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Austin’s Green Builder Program (circa 1994)

This article first appeared in the Austin Chronicle‘s April 1994 “Green” issue.

City Program Leads National Focus on Green Building

by Jeanine Sih

The Environmental and Conservation Services Department is located in a building at 9th and Brazos Streets, and in its reception area on the 17th floor there is a full size mock-up of various yard irrigation options. The coffee table nearby holds the real goodies, two books – Green Building Guide: A Sustainable Approach and Sustainable Building Sourcebook: Supplement to the Green Builder Program – put out by Program Coordinator Laurence Doxsey, Program Manager Doug
Seiter, and interns of the Green Builder Program staff.

In 1992 this Austin program was the only one in the U.S. recognized at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro with an award from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives. “This gave us instant credilibility,” Doxsey says. With six to ten inquiries per day coming from outside of Austin, he says that the Green Builder Program is now more known outside of this city than in it.

Doxsey started the City of Austin’s Green Builder Program (GBP) three years ago, after his hitch with Gail Vittori, Pliny Fisk, and the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. People building new construction seem to participate more in the GBP than those who are retrofitting and remodeling, though Doxsey points out that the Green Building Guide addresses the needs of both new and existing buildings.

The Green Building Guide [no longer in print -ED.] is a green education condensed into 55 pages. You get a (green) philosophy course in the first pages. The resource section focuses on four basic demands that each building puts on the environment: water, energy, building materials, and the handling of solid waste. You also learn how to rate your building’s efficiency in light of these demands. The final chunk has a glossary, references and a request for feedback. A larger database, the Sustainable
Building Sourcebook ($25) supplements the guide. Both books can be purchased through the GBP office (no longer available – Ed.). Participation in a free orientation course offered by the GBP allows you to get these books for less.

Doxsey says the Green Building Guide “is really a starting point for becoming green. When we look at a building we’re talking about a building in isolation. We haven’t really addressed the issue of relating to infrastructure – where you put the building. For example, if you build a straw bale building with rainwater catchment and have to drive 30 miles one way each day to go to work, you miss some of the thinking that goes behind green building. You should be thinking of the total context of transportation, infrastructure impacts…”

The Green Builder Program is offered to those who live in the City of Austin’s power and light company service area. In the true spirit of sustainability, the program is funded by the power company’s surplus moneys, based on predicted savings from several energy conservation programs. Participation in the GBP is voluntary.

These days Doxsey oversees the GBP’s development of guidelines for commerical building needs. HEB, Apple Computer, developers, and the city’s public works department have all expressed their desire to participate in the program.

Though a big budget comes in handy when improving your building, it’s not always necessary. Austin Habitat for Humanity and the American Institute for Learning (AIL) are collaborating with the GBP to develop low-cost, green housing in East Austin; the partnership is called the Green Habitat Learning Project. The partnership displays a praiseworthy grasp of green thinking by improving the futures of everyone involved.

Doxsey explains that AIL “is taking at-risk youth and using them as the constructors for building. They’re getting an opportunity to develop marketable skills and complete GEDs… plus exposure to environmental approaches that should become more and more in demand as the practices become more accepted. We’re hoping to get a prototype established so that Habitat for Humanity can say `this is going to work for us, we’re going to use this in subsequent buildings.’ ” There are two homes currently scheduled for construction by this partnership.

The first house built from the ground up by the Green Habitat Learning Project is located at 809 Nile Street. Construction on 809 Nile was on its last day when a licensed plumber accidently set attic insulation on fire while installing a hot water heater with a propane torch. Though the 100% recycled cotton insulation (Insulcot, R11) was UL listed and billed by the manufacturer as “flame-proof,” something clearly went wrong on March 21.

“We were lucky to save all the exterior walls, all the kitchen appliances, the bathroom fixtures. We lost the heating system,” says Judith Clements, executive director for Austin Habitat for Humanity. “The family [waiting for this house] was just devastated.” She estimates the damage at $20,000. The house was insured, but repairs should take about five months.

“One of the reasons we were using Insulcot as opposed to fiberglass,” says Clements, “is that fiberglass is dangerous to handle. One of our goals in building a green home is that we’re building a house that’s environmentally safe.” The attic insulation to replace Insulcot has yet to be chosen, she said.

The 809 Nile house was designed and built by volunteers using sustainable building practices. It was, nay is, a green house. The damaged parts of the steel roof can be recycled into new steel (try that with composite shingles). Its floors are of recycled materials indistinguishable from the ordinary. Natural light pours in through ample, double-paned windows.

Its exterior walls are made of Faswal, a composite of fly ash blocks and concrete. They did not burn, and ultimately saved the house from extensive fire damage.

Judith Clements: “The concept of green building is sound. The design of the house, the overhangs, the double-hung windows, the vaulted ceilings… all the design features are sound features. All the products that we substituted in this house are off-the-shelf, safe products. The cork linoleum does not have the offgassing of plastics.” Paint, glues, and caulk were also chosen for their safe, non-offgassing properties.

I ask her if green building is any more expensive than conventional practices.

“We don’t have the bottom line yet, but it’s real close to what we spend on a Habitat house,” Clements says. “A typical, stick-built house with no special environmental stuff is $39,750. I’m waiting for our accountants to do the printout, but the last time I checked we were at $36,000 [for 809 Nile]… I gave a workshop at a regional conference and they asked `What did you give up?’ and I said `We didn’t give anything up. We not only didn’t give anything up, but we have a better house.’ The city is going to monitor the utility bills and they are estimating 20-30% savings in
utilities.”

Doug Seiter, the Green Builder Program Manager, says that the building community is not altogether enthusiastic about green building – unless it means greenbacks. Builders often feel that green building is not worth the financial risk. Green technology, sustainable building practices have a reputation for being wonky and exotic – houses made of dirt, geodesic domes – but Seiter stresses that the reality is not all so unconventional: “We encourage products off the shelf; we’re not interested in experimenting with anybody… they’ve been using Faswal in Europe for over 50
years now.”

A bonus resulting from the Green Habitat Learning Project is the immediate importance of mathematics to the six young work crew members from AIL. Clements says that teaching math was never made easier: Nile Street “was their first classroom, hands-on experience.” Chester Steinhauser, a longtime Habitat volunteer who now teaches at AIL, noted his students’ progress. “He said that math is always the hardest course in the GED program… but these kids just ate it up
because the math concepts were practically applied to the construction of the house.”

Ah. Preparing for the future. Nice to have an economy of effort when you can get it.

      Conversation overheard at the 809 Nile fire:

Laurence Doxsey, Green Building Program Coordinator: “Any differences between this fire and other fires?”

Fire marshal: “Yes – no noxious burning plastic fumes…”

Does this mean that green-built houses have fires that are green too?

This article first appeared in the Austin Chronicle‘s April 1994 “Green” issue.

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