How ‘fat’ is my home?

Times Staff Writer

HERE at Greenbuild, the world’s largest conference on environmentally responsible design, former President Clinton packed a ballroom with a rapt audience of 8,000 that began lining up for seats two hours before he took to the stage.

Environmental messiah Paul Hawken, author of “The Ecology of Commerce,” delivered his own impassioned address on green design as moral obligation -- and promptly received a standing ovation that outlasted Clinton’s.

But years from now, historians of the green building movement just may decide that the most influential stars of last week’s conference were far from any spotlight or speaker’s lectern. They sat quietly, largely unnoticed, in a nondescript, closet-sized display in the McCormick Place convention center. On 8 1/2 -by-11 sheets of recycled paper, soy ink rendered pictures of ordinary-looking buildings, each poised to redefine the average American’s concept of what it means to be green.

What made these single-page profiles of recently built homes so revolutionary? Each bore a graphic with a striking resemblance to the “nutrition facts” on the side of a cereal box. Whereas the cereal container might cite 30% of the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C and riboflavin, though, the homes’ graphics spoke of 65% savings on utility bills and 75% of construction waste diverted from landfills. In lieu of calorie and fat counts, the numbers detailed energy efficiency and proximity to public transportation. Water systems, sustainable materials, innovation in design -- each was quantified in a stark, black-and-white label.


It’s a smart idea, one that instantly conveys how a home can be as healthful as a bowl of low-fat, high-fiber organic oats. For a public that has largely equated green living with bamboo floors and low-flow shower heads, the emphasis on deeper, elemental design changes may enlighten minds in a way that no compact fluorescent light bulb ever could.

And not a moment too soon. The statistics repeated at Greenbuild time and time again were grim: The demolition and construction of buildings account for more than one-third of waste in U.S. landfills. The majority of Americans think cars and trucks are the largest contributors of greenhouse gases, but they’re not. Power plants are. So unless we’re buying renewable energy or generating our own electricity via wind turbines or photovoltaic cells, our carbon footprint grows larger with every light we flick on, every reality show we TiVo, every morning cup of coffee we brew.

Energy-guzzling factories and offices notwithstanding, more than one-fifth of the nation’s energy is consumed in our homes.

It’s a point hammered home by Hawken in his new book, “Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.” Hawken says people today use 100 to 1,000 times more energy and natural materials than our ancestors did in 2000 BC. Measure the resources those ancestors depleted in a year, he says, and today we would likely burn through them in five minutes.

The good news is that the message must be trickling down to the masses, if the number of architects, contractors, engineers and plain ol’ concerned citizens at Greenbuild were any indication. The conference that drew 13,382 people in 2006 grew to 22,835 attendees this year. Despite the $700 on-site registration fee, lines were epic, resembling Southwest’s LAX terminal at Christmastime. Panel discussions drew over-capacity crowds. Forget about finding a chair; in some sessions you couldn’t find aisle space to sit on the floor.


THE greening of residential building clearly was a huge topic of interest, and not surprisingly, the U.S. Green Building Council, organizer of the conference, used the event to announce the formal launch of its LEED for Homes rating system. If adopted by vote of council members Nov. 27, the pilot program started in 2005 will become official and expand on the Leadership in Education and Environmental Design ratings that have become benchmarks for commercial construction.

Under LEED for Homes, residential structures earn points toward a LEED rating -- platinum, gold, silver or simply “certified” -- by demonstrating various improvements, such as reducing the need for heating and air-conditioning, perhaps through better insulation or windows; using energy- and water-saving appliances and fixtures; installing systems that decrease storm-water runoff; or building with renewable materials or products sourced locally.

Critics contend that the LEED ratings aren’t sufficient criteria of good design, or that the council relies too heavily on corporate sponsors, or that the fees and time-consuming documentation required to obtain certification hinder innovation rather than encourage it. To be sure, a home doesn’t have be LEED-certified to be ecologically conscious and livable.

Yet to many at Greenbuild, the little white LEED for Homes label has the potential to teach mainstream America that environmental consciousness goes beyond a home’s finishes and furnishings to its very core -- its design and construction. Can this house maximize natural light and minimize the need for electric illumination? Can its walls and windows prevent heat or air-conditioning from escaping? Can it be built with minimal contributions to landfills and little effect on the surrounding land?

Greenbuild speakers talked of new windows with foam-filled frames, new glass that provides better insulation than standard insulated walls, new cabinets that are free of carcinogenic formaldehyde. More important, they spoke of new homes that generate as much energy as they use.

Presenting for a panel on residential remodeling, Colorado builder Eric Daub said Boulder County had gone so far as to revise its building codes, requiring remodels exceeding a certain size to be net zero energy starting in 2008.

In other words, if you plan to build a home that uses so many of the Earth’s materials and generates so much waste and devours so much energy, then the structure must generate enough electricity via wind, solar panels or other means to power itself.

It’s a dramatic example -- extreme to some -- but Clinton insisted that this is our near future. The discussion, he and other speakers said, soon will shift from minimizing a home’s harm to the environment to measuring how much it can heal a scarred planet.

“In five years, all the buzz in these massive meetings will be about what technology is available for energy-positive buildings,” Clinton said, adding that America is convinced of the need to change. The sale has been made. “We just need to get the show on the road.”