6/27/2011 - The Green Scene - Beyond Buzzwords
by Rebecca Bowe
Everyone has an opinion...but then there's the opportunity to show that opinions are not necessarily facts. Green building here in Western North Carolina is not just about throwing around trendy words and slick ad campaigns...there's real sustainability happening here, and a lot of good folks with real ideas behind it.
In a place the size of Asheville, sometimes it doesn't take much to make waves. Several weeks ago, for instance, a writer in the Xpress letters section turned up his nose at the idea of green building. "I guess what I'm getting at is the whole concept is a bunch of crap," he wrote (see Letters, June 4 Xpress). "Green building is a great way to feel better about yourself and at the same time do absolutely nothing positive for the environment."
Once in print, his opinion caught the eye of Phillip Gibson, outreach director for Warren Wilson College and an organizer of the Mountain Green Sustainability Conference. Gibson, who's been working diligently to make the June 25 event as low-impact as possible, was ready with a comeback.
"There is a view that green building is greenwashing," says Gibson. "What I would say to that is that for the longest time ... the environmental community [has] asked for engagement by the development community in these issues. And ... we have matured as a community to where that dialogue does exist. In any maturity or the development of community ... is always sacrifice, there's always risk, and you always have to have a level of faith that folks are at the table to do the right thing."
The conference aims to bring developers to the salvaged-wood table at Warren Wilson to learn from masters in environmental design, in hopes of encouraging more environmentally sensitive building throughout the area. Community collaboration is a hallmark of the event: The steering committee, chaired by local attorney Robert Deutsch, includes members of such diverse groups as the Council of Independent Business Owners, the WNC Green Building Council, the Asheville Board of Realtors and Build It Naturally--a store specializing in recycled, reclaimed and nontoxic building materials. Event sponsors, meanwhile, are all over the spectrum, ranging from the Bank of America to Earth Fare.
Keynote speaker Sarah Susanka, an architect and best-selling author, has published a green-living series based on the success of her 2001 book The Not So Big House (Taunton Press). Preaching the mantra "Build better, not bigger," Susanka has popularized green-building technology and won the attention of numerous national media outlets. Other scheduled presenters include Neil Weinstein, executive director of the Maryland-based Low Impact Development Center, local interior designer Victoria Schomer of Green Built Environments, Edward Callaway of Georgia's Callaway Gardens and Maggie Leslie of the WNC Green Building Council.
Meanwhile, the developers who will come to hear the gospel of green are not "the choir," says Gibson. "These are not the people who are implementing these practices already," which is why he believes they may benefit from learning the basic principles of energy efficiency, sustainable site planning, using reclaimed materials, managing storm-water runoff and so forth. (In the long run, the greater community may benefit too: As green building surges in popularity, green-building jobs could follow, notes Gibson.)
"We need some common language around what is sustainability, what is green building," he maintains. The event will also feature tours of exemplary buildings to demonstrate how these concepts can be implemented. "What happens is they can choose, like a buffet line, what it is they want to incorporate," says Gibson.
Conference attendees will also enjoy other, more immediate benefits, and good food may top the list. As part of a commitment to make the whole event a testament to the principles being discussed, the meals will be cooked using local ingredients, says Gibson, in cluding shiitake mushrooms plucked from the Warren Wilson campus grounds. A nonedible perk for developers is the chance to exchange business cards with the right people. "This event is regarded first and foremost as a networking opportunity," Gibson explains.
Green building has surged in popularity in Western North Carolina recently: Membership in the WNC Green Building Council has tripled since 2006. And the number of builders registering for HealthyBuilt Home certification, a statewide stamp of approval, has climbed at breathtaking speed. But most conventional buildings are still energy hogs, accounting for some 68 percent of all electricity consumption and 30 percent of landfill waste nationwide, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When all is said and done, it's going to take a lot of energy retrofits to turn this battleship around.