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Oct 25 2011

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GreenBuild 2011: Report from Toronto (Part 2 of a series)

Eric Corey Freed continues his report from the trenches of the largest Green Building Conference in the world

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(BE SURE to read Part 1.) Despite the milestone, there was almost no mention of this being the 10th anniversary of the GreenBuild Conference & Expo. With the exception of a single display (at the top of the escalators between the halls), there was no other mention of a decade of impact. The focus of the show was clearly on the future, not lingering in the past. Besides, the 23,000 plus attendees had just barely survived the worst recession in 80 years, a recession that continues to pummel the building industry. This 10th anniversary would pass with little fanfare.

The mood in the halls was upbeat, optimistic and generally positive. (You may say that is because we really have no place to go but up.) In talking with hundreds of attendees, the real reason is more exciting. The source of this hope and confidence comes from a simple place: The built environment is a mess and it needs to be redesigned. It needs to be redesigned now. For a convention hall full of designers, this is cause for excitement. It was setting in that the world is going to need their services.

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SOURCE: GreenBuild Expo

And so it was that practically the entire Green Building movement gathered in Toronto in the first week of October to share their knowledge, connect with colleagues and discover the latest innovations. The opening plenary session of the conference was held in the vast Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Within the stadium crowd you’ll find green building pioneers, such as Lynn Simon, Rob Watson and Alex Wilson.

The plenary began with customary remarks by USGBC CEO and president Rick Fedrizzi in an unsurprising introduction. This was followed by a shameful product plug by the sponsor of the plenary, David Kohler. The audience was patiently waiting for the main event.

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As keynote speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman seemed the perfect fit for the forward-looking theme of this years conference. At first his talk started off badly, reading from his new book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. It was rigid, poorly delivered and incredibly depressing. Everyone in the room knows all too well how screwed up the Earth is, and his reading wasn’t helping. But then, something changed. Friedman stopped reading and came to life.

He morphed into a tent revival preacher, and the result was incredibly effective. The crowd reacted and perked up. “Our future doesn’t have to be used up,” Friedman announced, “provided we fix what needs fixing today.” In a matter of minutes, he connected the 1979 film The China Syndrome and the Three Mile Island nuclear incident (occurring just 12 days after the film’s release) to 30 years of failed energy policy. “[These events] had a huge effect on America’s energy future,” he said, “and we didn’t compensate with energy efficiency. Instead we furthered our dependence on fossil fuels.”

He continued to connect recent events, such as the failure of the banking industry in 2008, with decisions we made three decades ago. “It’s not an accident that the Bear Stearns and Polar Bears faced extinction at the same time,” he proclaimed. Friedman points to what he calls a “distorted growth loop,” in which a faulty accounting in both the markets and in Mother Nature under-priced risk, privatized all of the gains and socialized the losses. Causing, as he said, for “our children to pay for it down the road.”

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SOURCE: GreenBuild Expo

Though there were many gems within the speech, his big call to action came when he asked the audience to take back this Green Revolution. As he pointed out, “Have you ever been to a revolution where no one gets hurt? This isn’t a revolution, it’s a party!” To explain, Friedman noted, “How can it be a revolution where BP causes the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history and gets off without punishment; or Exxon has the highest profits of any corporation? That’s not a revolution, that’s a party!”

Friedman said it will be a true revolution once we can take back the name. For example, instead of “green buildings,” they will simply be called “buildings.” He added, you won’t be able to build a building “unless it meets the highest levels of efficiency.” That is when we know it will be a true revolution.

Friedman explained how oil, coal and gas are fossil fuels and therefore are vanishing commodities. On the other hand, solar and wind are technologies. Commodities always go up in price with demand. Technologies always go down in price with demand. The first cell phones were expensive, but as they reached ubiquity, they plummeted in price. These “price signals,” as Friedman put it, will be the final sign that our revolution is underway.

He brought the crowd to its feet with his closing comment. “You didn’t get the word that everything is hopeless and that our government is paralyzed,” he explained. “You continued and kept going. Be too dumb to quit; don’t get the word!” Friedman ended by saying that our “not getting the word” gives him hope.

Watch the entire opening plenary session here (http://www.usgbc.org/DisplayPage.aspx?CMSPageID=2543″ target=”_blank”>here (you’ll have to log in or create an account).

As the applause faded, Friedman was joined on stage by Dr. Paul Farmer, Chair of the Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard and author of USGBC’s Project Haiti, and the role of industry in the rebuilding efforts. But no one was really listening. Energized by Friedman’s talk, the crowd was already getting restless when it was announced that Apple founder Steve Jobs had just passed away.

Now to set the scene for you: Picture thousands of conference-goers packed into this Canadian hockey rink, their heads swimming with the insightful ramblings of a Pulitzer Prize winner and all desperately trying in vain to get their American cell phones to work to confirm the grim news (at international roaming rates).

I’d like to comment on the panel discussion, but it was nearly impossible to hear over the din of the crowd. (Watch the video above.) The sad news left everyone distracted. Instead, I went out into the concourse to toast to the memory of Steve Jobs with everyone else.

The plenary was coming to a close, but not before Rick Fedrizzi re-took the stage for his final remarks. Rick surprised us all with a moving, heartfelt and passionate presentation of his “news story from the future.” Set as a New York Times article from the year 2036, it imagines a cover story announcing the closure of the U.S. Green Building Council due to the completion of its mission: where every building was now a green building. The graphics were beautifully produced, perfectly timed to his speech and sent chills through the audience. “The mission of the USGBC has been accomplished,” he proclaimed (but speaking from the future.)

(At press time, the video of the graphical part of his presentation was unavailable, but you can watch Rick’s talking head portion of it in the video above at time code 1:58.)

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Next up, Grammy award winners Maroon 5 took to the stage. Oddly enough, there are six of them, not five, but it continues the GreenBuild tradition of hiring eco-minded performers (rock goddess Sheryl Crow took to the GreenBuild stage in Phoenix in 2009). The band is supporting the fight against climate change with their bio-diesel buses and support of Environmental Media Association and Global Cool.

In my life, I have climbed pyramids, broken into castles and bribed Egyptian policemen, but I can tell you that you have not known fear until you’ve been smashed against the stage by a horde of screaming, crying women at a Maroon 5 concert. Judging by the crowd reaction, lead singer Adam Levine is very popular among female environmentalists, aged 22-62. His tight pants were the topic of much of the conversation.

The following day, everyone had a Maroon 5 song stuck in their head (it doesn’t matter which, as they kind of all sound the same). Here is one I think you’ll enjoy:

IN PART THREE: I’ll be discussing the show logistics and Closing Plenary session, including a talk from the “John Wayne” of the Green Building movement.

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—Eric Corey Freed (www.organicarchitect.com ) is an architect and author of four books, including “Green$ense for the Home”). You can follow him on Twitter @ericcoreyfreed.

Oct 24 2011

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GreenBuild 2011: Report from Toronto (Part 1 of a series)

An insider view of the largest green building conference in the World

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Celebrating its 10th anniversary, the GreenBuild Conference & Expo, is the largest gathering of architects, engineers, developers, contractors and builders involved in the greening of the built environment. With a hundred educational sessions and more than 1,000 exhibitors, GreenBuild is overwhelming, exhausting and exhilarating. Given the sheer size, it is the Olympics of conferences.

My own preparation starts weeks before by scheduling every minute with meetings, classes, interviews and parties. If done right, the show is a marathon, both physically and intellectually. Cards are exchanged, deals are made and strategic partnerships are formed. Every industry has its premier events, and GreenBuild is it for those of us in Green Building.

Held this year in Toronto, this was the first time the conference was held outside of U.S. borders (last year it was hosted in Chicago; the 2012 show is in San Francisco). Judging by the buzz among the many I spoke with, Toronto seemed to charm everyone. More than 23,000 attendees from 108 countries were in attendance (down from 27,000 last year, due more to the foreign venue than the economy, I believe.)

This years’ conference theme was simply “Next.” It seems quite appropriate. The field of Green Building has reached a certain critical mass over the past decade, prompting many new recruits to ask, “What’s next?” Even the USGBC’s own green building rating system, called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), has itself leveled off a bit.

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As part of this idea of NEXT, several clear memes were present this year throughout the lectures and exhibitors:

Living Buildings: The idea of simply being “less bad” with our buildings is not enough. We need regenerative buildings to restore the environment from the damage we cause. The idea of “living” buildings and, more specifically, the Living Building Challenge rating system (http://www.ilbi.org) was all the rage this year.

Biomimicry: Popularized by the 2002 book by Janine Benyus, Biomimicry seeks to study Nature to learn her design secrets. A long time favorite among design students, Biomimicry is finally being applied to real-world applications in our built environment. Remember, human beings are not the first to build things. Nature has 3.8 billion years of research and development on us and knows how to build sustainably.

Green Schools: With more than one in five people working in a school building every day, the idea of green schools has emerged as one of the best places to start changing how we design our buildings. The USGBC’s 2010 spin-off, The Center for Green Schools, was represented at the conference, as was the great work of Brian Dunbar from the Institute for the Built Environment, Colorado State University, among others.

Eco Districts: Appropriately launched in Portland, Eco Districts are a new strategy to develop livable, walkable, sustainable neighborhoods. As an example, take a look at Pringle Creek, a growing sustainable community in Salem, Oregon. The ideas have taken hold and are starting to spread across the country. It’s also no coincidence that the EcoDistricts Summit is being held a couple of weeks after GreenBuild.

Benchmarking and Metrics: With this being the 10th GreenBuild, it is fitting that many are taking a decades’ worth of valuable data and putting it to good use. Many of the talks and exhibitors showed off various forms of benchmarking tools and case studies. Building dashboards were a clear standout at the show, with dozens of different versions. My two favorite systems came from Lucid Design Group and Schneider Electric. Such systems will be standard issue in a few years.

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs): Ushering in a new wave of manufacturer transparency, an EPD is a complete lifecycle assessment (LCA) of any material, product or even a system. It goes beyond a mere Material Safety and Data Sheet (MSDS) and provides the full picture of the impacts, risks and environmental responsibility. It is no surprise that carpet maker InterfaceFLOR would be leading the charge on the EPD movement given its long history and commitment to sustainability. Expect most other manufacturers to follow suit, if only out of fear of being left behind. In 2009, UL (the safety company famous for ensuring our electrical devices won’t start a fire) spun off a subsidiary called UL Environment that is pioneering an EPD program for manufacturers. Much of the buzz on the show floor was about the possibilities of manufacturers embracing these EPDs.

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Of course, there were dozens of topics outside of these categories, but these six concepts give a glimpse into what really is next for Green Building.

(NOTE: I was scheduled to speak on the topic of Innovative Green Residential, but that seemed too dry and I decided instead to present a new talk entitled “Dodo-Sapiens,” my rant on how our way of life is killing us and the need for living, bio-based buildings. The audience didn’t seem to mind. More on that later.)

The real conference occurs between the sessions in the hallways. Over the past decade, GreenBuild has become the place for networking, to see and been seen by the greatest minds in our sustainability movement. Seen roaming the conference halls are such visionaries as Amory Lovins (Rocky Mountain Institute), Bill Browning (Terrapin Bright Green), Jerry Yudelson (Author & Consultant), and Gail Vittori (Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems). Or as I overheard: “If a bomb dropped [on the Toronto Convention Centre], the Green Building movement would be set back 30 years.”

IN PART TWO: I’ll be discussing the Opening Plenary sessions, including the fantastic keynote by Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.

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—Eric Corey Freed www.organicarchitect.com) is an architect and author of four books, including “Green$ense for the Home”. (http://www.greensensebook.com )

Oct 19 2011

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Remodeling activity and builder confidence up

By Alice Liao

Perhaps some of you had a hand in this. BuildFax, which has created a national database on historical building permit data, reported that remodeling activity was up this past August, with an increase of 6.3% from July and 29% from the previous year. August 2011 also represented the 22nd consecutive month of continuous growth since April 2004, when the company’s BuildFax Remodeling Index (BFRI) began tracking numbers.

Not all regions, however, fared equally well. Both the West and the Midwest saw month-over-month gains of 9.3% and 10.8%, respectively, while the South had a slight uptick in activity at 1% and the Northeast experienced a decline of 8%. In addition, BuildFax is estimating that 3.3 million residential remodeling projects will be permitted in 2011—a 9.5% increase from last year, which issued 3.1 million permits.

Want more good news? On the new construction front, the National Association of Home Builders/Wells Fargo Housing Market Index (HMI) for October indicates that builder confidence in the market for single-family homes is up by four points, representing the largest one-month gain since the home buyer tax credit program helped spur the market in April 2010.

But don’t begin celebrating just yet. According to NAHB Chairman Bob Nielsen, despite the vote of confidence, builders are still feeling a little wary, thanks to “overly restrictive lending policies that are discouraging prospective buyers, problems with new-home appraisals and widespread uncertainty regarding federal support for homeownership.” In addition, noted NAHB chief economist David Crowe, foreclosed homes are exerting a negative effect on home prices while the cost of building materials is rising, “further squeezing already tight margins.”

The regional findings of HMI roughly mirror those of BFRI, with the West gaining nine points (the highest for that region since August 2007), the Midwest and the South each logging in with increases of four points; the Northeast stayed unchanged at 15.

Oct 14 2011

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Understated: The New Trend?

I’ve been noticing a pattern in client requests lately—a softening of colors to monochromatic or soft blends, and a retreat from showpieces. The “flash” is on its way out; understated is in.

This doesn’t mean scaling back; if anything, quality is up. What I’ve been seeing is pro and luxury appliances in bigger demand by my clients than previously, a request for higher-end custom cabinets, and willingness to spending more on lighting fixtures. However, each item no longer fights for supreme “look at me” presence in the kitchen. The varying multiple heights of cabinets are disappearing. Counter edges are square or very simplified. Streamlined is the new byword.

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Understated whites and warm tones, streamlined hoods. Design by Joan DesCombes, Joan DesCombes Kitchen Design. For more images, click here.

Is it due to the economy—the sense that conspicuous spending shouldn’t be, well, conspicuous? Sure. I think that that’s partly to do with it. It’s also due to the clientele I serve and my part of the world.

Yet, as a whole, I think our basic human wiring is looking for a cocoon or place from which to hide from the stresses and high pace of everyday. Whether the rooms are monochromatic white on white, or the soft grays, or the browns and warm tones, clients are looking for a safe haven before bragging rights.

Let me know what you’re seeing.

Until next time, Kelly