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INTERVIEW: Inhabitat Talks with Carl Seville, the Green Building Curmudgeon
Photo © Andrew Michler
Inhabitat: Well let’s talk about one of your most popular, Should Batt Insulation be Outlawed? which you got a huge response from.
Carl Seville: Yeah, including a nasty letter from the Vice President of the North American Insulation Manufacturer’s Association. It wasn’t quite a threat, but it was close. The post was about the fact that batt insulation, not just fiberglass but any batt insulation, is generally not installed very well, including recycled jeans and wool, all sort of stuff. The method of installing insulation is very difficult and what happens is batts are very cheap and people install them very quickly and cheaply so they appear to be much less expensive than other products. But if you actually installed it right and installed it per the manufacturer’s instruction and installed with all the air barriers that the manufacturer’s instructions suggest you install with them, it’s really about the same price as any other insulation. But it’s just this lowest common denominator and if you think about it, the building codes and the energy codes require things to be installed to manufacturer specifications. Manufacturer specifications call for high quality, grade one insulation, which means no gaps, no compression and that never happens. Since batt insulation is an inherently challenging product to install, I just suggested that maybe we not sell it and that it made people crazy, which was actually kind of fun. I like that.
I think 75 or 80 percent, maybe even more new homes use batt insulation. It’s just so many homes are just sort of basic, built as cheaply as possible and then even as you get into higher quality homes where people understand and want high performance. They’re often going for the finishes, the granite countertops, the fancy exterior finishes, the size, and the things like the energy performance fall by the wayside. It’s pretty common. I mean I’ve seen lots of big, fancy houses, people paid a lot of money for them and they have terrible insulation.
Inhabitat: So for home construction in the last five years, has it changed much since the ‘housing bubble’?
Carl Seville: Well I think what’s interesting is when I first got into green building in 2000, the market was good. A lot of people decided green building, high performance building is good. A lot of builders and some remodelers got into it and the market was good enough that they could build it into their pricing and make money out of it. Since the collapse, I think what happened was a lot of people who were building green are gone or scaled back. A lot of them who are building green, the flexibility they had in their budgets just don’t exist so a lot of people dropped it. So green building is I think struggling in a lot of cases. It’s an interesting kind of cross because just as the market demand started happening, the economy tanked, so the consumer interest was there but the value of the homes wasn’t there.
I think it’s starting to come back and there’s this other interesting congruence is that building codes, energy codes are getting better. There was this whole issue with the stimulus money; any state that took stimulus money had to agree to meet the 2009 energy code I think by 2014 or something. There’s a real push to bring energy codes up, so the energy codes are getting very good and they’re actually starting to exceed some green building programs, even though it’s just the energy part. It’s a very interesting little juggle of up and down and everybody is kind of leapfrogging trying to keep up with everybody else. So green building itself is still struggling in terms of homes.
A couple of really bright areas is multifamily, particularly affordable multifamily because I know in Georgia where I live and in many other states, all affordable housing or the vast majority of affordable housing is green because the low income housing tax credits are closely tied to high performance building. They designed it, specifically in Georgia, but in lots of other states they designed that the QAP’s, the Qualified Allocation Plans, for these subsidized housing projects, they only make sense if they are green certified.
Inhabitat: What about consumers now that there’s so much more ‘awareness’ about what green building is? Do you think that they’re pushing harder for their contractors and architects to include it?
Carl Seville: I think it depends on the market. The demand is sort of erratic in the southeast. I think most trends tend to move west to east and so I think there’s a lot more going on in the west coast.
Inhabitat: Would you get in trouble saying that by folks on the east coast?
Carl Seville: No, no, every trend moves from west to east. Seattle had the coffee shops and then they came to the east. I actually remember talking to my sister in California once and this was years ago and she goes, “Do you have these wrap sandwich shops all over town?” I said, “No.” A year later, they’re everywhere. They just…any trend on the west coast ends up on the east coast.
There’s consumer interest, but I think what tends to happen with most people, the vast majority, is it ultimately comes down to dollars. They want the house, they want the house where they want it, the size the want it, with the features they want and the vast majority the green tends to fall to the bottom; the high performance tends to fall to the bottom. They’re going to buy the granite; they’re going to buy the deck.
The good thing is that buildings are tending to get built better and as people are living in high performance, multifamily green, multifamily buildings, as those people start moving into houses, I think they’re going in with an understanding of what the value is. You know it’s frustrating that it’s not moving faster, but a piece of me thinks it means job security. It’s like people are going to continue to need my help for years to come.
Inhabitat: You’re a consultant for certifying green homes, so on green rating systems right now, do you think they are robust enough?
Carl Seville: Well it’s interesting because they’re in this incredible state of flux. Let’s start with Energy Star, which has moved to version 3.0. The agreement in the industry tends to be that it was a little bit too much, a little bit too fast, and the timing was terrible. It’s good, it’s very good stuff, but it’s a big leap but it’s been really hard for people to adjust. The problem is primarily the heating and air conditioning part of it. Energy Star 3 requires contractors to be trained and certified and we’re not really sure there’s that much value in the training and certification because of the way it’s being put together. These guys do need training and certification, but the particular stuff Energy Star put together isn’t necessarily that good. Then within the program requirements for testing and balancing all the ducts, testing all the air flows, it’s stuff that is really hard to do in residential projects.
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