We had an opportunity to sit down with green building consultant Carl Seville, also known as the Green Building Curmudgeon for his no-nonsense look at green building and remodeling. Carl just published the textbook GREEN BUILDING: Principles and Practices in Residential Construction and is working on the new LEED for Homes Guide. We jump into the the quickly evolving world of green home construction and fly over the many local and national green building programs he has worked with. Fresh from speaking at the RaterFest Conference in the Colorado Rockies, he gives us a sometimes surprisingly optimistic look at better home construction.
Energy Star 3
Inhabitat: Carl you seem like a pretty nice guy, so how did you come up with the term Green Building Curmudgeon and does that really describe you?
Carl Seville: Well on one level it does. I find that I like to complain about things. I get very frustrated with people who are so positive about everything, like you run into people at the US Green Building Council or National Association of Home Builders and they’re just accolades and everything is wonderful and you know, nothing is wonderful. Everything’s got issues and so the whole idea of being The Green Curmudgeon, it was a combination of Frank DeFord’s Sports Curmudgeon, which is a sports character, which he does on NPR, and Lewis Black who is my favorite comedian. I desired to be a combination of those two people.
It’s just the idea of being able to be critical about things in somewhat of a humorous way and get people thinking differently. And the logo I came up with is the earth with a screw driven through it, which is just sort of my attitude that I keep working at it but there’s a piece of me that believes we’re sort of beyond hope. We’ve already gone over the edge. I’m doing the best I can to pull us back in, but it’s not really working.
Inhabitat: Have you gotten a lot of mileage from that?
Carl Seville: Oh yeah, all the time. It’s “You’re The Green Curmudgeon.” Actually just today at the presentation at the end, I said, “Oh, and I’m The Green Curmudgeon,” and one guy who I’d been talking to all weekend, he goes, “I didn’t know you were The Green Curmudgeon.” It’s pretty funny. In the blog, every once in a while I’ll really hit a nerve and it will really go pretty viral, but some of them are just interesting stories and observations on things.
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.
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.
Inhabitat: Let’s talk about your book a little bit. Green Building Principles and Practices looks to be pretty technically oriented. You have a lot of information in there.
Carl Seville: Yeah, it was designed as a college textbook for undergraduates and graduate schools, architecture, engineering, building construction, and it’s sort of a steps through roughly construction sequence all of the things that are involved with putting together a green building. It’s not every step, but it gives you all the options to consider and how they all interrelate and I think that’s the key thing we tried to point out, that building a green building, a good building, a high performance building is carefully planning it from the beginning and then making sure that everything is done right. You make all the right decisions throughout the process and then each decision…the kind of foundation you put in affects all the other decisions through the building.
There’s no green building GPS- it does not self-correct. If you make a wrong decision, if your first decision is wrong and your next 15 decisions are right, you could still be going the completely wrong direction, so you need to make all the right decisions from the very beginning.
Inhabitat: When you’re on a building site how do you get people to look at it more closely and change the way they approach their methodology?
Carl Seville: Well it depends on what your position is on the operation. Like I’m working on a house where the guy is building a house and he hired me to be his consultant and to certify his LEED house and the builder, he’s an okay builder. He doesn’t really understand high performance building, but he’s very receptive and it happens to be around the corner from my house, so it’s convenient. I can swing by…literally it’s like two blocks away so I can swing by there. I’ve had to go back and reinspect things multiple times because he’s trying, but I go back and I pull some stuff out and I say, “See, look behind this. See where…” and he gets it and he appreciates it. I remember this as a contractor, you sort of rely on your subcontractors to do things and he didn’t know enough to know that his subcontractors were giving him substandard work.
Inhabitat: So you had to be there to train him and he then trains the subcontractors?
Carl Seville: Yeah and this house is definitely way better than it would have been, so I think he’s learning and I think he’s kind of getting that it’s not a ton of extra work. It’s just doing the work right in the first place. That’s really what it comes down to.