Building Green Book

This book has a long title: Building Green: A Complete How-To Guide to Alternative Building Methods Earth Plaster * Straw Bale * Cordwood * Cob * Living Roofs. But then again it is a big book.

building green book - example for Brooklyn green contractors

Written by Tim Callahan and Clarke Snell this book overflows with 600 pages and 1500 images. The book aims to be a pretty definitive guide to green building.

In my studies I’ve come across more definitions of green building than there are contractors in Brooklyn. Some contractors buy low VOC paint (and charge accordingly) and they walk around telling anyone who will listen that they are a green contractor. On the other end of the technical spectrum, some Architects, uh, correction, MOST architects I’ve met in Brooklyn become LEED AP’s and call themselves green architects.

Truth be told most definitions I come across for green builder, green contractor and green architect isn’t. It’s not always greenwashing but it certainly is misinformed wishful thinking.

I hold the title of green building with a lot of respect. It is not something you earn overnight or through a simple 40 hour certificate course. It is something you develop with years of study and practice.

Whatever the title- green architect, green contractor, green consultant, green plumber, and ultimately green builder – it is a lot more than tagging on some ecological elements to your practice. It is about totally redefining the reason for what you do.

An architect builds buildings. A green architect reduces or even reverses the negative ecological impact of buildings.

A Brooklyn contractor does home improvement. A Brooklyn green contractor uses home improvement as a tool to turn Brooklyn green.

The reason for being is totally different. The actions may seem the same but the WHY is not. One is a creative way to make a living and build. The other is a cause to save the world. Uh, a tad different.

So back to the Building Green Book. My point is that their definition of green building and mine is very similar. And that is rare. If everyone built like they do then the world would be a drastically better place. I really take my hat off to them for hitting the nail on the head in terms of what green building is about.

The books format is framed around a house that they built with anecdotes and sidelines of other similar houses around the world. It is on one hand an intimate look at how to build a green home from start to finish and on the other a broad look at world green building techniques (as I and the authors would define them).

Their definition of a green building is in the category of what I call the Hobbit house style of green building. This is different from the modern hyper stylized school of green building that you might see in Dwell magazine that is full of straight lines, glass, concrete and designer counters. Needless to say I think that if everyone built that way we wouldn’t be much better off.

Why? Mostly because of the large embodied energy of glass, steel and concrete. We are already sagging under the demand for such resources, all the while spewing out more carbon dioxide and tearing up the earths skin. And that is with most of the world not able to afford these houses. What if they could? Not sustainable.

The houses are still amazing. Take for example the house below. That is a beautiful home. It has a green roof, living walls, amazing solar design, solar panels – both solar PV and solar thermal – and clearly uses very little energy to run.

It is a great house.

dwell green home - another example for brooklyn green contractors

But the Hobbit style of green building would benefit the would more. It is very similar to the way most people have been building since the beginning of time: small house made from the immediate earth.

Here is the house that the authors of Building Green built and documents in their book.

cordwood_greenroof - more inspiration for Brooklyn green contractor

I call this style a Hobbit house in reference to the Tolkien book of the same name where the imaginary people called Hobbits built small homes nestled into the earth, often submerged into the hillside. The home is more part of the earth than something plunked down by man from afar.

Because of this the embodied energy is minimal. Very little energy, apart from human sweat, was put into the making of this house. Things didn’t have to be heated to high temperatures, trucks didn’t have to drive thousands of miles, quarries didn’t have to be mined, and chemicals weren’t needed.

The process was a lot of human sweat and very little materials. Needless to say the house is small – Like most houses in the world. Large houses are purely a Western thing, the roots of this doomed tradition being a 1950’s American home building mentality that believed the marvels of science would provide us with palaces.

The truth is that the marvels of science never improved on natures marvels and caused more harm than good, leaving many toxic, overbuilt, wasteful and inefficient buildings in its wake.

But green builders like Snell and Callahan are reviving an older tradition, and soon our 20th century building insanity will be a bad hiccup on our path to finding peace with the world.

Here in Brooklyn things are easier. The brownstone is in my opinion a naturally green structure, having been built well before the arrogance of the 1950’s to 1990’s building boom.

The Brooklyn brownstone, and increasingly with Eco Brooklyn’s Inc.’s help the Brooklyn GREEN brownstone, is a wonderful dwelling.

But back to their book. The one criticism I would have is that they built a NEW house. A “new green building” is one of those oxymoron like “military intelligence” or “friendly fire.” All three of these oxymoron try to paint something violent and destructive in a kinder light.

The act of tearing up the earth to lay a foundation is the first violent step in many of a new “green” building. And even if you fill the house with straw bale walls and solar panels, you have still wrenched yet another plot of land from nature.

As long as we have existing houses that have not been green renovated, and there are billions, we have no right building a new structure. Period. It is as simple as that.

And those that see this as extreme should take a look at how many species went extinct today. Google “how many species go extinct every day”. It is about 35 to 150 PER DAY. Most of them are tropical forest species destroyed by human activity. And don’t kid yourself, you may be living in Brooklyn and feel that has nothing to do with you.

The truth is that most tropical rain forest destruction has EVERYTHING to do with the activities of North American urban dwellers. Our green green building efforts here in Brooklyn – Eco Brooklyn’s call to “Turn Brooklyn Green” – actually has just as much to do with Amazonian tree frogs as with getting more green roofs onto brownstones because we are painfully aware that every green renovation of a Brooklyn brownstone effects how many species will go extinct in a tropical rain forest across the globe.

We are that connected, both spiritually and on a more visible level economically. Our consumption and building in Brooklyn influences what will happen to the Amazonian rain forest.

Back to the book. It is a big book and tackles a big topic. They did a good job. They earned the right to call themselves green builders in my eyes.

About the author: Gennaro Brooks-Church

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