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Authors Examine The "Green” Life

The Northwest Green Home Primer:

Hundreds of Ideas for Building, Remodeling, and Buying Green

by Kathleen O'Brien and Kathleen Smith

300 pp., Timber Press, 2008

Reviewed by Deirdre Lockwood

"We must learn to see that every problem that concerns us as conservationists leads straight to the question of how we live,” the environmentalist Wendell Berry wrote in his 1991 essay "Conservation is Good Work.” But how best to live? Kathleen O'Brien and Kathleen Smith's Northwest Green Home Primer provides a clear argument for why living sustainably is important now, and traces a path for how to get there.

The Northwest Green Home Primer gives the lay of the land to the prospective green homemaker who's a little, well, green. It's a highly readable, authoritative guide written by two Bainbridge Islanders who have logged years in the field: O'Brien as a sustainable design-build consultant, and Smith as an architect and consultant with LEED certification, a universal accreditation for energy-efficient and environmentally sound construction.

Although sustainability and green design are concepts fully entrenched in our zeitgeist, it's still tough to know exactly what they mean. In practice, the authors leave their definition of "green” quite open. It includes making our homes more energy-efficient, creating better circulation for health and comfort, choosing materials wisely to reduce our home "footprint” (both literally and ecologically), lowering our exposure to toxins, and thinking about how our homes are oriented on the land to best take advantage of the sun and wind.

O'Brien and Sullivan also help us wrap our heads around the concept of sustainability, noting that the amount of materials and resources that keeps the average American running for a year is the equivalent of about 24 acres of land. Multiply that by our population, and as a nation this "ecological footprint” is 7 billion acres, three times the land area of the United States. Every year.

So, since most of us are clearly not living sustainably, how do we change? Luckily for residents of the Pacific Northwest, there is a lot going in terms of resources for creating green living spaces. Awareness, for one: many of us have a clear connection with the beauty of our surroundings that translates to a desire to live lightly within them. We also have the advantage of leadership and innovation-—Washington state legislators passed the first green building code laws in the country in 2005, and there are local economic incentives like tax cuts for green-certified buildings. Plus, the Northwest is one of the few areas in the United States where electricity is hydropower-based (good for our carbon footprint, though not necessarily for our salmon). And water is plentiful for most of the year.

O'Brien and Sullivan's book gives us a chance to dip in and out of the greening process without getting too overwhelmed. It has an attractive design with clear illustrations, black and white photos, and a readable layout with lots of sidebars and checklists for the attention-span-impaired. It straddles the line between the do-it-yourself ethos, providing diagrams of how a system might be put into place, and the coffee table genre, giving an alluring sense of what's possible without going into mindnumbing detail.

My architect friends who flipped through the book praised it for advocating simple solutions that pack a big punch. The authors stress building small to start out with, giving credence to Sarah Susanka's concept of the "not-so-big house,” and pointing out that small houses use both less material and less energy for heating and cooling. Since the 1950s, the average home square footage has tripled, while the average American family living in that space has gotten smaller.

Choosing to live near where you work and shop helps a ton as well, since in the Northwest most of our fossil fuel costs come from transportation. If you're building your own house, you can start out by orienting it for passive solar and ventilation; letting the sun shine into your windows and the breezes to cool you will help your energy budget, no photovoltaics or turbines required. Planting trees helps, too, both in cleaning the air and in resale value.

O'Brien and Smith both practice what they preach, and their commitment to, and love for, the process of sustainable design is evident throughout the book. O'Brien and her husband built a small house on a wetland buffer with green design principles, and Smith and her husband moved from Berkeley, Calif. to a cohousing project on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound that includes small, private living apartments and communal areas encouraging shared gardening, cooking, and upkeep. Their stories form the beginning of the book, creating a feel that is both personal and aesthetic. They demonstrate how sustainability can create connections in a community while contributing to the health of the environment and future generations.

The Northwest Green Home Primer covers the three main options at your disposal, or, if you prefer, at your recycle, if you're thinking of living green: remodeling an existing home, designing and building a new one, or buying an already made, or "spec” green home. It begins by inviting you to bask in the green light of some beautiful finished products, including case studies of the authors' own homes as well as several other single-family and multifamily projects, from a ranch-style house in Portland that harvests rainwater for irrigation and drinking to Issaquah Highlands, a planned community designed to introduce density in the suburbs.

Once you're finished basking, there's a checklist to fill out about your desires and needs for a green home, and directions for hiring a good project team. The authors make it clear how much expertise architects and designers lend to the process, and give pointers for how to choose good ones. From there it's into the nuts and bolts, arranged in chapters related to each of the systems in your home. Tread lightly here: if you're still a newbie, green overload can easily ensue. But the authors help by giving a checklist of "top green home picks” in each section.

The whole thing can get pretty overwhelming, even if you think you're "on board” with the green movement. My boyfriend and I recently bought a house, and though we had eco-friendly dreams, we were definitely greenhorns. The night we were finalizing our loan, while I was obsessing over interest rates and percentage points, he started describing the geothermal well he wanted to dig in our backyard.

On paper, in the little diagram in the chapter on green energy choices, geo-exchange sounds ingenious. Pipes sink deep into the earth and water is pumped, transferring warmth in the wintertime and cool in the summer when compared to the ambient air temperature. But as he described digging the 300-foot-deep abyss into our backyard, I imagined the furnaces of Hephaestus below us, volcanically bubbling, and I thought, in a moment of weakness, "Why can't we just be normal?”

Then again, this was close to his response earlier in the week, after I'd proposed retrofitting the 20-year-old oil furnace we'd inherited to run vegetable oil. How all it would take would be trips to the local Mexican place, which I was sure would gladly hand over its post-chimichanga oil. "But will the house smell like french fries?” he asked plaintively. Green is in the eye of the beholder.

The authors make a distinction between building "dark green,” the lush forests of ecosensitivity, including materials that will last for generations and that can be recycled when the house is done for, to "light green,” maybe more along the lines of the mansion Al Gore got so much flack for. But they emphasize that the best way to reach the deepest hue of green you can manage is to think through your project from start to finish before picking up one solar panel, and to design everything to work as a system, kind of like the earth.

They include some exciting ideas for those who are into digging deep. Rainwater harvesting, familiarly used to water lawns and gardens, can be plumbed into toilets and clothes washers, or even into your drinking water supply, once a UV purification system is installed. And radiant heating can be modified to capture the heat that runs down the drain after you shower.

The materials gobbledygook is also there if you need it: you can learn about what U-values will be best for thermally efficient windows, the savings (but not the cost) of Energy Star-rated appliances, SIPs (structural insulated panels, or thick layers of foam insulation), and avoiding VOCs (volatile organic chemicals, which can leach out of vinyl products and wood finishes and cause cancer).

If you want to know more than a sentence about any of these things, it might not be there. But since all this stuff is changing so fast, there's a nifty index to each chapter with Internet and product resources under topics like "Mold” and "Solar cooking.” The subtitle of the book is "hundreds of ideas for building, remodeling, and buying green,” and it's really about ideas, not the details you would need to bring them to execution.

But that's okay. It's the kind of book that could start conversations between homeowners and green designers, according to my friend Geoff Piper, whose Seattle firm Fivedot Design Build just completed its first "spec” green luxury home. "I'd be thrilled if a client was conversant in this terminology,” he said.

But it feels thinnest on details related to cost. And on the cultural scale, it's more Dwell than Whole Earth Catalog. This brings me to my only major criticism of the book, and, perhaps, the green movement in general. At times it feels elitist, as if going green is simply a lifestyle choice, not something that creates value for people and the earth.

This disconnect was hammered home recently by David Domke, a communications professor at the University of Washington, when he addressed the Focus the Nation teach-in at UW last January. The environmental movement has been letting itself be defined by "the opposition” for too long, as latte-drinking, Saab-driving, tree-hugging nitwits, he said. He argued that we'd get through to a lot more people if we led with our hearts and spoke about our values: to live on the earth in a way that doesn't threaten the lives of people across the world from us, and that keeps our resources abundant for our children.

This book, with its idle comments like "a (truly convenient) convenience store for the requisite early morning latte...can serve to reduce your household's footprint,” and its polite avoidance of cost, will not convert new people to the movement. When it does address the issue of cost, it's vague, as in an aside that greening added only 1% of the cost of one of the author's residences. Since the book presents such a broad array of options, I would have preferred cost estimates for each piece of the puzzle.

And hand-waving comments that refer to building green as "the likely biggest expenditure of time and money you'll ever make in your life” encourage the mindset that green design choices are only for people who are doing pretty well already. A small tacked-on sidebar about what you can do if you rent only encourages the idea that making these changes is a luxury of the green elite.

But, as Wendell Berry would say, this doesn't have to be so. If we choose a path that is sustainable, he writes, "We would begin to protect the world not just by conserving it but also by living in it.”

Deirdre Lockwood is a graduate student in oceanography and a member of the Program on Climate Change at the University of Washington.


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