The last time green remodeling became a national obsession was after the oil embargo in the early 1970s, and it faded almost as quickly as it arose. The current green movement also came seemingly out of nowhere, but appears to have more teeth. Remodelers everywhere are under pressure to meet homeowners' increasing demands for green products and practices without breaking the budget. As I see it, remodelers need to overcome three main obstacles if they are to survive the green transformation our society appears to be undergoing.
GREEN OR NOT? The first is "greenwashing" which, simply put, is the deliberate effort to make a product or practice appear to be greener than it really is. Some companies use it to rehabilitate their image after an environmental disaster - think Exxon Valdez - but many more use it to sell their products.
Remember when Mobil Chemical added starch to the plastic in Hefty trash bagsand marketed them as "biodegradable"? It was greenwashing, because the bags degraded only if they were left out in the sun, and most trash bags end up buried in landfills. But even bags left out in the sun didn't really biodegrade; they merely fell apart ? into many smaller pieces of indestructible plastic.
This kind of thing is going on today more than ever, often in connection with products you use on your jobsites. Whether you like it or not, it is your responsibility to figure out what's green and what's not. Fortunately, there are some good sources, including GreenSpec ( BuildingGreen.com) and Hanley Wood's own ECOHOME magazine and Web site ( greenproductsandtechnology.com), plus several generic greenwash watchers, such as CorpWatch ( corpwatch.org) and TreeHugger ( treehugger.com).
CERTIFIED OR NOT? Green certification programs are sprouting like weeds, so fast and in such numbers, in fact, that, although they are intended in part to counter greenwashing, they risk compounding its effect.
The certification issue is two-pronged. On the building-performance side, there are competing standards for both new construction and remodeling and for both commercial and residential projects. While the intent is noble and some standard is surely needed, having too many standards amounts to having no standard, just more confusion, more fees, and more red tape. On the contractor side, there are competing educational programs that grant certification in green practices. Again, a worthwhile idea, but one that could introduce another layer of complexity and confusion in the mind of the homeowner.
I'm all for educating the industry ? I have devoted the last 17 years to it ? but my fear is that certification will become a substitute for actually embracing the practices that are being certified. Green remodeling requires a shift in thinking among all parties involved, including employeesand trade contractors. Knowledge of green products and energy-efficient detailing is essential, but introducing them into the jobsite, I can tell you from experience, is no small feat. Deconstruction, material reuse, and waste recycling are even more difficult concepts to master, and are often more costly than traditional methods.
STUBBORN OR STUPID? Assuming remodelers can overcome these two obstacles, there is one other: stubbornness. Remodeling contractors tend to resist change. They prefer to do things the way they have always done them. And who can blame them ? taking chances on new technologies is a risk-reward transaction, and the competitive world of remodeling leaves no room for a roll of the dice.
But remodelers can't afford to maintain the status quo forever; the green movement simply has too much momentum. And there's a thin line of difference between being stubborn and being stupid. "Stubborn" becomes "stupid" when you hang on to it too long.
Back in 1971, on the first new-construction jobsite I ever worked on, an old-timer was still arguing that plywood would never catch on. Stubborn in 1971, stupid today.
Today, a lot of remodelers are being stubborn about green. Don't hang on too long.
Sal Alfano, Editorial Director