For the hundreds of attendees at the Remodeling Leadership Conference, a successful event is all about networking and asking questions - and when it comes to green, boy, are there a lot of questions! With the conference theme of The Color of Money: Green and the Future of Remodeling, a three-member panel of construction and architecture pros well-versed in sustainability provided a useful forum for inquiring minds to find out just how the panelists' companies turned green theories into realities for their clients.

The panel included:

  • Chris Van Arsdale, environmental attorney and entrepreneur, contributor and editor of the book Green & Lean: Designing and Building an Affordable, Resource-Efficient Home, president of GreenHoME, founder of VNV Development, and co-founder of C2 Prefab, which manufactures zero-net-energy prefabricated custom homes;
  • Chris French, co-founder with Van Arsdale of C2 Prefab, founding partner of French Studios Architecture + Planning, and an active member of and former Director and committee chair at the American Institute of Architect's Washington, D.C. Chapter, and;
  • Paul Hughes, former manger of a sustaible developoment consulting firm and founder of DeConstruction Services, a company that specializes in disassembling residential buildings with the goal of reclaiming as much as 80% of a building's components for reuse or recycling.

courtesy Jeffrey Lee

Though the men approach the concept of green differently depending on the projects they're working on, Hughes's approach, and French and Van Arsdale's shared philosopy work from the same principle: that taking the time to "think green" before a project begins can save more in resources and materials than trying to inject green practices haphazardly along the way.

"To me, green is more about a process of thinking than a process of building," Van Arsdale said. "You have to start with a vision: What's your goal? You're not going to come up with an answer sitting in an armchair for a few minutes. It's an iterative process that involves two primary components: the team you're working with, and the green building systems you want to incorporate." Some of the team members Van Arsdale and French referred to in their opening presentation included contractors, architects and landscape architects, local policy planners and committees, developers, and engineers who focus on energy savings. On the building side, green components included water and electricity savings, indoor air quality, materials selection, community impact, aesthetics, and more.

Kristen Speights

Likewise, Hughes suggested that the practice of deconstruction isn't just about asking your team to take nails out of lumber or salvage the countertops and cabinets. His firm will walk through a home first and assess the value that deconstruction could bring to the homeowner, the remodeler, and the community. "There's a triple bottom line with environmental, financial, and community benefits," he said. "Homeowners can often take advantage of tax benefits that, in some cases, can entirely offset the cost of the demolition. From the remodeler's point of view, you've got an increased competitiveness because every dollar your client saves is one that can be put toward the project and your ability to add more amenities back into the home. You can also earn tax savings if the builder has the salvage rights." Taking a look at what products and materials are salvageable, reusable, or able to be donated before crews even pick up a sledgehammer for demo is key, and plays well into one of Van Arsdale and French's points. "Opportunities for cost-effective green building go down over the timeline of a project," French explained. "At the same time, the costs of implementing green go up as the project gets further along. A good example would be site orientation. It may not be as applicable when you're working with an existing building, but you can take the time up front to consider how you can orient the home to take advantage of windows, awnings, and passive solar energy so those plans and materials are determined before construction begins and can be implemented efficiently. To go back at the end of the project and try to do these items as retrofits is extremely costly."

After this brief introduction to these concepts, conference attendees took to the microphone for an informal Q&A. Here are some of the questions and panelists' responses:

Q.: Is there a size of job below which deconstruction is not economically feasible?
A: Paul Hughes: It will always depend on the property and what the homeonwer hopes to get out of it. In the past we've gone through a three-day skim and list everything we think we can get out of the home, and give the homeowner a fixed price to handle the job. We had a client with a new job in mind, and they had put in mahogany kitchen cabinets a couple of years earlier. For them, those cabinets were so important that deconstruction would be worth it even if that was all that was salvaged. Generally, if a remodel affects one quarter of the home, you should go through and look for as much material as will make deconstruction worthwhile.

Q.: Is attic framing that has been baked in the heat for years and made very dense worth reusing?
A. PH: Someone can use it. We help take that type of material out, and even if it just ends up as lumber for a small remodeling job or a playhouse for someone's daughter, it's being reused. We'll de-nail it before taking it away so the wood isn't being weakened any further.

Kristen Speights

Q.: We try to do as much deconstruction and re-use as possible, but we often find homes that have intricate moldings that are heavily painted with lead-based paint. We've concluded that it's better to donate that to someone else who wants to take the time to remove the paint and restore the trim for their own project, while we mill custom trim from FSC-certified wood. Is that still environmentally responsible?
A.: Chris Van Arsdale: I'd argue that something like lead-painted trim is hazardous waste and should be disposed of. There are a lot of things like that where you're just stuck with it and it can't be re-used.
A.: PH: You have to make sure you're providing a healthy workplace for your crews. If you're just removing the trim and hauling it off, the user will take on the task of removing that paint on a one-time basis, whereas if you made it a company practice, you'd have workers who would be faced with that job on a constant basis with more effects over time. We use asbestos-grade respiratory masks any time we're dealing with lead paint removal.

Q.: Do you have any suggestions for the possibility of re-using drywall?
A. PH: This is something that we as an industry really need to lobby the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) on, and encourage funding for a program that will scientifically determine how drywall can be re-used. Right now it's our biggest debris-maker.

Q.: What experience have you had with collecting and re-using graywater?
A. CVA: Depending on where you live, there are still code issues with graywater in terms of bringing it inside. Otherwise, landscape irrigation is one of the best ways to use reclaimed water on site. There are also some graywater appliances with filtration to make the water useable for showers or for drinking, but they're expensive, and I think they've value-engineered themselves out.
A. Chris French: For water collection, there are a number of products available. We've used 75-gallon cisterns for outside use, or you can build your own with concrete. There's one model from Australia called the WaterHog that I really like.
A. CVA: The way the systems work, for landscape irrigation for instance, is really quite basic. There will be a pump in the cistern and a moisture sensor in the landscape. When the moisture sensor detects that the soil is dry to the point of needing irrigation, it will initiate the pump, which feeds the irrigation system.

For more details on each panelists' companies and industry involvement, visit the following links:

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