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Building With Awareness

Eco Brooklyn just came out of a renovation of a four story brownstone where the budget was very tight. We took the job full of idealism believing we could make green building affordable to somebody with a small budget.

It ended badly.

We had to hire workers willing to charge lower salaries which resulted in mistakes we had to redo.

Combine that with the inevitable surprises that arise in 100 year old buildings and the end result was we lost money. Had we worked quickly perhaps the client could have appreciated the good deal they got, but the project dragged on and in the end nobody was happy.

It has made me re-evaluate the wisdom of accepting jobs with tight budgets. I have come to the hard realization that despite my intense desire to make good building affordable to middle class budgets, good building is expensive and no amount of salvaging can change that.

The problem of offering affordable services is also compounded by tight profit margins that require taking on more jobs. This results in logistical mistakes and further loss of quality.

In true green fashion I realized that our business model was not sustainable. The bottom line is that we need to charge more to reflect the true cost of building green.

Our fear is that green building remains an option for the elite rather than the middle class worker.

But despite our raise in prices I don’t think green building is only for the rich.

I think there is something much deeper at stake here.

Unfortunately current building – green or not – is like everything else in the world – highly subsidized by suffering.
The only reason you can get a 2×4 for $1.50 is because they laid waste a mountain side. $1.50 is not the true cost of that wood. The hidden cost is a barren mountain which costs in other ways – loss of ecosystem, destruction of waters through silt run off, destruction of local culture…how much does that 2×4 really cost?

Each time we buy a subsidized 2×4 we are buying on our global credit card. And it maxed out a long time ago. We are already paying the price ten fold through global suffering.

So the solution is to start putting the real cost back into things.

Middle class people have come to expect a full gut renovation of their home. Just like they expect a supermarket full of a thousand cheap food products. Both are part of a consumer society that is not sustainable and is causing great problems.

More and more those problems are breaking through our artificial protective walls. For a long time we managed to keep it far from us – in remote vilages on the other side of the world where children work in sweat shops and companies pillage local resources for us.

But with global climates wreaking havoc from such human made disequilibrium and with global political and cultural sharing it is impossible to stay isolated any longer.

In terms of building, the harsh reality is that we need to drastically reduce it. Period. Instead of a renovation every 20 years it needs to be a renovation every 100. Going forward when you build you build for yourself, your children and your grandchildren because they won’t get the chance to renovate. You Build It Forward.

With this new attitude building becomes a very valuable process instead of the “I don’t like my kitchen, lets tear it out,” process it is now. The reason old buildings last is that they were built to last. Kitchens would stay the same for hundreds of years. They were built right in the first place and they served their purpose despite whatever their paint color was.

We build now like spoiled children without any appreciation for the great sacrifices that go into it. We build largely with borrowed or inherited money and without any understanding that the building materials are immensely valuable due to the blood and destruction needed to get them.

Like sanitized beef patties in a supermarket the building materials sit in neat little piles in Home Depot. But like the horrendous animal cruelty in the beef industry, those building materials were equally wrenched from the earth without consideration or intelligence.

Lets bring the humility back to building, the respect and gratitude, the awareness that we are causing great destruction by renovating our kitchen and that nothing comes without sacrifice.

Some Native American Indians when killing a deer would appologize to it and thank it for its life sacrifice so the Indian could eat and survive.

We must renovate, we must build. But we also must do it with more awareness of the cost. Only then will we build when absolutely necessary and we will build to last with gratitude for those who sacrificed – easpecially our Mother Earth.

And in that gratitude we are filled with the need to give something back so we build for our future generations of humans and ecology. We Build It Forward, a cycle of life where we take with awareness and give with gratitude.

Believe me, that kithen – whether the one you build for your grandchildren or the one your grandfather built for you – will have so much more meaning.

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1 comment to Building With Awareness

  • Jonathan Flynn

    I like this post because it shows the builder’s perspective in costs to the environment. Those costs are on a ledger someplace, and someone is paying the bill for our squandering of resources. I was at a climate change talk at Brecht Forum in 2008 where climate scientists were laying out the evidence of anthropogenic CO2 generation and how everything is teleconnected. one of the audience stood up, a builder, and said just got through tearing out a kitchen that was brand new and replacing it with another kitchen specified by the new owner. He was aghast at such a wasteful act, but he did it because that is what we do, the client pays us to do things and for some reason, in that transaction, we lose a bit of our sanity. We suspend a broader intelligence about the transaction in favor of the interests of the client (have to have a new kitchen) and the contractor (have to have business and pay the bills).
    As contractors we have to raise an objection in a way that allows our awareness of external costs to become part of the conversation leading to such a transaction. In light of what we now know, we must act.

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