builder?
Certification by a third party provides some level of assurance that a project meets desired performance levels. When people say they build to LEED or EarthCraft standards but don’t certify, there is no way to really know what they did. While certification isn’t fool-proof, at least there is some independent quality assurance for the homeowner. Certification also provides a marketing advantage for the contractor: LEED, ENERGY STAR and the like are good brands to align with.

What factors have limited the spread of green building practices?
The perception of higher cost, lack of training, lack of consumer demand, and, until recently, constantly increasing house values.

What developments in green building do you anticipate this year? Will use of alternative building materials pick up?
I hope and expect that we will see steady advancement in high-performance and healthy buildings in the near future. Since people cannot sell their homes at a profit as quickly as before they will be interested in buying and renovating green. I really don’t care about materials — it’s about the process. Keep out the really toxic stuff, do things right, and you’re green. That said, since materials suppliers are generally good marketers, they will convince people to buy their products. Many of the “green products” people will be convinced to buy will not necessarily help them have green homes. Unfortunately, it’s hard to sell process, and there isn’t as much money in it, so process falls behind materials.

Looking at the leaders in green building, what are they doing that’s different and better than everyone else?
The leaders understand the process vs. product issue. They are designing and building properly from the start. They aren’t hung up on geothermal, spray foam insulation, recycled materials and bamboo. They think about the whole house. They consider the green materials in the overall context of the building rather than as the drivers for the project.

Green building can be a bit nebulous at times. What are the first steps to implementing green into one’s construction plans?
A house that is too big and built in suburbs with all the green materials stuck on it isn’t really green. A smaller house in a walk-able neighborhood can be less efficient but more green. And remodeling is usually very green.