The fight over what "green" means
The arson of four mega mansions also fired up a regional controversy for the real-estate market about what's truly green.
Seattle Times staff reporter
It was the People's Choice and Best in Show in the 2007 Street of Dreams, the Best in American Living for 2007, according to the National Association of Home Builders, and the first home in Snohomish County to earn a five-star rating as a Built Green home.
But with 4,750 square feet, a four-car garage and a location in a rural area where subdivisions aren't supposed to sprawl, was it really green?
The Urban Lodge was one of four mega homes burned in an act of arson this month near Maltby.
Even before the cork flooring and reclaimed timbers stopped smoking, the fires had reignited an already smoldering debate in a rapidly growing region struggling to find and keep its Pugetopian identity.
The search is on for a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the green consumer in the real-estate market, and the debate about what's truly green brings an answer from every corner.
Green building is no different from a host of other industries suddenly greening conventional products to serve a public that still wants it all — but now wants to feel good about it, too.
Mainstream builders say a greener suburban McMansion is important progress. "I like to think of everything in terms of incremental change," said Grey Lundberg, president of Grey Lundberg and CMI Homes of Bellevue and builder of the Urban Lodge. "You can't just wipe the slate clean. These home are still going to get built, and we want them built right."
But their critics say that attitude is just consumers kidding themselves — with developers happy to help.
"People are capable of holding wildly contradictory beliefs," said Alan Durning of the Sightline Institute, a think tank in Seattle.
"There is this sort of pastoral ideal that you will live in a place set in parkland like French royalty, and you are a good responsible REI member, and green Northwesterner. So your Land Rover has mute Earth tones, and you probably buy organic pet food for your Labrador retriever."
The Urban Lodge was built as part of a 48-unit "rural cluster development" near Maltby. Priced at more than $1 million, it was 40 percent more energy-efficient than the same model would have been if it was simply built to code, Lundberg said.
The house included many features that are more friendly to the environment — from drought-tolerant native plants in the landscaping to recycled-glass cabinet pulls and cork floors.
But some say bestowing top environmental honors on a home with a four-car garage that's far from public transit, jobs and shops sends the wrong message. After all, Washington's biggest source of greenhouse-gas pollution is transportation.
"This is not the kind of development we would encourage from a greenhouse-gas-friendly standpoint," said Dennis McLerran, executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. "The kind of development we would encourage is connected with transit, and is more dense, within urban-growth areas, and doesn't generate long, single-occupancy car trips."
To see how contentious the world of green building can get, look no further than the debate over "green" timber certification, meant to assure customers that lumber and other forestry products were sustainably harvested.
When tons of mud and logs slid down clear-cuts hillsides in the Stillman Creek Basin near Chehalis during December floods, few consumers might have guessed that the lumber that came from those clear-cuts could be marketed with a "green" certification from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).
Those clear-cuts on Weyerhaeuser land aren't what some conservation groups have in mind when they seek green-certified products.
Long before the landslides, the Seattle chapter of the National Audubon Society had filed a complaint in December 2006 asking the Sustainable Forestry Board, which oversees certification, to suspend Weyerhaeuser.
That complaint, and the debate over industrial forest practices raised by the slides and 106-acre clear-cut featured in a photo published by The Seattle Times in December, are not yet resolved.
It's not a new fight. The argument over green-building standards, including which certification system is green enough, nearly killed the state's green-building codes before the Legislature adopted them in 2005.
The code sets mandatory standards for construction of state buildings built with public funds. Under the law, builders must select from a menu of options to gain points toward a total required to meet the state's green-building code.
Builders may choose more environmentally friendly materials and methods in some instances, and go with conventional options in others, as long as they earn the requisite number of total points to meet the standard.
Using certified wood is one of the options builders can select. But a fight over which certification standard could be used to accrue points nearly sank the bill.
Environmentalists had wanted only wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to be allowed to earn points toward "green" certification under the state program. The FSC system is preferred not just by large environmental groups but by some major retailers and even some timber companies.
But Weyerhaeuser, the largest private timber company in the state, and all state Department of Natural Resource timber lands already carry SFI certification, initially developed by the pulp and paper industry.
So when it came time to write the state's green building code, lawmakers heard early on that FSC certification wasn't acceptable to the powerful timber lobby.
"The timbercrats were adamant," said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, primary sponsor of the bill.
In the end, lawmakers adopted a system awarding points for using SFI wood for school construction. And any state building can meet the green standard as long as it's built from Washington timber cut with a valid forest-practices permit.
Homeowners buying certified-green homes may also be buying SFI-certified wood — or even a mixture of wood from various sources.
Lundberg said he used FSC wood on some of the Urban Lodge but not in the framing timbers because he couldn't get a large quantity soon enough to meet his building schedule.
That construction is not green enough for some. But Robert Knapp, an expert in sustainable design at The Evergreen State College, said even small changes have value.
"People want to say 'Is it truly green? Yes or no,' " Knapp said. "That's a fairly sterile way to look at it." Also important, he said, is whether the building is better than its conventional counterpart.
He's no fan of four-car garages — even painted with nontoxic paint. But Knapp sees importance even in incremental change.
"No matter what level you are working at, there are ways to make it greener."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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