INTERVIEW: Inhabitat Talks with Carl Seville, the Green Building Curmudgeon

by , 01/20/13

Photo © Evelyn Lee

Photo © Evelyn Lee

Inhabitat:  Green rating systems really starting with a prescriptive basis, do you think that approach is still valid?

Carl Seville: You know I got into this in about 2001 so I didn’t have much experience with prescriptive rating systems. I started out with Earthcraft, which was kind of a split prescriptive. They had certain minimal requirements but also required a HERS rating, so you had to hit a certain HERS score and then do a number of things so it was really more of a performance program. Earthcraft recently rolled out their latest version, which was they did a big change in 2011 which is pretty stringent and also hit a time when the market is kind of struggling, but they had to keep up to stay ahead of energy codes. It’s still a good, solid program, doing very strong in multifamily. They do single family renovations, which are kind of slow right now, and they’re moving into a light commercial program that they think will have a lot of traction because it’s a much less expensive way to certify small, commercial building, whereas LEED tends to get really costly at that scale. So Earthcraft is there and then LEED for Homes is going through its reiteration.

Inhabitat: How is LEED for Homes changing?

Carl Seville: They rearranged it to align with the commercial program.  Certain things and points are now requirements. They’ve added some stuff and they’ve made some changes that are very good. They’ve totally aligned it with Energy Star version 3.0, which is probably good and appropriate for LEED and simplifies some of the things that were just extras and all of the make work that really didn’t serve any purpose. And I think overall it’s pretty good. I think they’re trying to simplify some of the administrative problems that the earlier program had, but it’s going to be a big jump up although there’ll be an overlap. The current version and the new version are going to both be in place for a couple of years.

Inhabitat: What do you think of more pure performance-based standards like Passive House?

Carl Seville: It’s funny; I think Passive House is interesting.  I know Katrin Klingenberg, Executive Director of Passive House Institute US. I like her. I think she’s done some really cool stuff. I think Passive House is a little nutty. I mean I look at it and it’s like, ‘oh you want 14 inches of insulation?’  I don’t know enough about it to be really critical of it and I think she’s actually doing some good stuff in terms of realizing that where it was developed in Europe was a fairly consistent climate and the US just has way too many climate zones. I think she’s probably making the right changes with it and I guess she made a good move that they’re going to pull any of the foams with high global warming potential out of the program.

Inhabitat: That’s much more of a prescriptive thing, which was also controversial because many passive house advocates wanted a pure performance type of standard and all of a sudden these prescriptions are starting to trickle in.

Carl Seville: I think all of these program should be a combination of prescriptive and performance. I think purely performance doesn’t necessarily make sense and I think purely prescriptive doesn’t make sense. I think some hybrid.  I think setting some base levels.  As an example, I have clients that compare programs and interestingly enough, one of the options now in multifamily is Energy Star version 3.0 or Earthcraft, at least in my region in the southeast, or LEED and Earth Craft has certain minimum requirements, like for heating and air conditioning efficiencies and things like that and if you go below them, you cannot get certified.  Energy Star has a very challenging energy model.  LEED for Homes right now, from an energy standpoint, is one of the easiest programs.  Right now LEED for Homes is basically focused on Energy Star version 2.0, whereas most other programs have pushed up to Energy Star 3.0 or at least something close to Energy Star 3.0.

Inhabitat: How do you visualize that we shift away from the current bad practices in the industry and especially the use of materials and consumption of resources in general that we do with housing?

Carl Seville: Oh, the earth is screwed.  Well there’s two ways to look at it.  From an energy standpoint, I think code adoption and code enforcement because truthfully the 2009 energy code and we’re moving to the 2012 soon is pretty damn good. I mean if you actually do everything in the code you get a pretty good house.

The other piece of it, resource efficiency, water efficiency, things like that, that’s an education thing and I think we’re kind of…a chunk of our country is still in the Hummer society.  They want what they want and even if building higher performing homes, greener homes, doesn’t require sacrifice, if people perceive it to require sacrifice, they’re going to…look where we are politically.  We’re just totally polarized and the right is just off their rocker in one direction and the far left, which there is very little of, they’re a little bit off their rocker in the other direction.

Libertarians and right-wingers aren’t willing to sacrifice much of anything and the Democrats and the liberals are so moderate right now. I grew up with the left wing was pretty liberal, was pretty radical and it swung way to the right. So the lefts are the moderates now and they’re getting better but they’re somewhat afraid of their own shadow and they’re not going to start complaining and demanding things of conservatives and libertarians for a while.

Inhabitat: So we have to market ourselves out of this?

Carl Seville: Exactly, we have to convince people that it’s the right thing to do, that they will get benefits, convince people of the benefits of doing these things.

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