Excerpt from Chapter 4-Seattle: Tomorrow Is Now
A City of Green Builders
The great irony of Seattle’s popularity is that so many people are flocking here that they are, literally, loving the place to death. As we saw earlier, each time you disturb the soil with large building projects, the land erodes and washes into the area’s waterways, eventually polluting and clogging those arteries and making it difficult for the wildlife to survive. If a city is to grow in a sustainable manner, people have to find new ways of building homes and business that do not impact or destroy so much of the natural world. The desire to do this has led to a movement in environmentally friendly construction and architecture, called green building. Seattle has gained a reputation as hotbed for this kind of work.
For Martha Rose, the philosophy of green building is the culmination of a lifetime of strong ideas about sustainable shelter. When she was only nineteen years old, Chicago-born Rose took a job as a carpenter on a construction site in the Washington, DC, area. “The work was hard,” she remembers, “but I liked it.”
The granddaughter of a Chicago builder, Rose had always had a strong reaction whenever she saw new houses going up on what was once farmland outside Chicago. “Every time I saw new development in rural areas, I didn’t like it,” she says. “And that was when I was young. Every place else that I went, I’d see the same thing. In DC and in Portland, Oregon. My feeling was the same: I just didn’t like it.” There had to be a better way to make new homes for people than to keep gobbling up precious swaths of green, untouched land, she thought.
There could be better ways to build, too. On her first job as a young carpenter, she was appalled when her boss had her install shoddy doorknobs on a door. “I think the only thing that was metal in those knobs were the screws holding them to the door,” she remembers. “The rest of it was plastic. It was so cheap it made me sick. I would rather have a smaller house better built than a big house done cheaply.”
Eventually, she would have her chance. In 1982 she took a job as a building inspector in Seattle, a job that allowed her to travel throughout the city, where she saw countless vacant, near-vacant, or dilapidated parcels of land within the city limits that were crying out for intelligent repurposing. If you were going to build homes, she thought, this was the place to do it: inside the city, where you didn’t have to impact farmland, or worse, raw nature. This type of construction has a name—“urban infill housing”—and refers to the filling-in of city lots. Such construction is usually speculative; the builder buys a piece of property, erects a townhouse, and then puts the new structure on the market. The practice is controversial because longtime residents often don’t like the way the new structures alter the character of the neighborhood. But Seattle was a city on the move. Its population was growing, and newcomers especially liked the idea of moving into a vibrant city center.
Rose began building homes in downtown Seattle, always looking for ways to improve her methods and build safer, more efficient, more ecologically sound structures. For example, the start of any construction job is usually a messy endeavor. The demolition crew sweeps in, levels everything to the ground, and hauls away the debris of the older structure to a landfill site. Rose and other green builders were beginning to see that that process was highly detrimental to the environment. Much of the stuff they were hauling away to the landfills could be reused or recycled, and the big machines ended up tearing up the adjacent land, ruining the topsoil and local vegetation, and sending tons of loosened soil down storm drains.
Today Rose has adopted an earth-friendly approach to site management. Before the job starts, she calls in a salvage company that picks through the existing structure for usable items, such as hardwood floors, cabinets, and mantelpieces. Each of these items are carefully pried out and donated to shelter organizations or sold to people looking to restore old homes. Next, the empty shell is demolished, and the resulting concrete, wood, and bricks are sent to a special recycling site that sorts “commingled debris.” The wood is ground up for composting, the metal is recycled as scrap, and anything unusable is ground up and used to layer landfills. Thanks to this novel method, only 5 percent of structures—instead of 100 percent of them—ever make it to a landfill!
Recently, Rose has started using demolition crews that use only biodiesel equipment to knock down buildings. “Believe it or not,” Rose says, “the inventor the diesel engine, Mr. Rudolf Diesel, actually designed his original engine to run on peanut oil. Later, people came along and started using petroleum fuels.” Today’s biodiesel fuels, made from various vegetable products, are gentler on the environment and burn cleaner.
Next, the crew tries to save as many trees on the site as possible. They erect fences and filters to halt further erosion, and place a layer of wood chips on the ground to give the machines a slightly firmer footing and traction, so they don’t spin and tear up the earth. When they start building basements, they take pains to mimic the natural process forests use to capture and retain water. They do it by establishing infiltration pits filled with crushed rock, which allows local water to seep into the ground and slowly percolate into the earth instead of running away into storm drains. Because Seattle is a fairly mild climate, they are able to use a new type of porous concrete that allows water to wick into sidewalks and eventually drip into the ground.
They try to eliminate the use of toxic pressure-treated lumber. Instead of installing roof shingles with a twenty-year lifespan, they opt for thirty years, to lessen the need for shingles later down the line.
In recent years, the goal among Green Builders is to reduce energy loss as much as possible. Most people assume that means using solar technology, but heating a home with solar, or using solar panels to run your home’s electricity are still quite expensive technologies. (Solar water heating is the most cost-effective technology at this time.) So when a green house goes up, carpenters try to build larger spaces in the walls for thicker insulation. They even insulate the underside of the concrete slab on which the house sits. “You can pretty much build a house these days so efficiently that your heating costs go way down,” says Rose. “I did the same thing in my office and home. I’ve been here a year and I cannot believe how comfortable it is.”
The Martha Rose Construction Company is still small by most city standards. Rose estimates that she builds three to eight houses a year in Seattle, but each of them have been certified as energy-efficient and environmentally friendly structures by Washington’s “Built Green” organization.
“What I do is always risky financially,” says Rose. “I’ll build a house really well and I’m taking a chance that I will be able to make my money back, plus a profit, and that’s tough. Homebuyers are not yet educated about what a green house is all about. You might spend more money upfront, but you’ll save money every year you live in that house, compared to houses that are not built this way.”
“The emphasis right now is on using more durable goods—things that last longer,” she adds. “We are installing commercial grade tile and carpets, or cedar siding, which will last forever. We install dual-flush toilets, which have two buttons on them, one for light flush, another for a heavy flush. Three-quarters of the time, you would only use the small button. That’s a toilet that was developed in Australia. It helps homeowners save money in water and sewer costs, but it costs builders three times as much. You can use paints and adhesives that don’t have harmful fumes, or VOCs [volatile organic compounds]. You can use fiberglass that is not made with formaldehyde. You can install an all-natural linoleum and Energy Star appliances and compact fluorescent light bulbs. All these things are available, if you look for them, but if you don’t know why you should want them, you’re going to think this house is more expensive that others on the market.”
It’s estimated that only about 5 percent of the population wants this kind of house, but nearly 20 percent of the homes going up in Seattle these days are Built Green, including several low-income housing complexes. Slowly but surely, traditional builders are incorporating some of these energy- and resource-saving strategies in their structures. The cost to build a green house is about 5 percent more than conventional construction. But that tiny percent translates to big bucks when you’re building something as costly as a house. If it’s not done carefully, the green house might price itself out of the neighborhood.
Still, Martha Rose would not consider any other kind of work. “I think this is important,” she says. “It’s the difference between a teacher who wants to work in private schools versus public schools because they feel private schools are more rigorous. Or a lawyer who wants to be a public defender versus working in big law firm. Of the builders who do this work, some are doing it as a selling feature for those homes. They want to be able to say, ‘Look, here’s a green house for sale!’ But most are doing it because they feel strongly about it. Hey—somebody has to start doing it. Pretty soon it’s going to be the norm. We’re on the bandwagon before everyone else is on the bandwagon. I’m proud of what we’re doing. I want to always be able to go back to a house I did in five years and have it be in good shape. I want to offer something that the masses aren’t producing. A notch up in quality means a lot to me.”