'Green' building and its discontents

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / November 21, 2008
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I spent a few hours ogling soy-based resin toilet bowls at Greenbuild, the international conference of the US Green Building Council, earlier this week. All the green celebs have signed up to speak: Bill McKibben, E.O. Wilson, and Desmond Tutu (?). The exhibition hall is a veritable Predators' Ball of huge corporations neck-deep in greenwashing hype: Dow Chemical, Honeywell, Waste Management, General Electric, Office Depot. Everybody's green now.

Where's Joseph Lstiburek? He's an engineer and a principal of Westford-based Building Science Consulting. Lstiburek has made an avocation of popping green balloons, using the most lethal weapon of all - facts. Just this month, he published a compelling take-down of "green" architecture in the journal of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. Aren't you glad I didn't let my subscription lapse?

"The current green and sustainability craze can be summed up as architects and engineers behaving badly," Lstiburek writes. Like any serious engineer, he is borderline obsessed with saving energy and attacks the architecture profession's current obsession with glass fronting ("Want to save energy? Use less glass"); faddish, purportedly energy-saving double facades ("a bad idea, but the folks who knew it was a bad idea retired"), and super-fashionable roofs planted with vegetation. "Vegetative roofs are beautiful and look cool," he writes. And a lot of them collapse and leak.

What kind of reaction has he had to his article? "I've gotten hundreds of e-mails, mostly saying, 'I can't believe they let you publish this.' " Lstiburek reports. "The architectural profession is in a state of collapse right now because they're all talking about saving the planet and social justice. It's such hypocrisy because their buildings are so pitiful." Not surprisingly, he hasn't been asked to appear at Greenbuild, which he calls "six thousand looney-tunes wandering around Boston."

Inevitably, conference attendees are being offered tours of South Boston's ur-green Macallen Building. The ungainly brown condo development, visible from the Southeast Expressway, has been a sump for worshipful media coverage since it opened last year. It even spawned its own documentary film, "The Greening of Southie," now available on DVD.

Apparently Wade Roush of the all-things-tech website didn't get the press release. "The Macallen Building strikes me as a sorry excuse for the 'greening' of anything," he recently wrote, "let alone South Boston, the working-class neighborhood over which it looms. If this project comes to be seen as a model for green development in Boston and other cities, the green-building movement is in big trouble."

Why? For one thing, he thinks it's ugly, which I do not. But Roush has plenty of other demurrers: "Is it really 'sustainable' to use double-flush toilets if you have to bring them all the way from Australia, on container ships that burn huge amounts of diesel fuel? Are bamboo floors still green if you have to bring the wood from China? How much sense is there in using special glues that are free of volatile organic compounds if it means that those bamboo floors buckle and have to be ripped out (and new bamboo ordered from China)?"

Roush is not the first to point out that green does not mean cheap. He bemoans "the unfortunate symbolism in the fact that Boston's first green residential building is a luxury condo. You have to be doing pretty well, indeed, to afford a one-bedroom, one-bath unit for $600,000 or a three-bedroom for $2.1 million."

Green is the Word

Where does it all end? Rupert Murdoch's minions at HarperCollins have just published an "environmentally friendly" Green Bible, printed on recycled paper, with God and Jesus' words highlighted in green. It's full of rubbishy essays, e.g, "Jesus is Coming - Plant a Tree!" and even includes a Green Bible Trail Guide, which is not at all what I thought it would be. (It's a guide through the Bible, not through the White Mountains, alas.) What, no granola recipes?

"This is the book we've been waiting for," blurbs the above-mentioned Bill McKibben. No, it isn't.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress

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