September 4, 2009
Television has discovered sustainable architecture. The Sundance Channel is offering several shows that feature “green” themes. PBS has Building Green, a show with an attractive subject and a telegenic host–Kevin Contreras (who looks like he has just walked off the set of “The Bachelor”). Apparently following the formula of the “makeover” programs, Building Green offers the story of a house under construction in hopes of drawing in the curious home improver or builder. The premise of the program is that everyone with a little cash and an adventurous spirit can build an energy efficient home.
Contreras is a building contractor and the son of a contractor. He knows his way around a hammer and is enthusiastic about every new thing he sees. He lives in beautiful Santa Barbara, California. His new house has a little bit of a Spanish feel and sits on a spectacular mountain site. Central casting could not have chosen a better star or location.
Contreras follows the proven formula of “learning” about green building from experts who offer their views and products on the show, much as Bob and Norm did on This Old House. Viewers can take some of the advice with a grain of salt, as the self interest of the “green” merchants is pretty transparent at times. Like many PBS programs, the producers make an attempt to present a counter argument to many views. That being said, there are some problems with the views they do present as far as a “green” pedigree is concerned.
Contreras and the producers of the program have chosen to construct their dream house out of a range of materials that offer savings in initial cost, embodied energy, and “life cycle” costs. However, not all the materials offer the same degree of “green” benefit. The shades of green are not the same when one considers, for instance, that the straw bales that are used for the walls cannot support the structure of the roof or floors of the building. Straw bales are alternative materials with wonderful insulating characteristics, and they can be used in applications where low tech construction reduces the energy consumed in framing the building. Unfortunately, the producers of Building Green elected to build the frame of their rather gigantic, luxury home out of steel. As the host admits, steel is not a particularly green material, as its production uses massive amounts of energy. So there is immediate paradox in the premises of the show–if only half your house uses alternative energy sources and materials, how “green” is it?
Other issues present similar dilemmas. The labor consumed in covering the straw bale walls with lime stucco was astoundingly costly, consuming “several months” according to Contreras. Thus any savings in material would be eclipsed by the cost of installation. The windows were fabricated out of reclaimed wood, but the cost of custom fabrication was many times that of standard wood windows. The host attempts to locate a manufacturer of low V.O.C. exterior paint and finds that no such product exists at the present time. The list goes on.
The green building industry is struggling with many similar conundrums as it attempts to become part of the mainstream in the construction marketplace. It may be unfair to quibble about a few overly optimistic claims made in the interest of generating enthusiasm for a new approach to home construction that will have clear benefits in the future. However, it seems entirely fair to ask that the first television show to present these new options do so with scrupulous honesty and integrity. What shade of green should a prospective home builder expect in the current marketplace? Light green? Perhaps. Olive green? More likely? Bright, shiny, emerald green? Not a chance.