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From the ground up
Changing the environmental landscape, one building at a time

On national and international scales, we’re getting environmentally screwed. Our federal energy policy — officially established last month with the passage of the $14.5 billion energy bill, complete with subsidies for the oil and coal industries — falls woefully short of ensuring energy independence and pollution reduction. Climate change, which most scientists blame largely on ever-increasing atmospheric carbon-dioxide emissions, remains an insurmountable challenge, and one that the Bush administration seems reluctant to tackle.

But locally, there’s hope. States and cities have gradually started picking up the slack, recognizing the need create their own emission-reduction, pollution-mitigation, land-conservation plans. (Read about Massachusetts efforts in "Scorched-Earth Policy," News and Features, February 25.)

One of the most promising trends is the construction of "green buildings," which feature efficient lighting and appliances, generate some or all of their own energy, conserve more water, and are all-around healthier for those who live and work in them. Like hybrid cars, or large-scale renewable-energy projects, these innovations help push us toward a more sustainable energy economy and a cleaner urban environment.

Earlier this year, Boston mayor Thomas Menino announced that all new municipal buildings in the city will be constructed to qualify for "platinum LEED certification," which refers to the national Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standard. Private developers will also be held to "LEED-certifiable" codes — though they won’t be required to pay for the rather expensive certification, a testament to Boston’s eagerness to get people on board.

This is not an isolated, hippie, or environmentalist-only movement — even Wal-Mart is getting in on the act. The corporation’s first green superstore opened in Texas on July 20, and another one’s coming to Colorado this October.

"It’s hot. It’s amazing," says Rob Pratt, director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s Renewable Energy Trust, which was created by the state legislature in 1998 to help encourage and develop clean-energy choices. "And it’s happening for a whole variety of good reasons. People like the buildings.... These are healthier buildings."

For marginally higher construction expense — on average, it costs about five percent more to build green — "you really do save substantial amounts on energy and electricity," Pratt adds. He’s talking about 25 to 35 percent on water, heat, and electricity bills in the long run. In fact, Pratt is confident that "it is readily possible to get up to a home that uses 50 percent less" than non-green homes in utilities costs.

Around Boston, there’s abundant evidence of the green-building boom. In fact, the city ranks 10th in the nation in terms of green buildings. The Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation is building a low-income housing development with a biodiesel fuel system that burns cleaner vegetable, soy-based, or recycled fryolator oils. Tufts University is building a solar residence hall, complete with a solar hot-water system and an irrigation scheme that uses rain runoff from the roof. The same technologies are being implemented at Logan Airport, the Museum of Science, and at least 20 other buildings across the city and its suburbs.

As momentum grows, architects and builders are becoming more familiar with the materials and technology, allowing them to work faster and cheaper.

"As green building gets more mainstream, we’re seeing the price go down," says US Green Building Council spokeswoman Taryn Holowka. "There’s a lot more expertise out there, whereas before you had to look for someone who knows what they’re doing."

The following innovative initiatives are proof that in the Boston area, you don’t have to look very far.


It’s the first Thursday in August, sunny and 75 degrees outside. Inside the Artists for Humanity (AFH) building — which rises on South Boston’s streets amid a mail-truck parking lot, an RCN cable building, and a warehouse — daylight pours in through a wall of windows, illuminating the rooms. The temperature is cool, as though we’re sitting in the shade. AFH doesn’t have air-conditioning, and employees turn on the lights only once they’ve raised the window shades as far as they can go.

On the third floor of the lofty building, about 25 teenagers mill around easels in a large open space. Sixteen-year-old Savannah Macay is setting up a five-foot-long piece of wood, on which she plans to paint a lion’s head with a long mane. She’s working on the north side of the building, which affords the best "artist’s light," AFH founder Susan Rodgerson informs me.

Macay, who lives in South Boston and attends Brighton High School, is one of more than 100 inner-city teens who get paid to produce art (something even many professional artists can’t claim). They work in the wood-and-metal shop, create silkscreen T-shirts and handbags, take and develop photographs, and design and sew their own clothing. Some projects they do for themselves, others they generate for AFH customers. Last month, an AFH exhibition opened at Logan Airport.

They do it all in a building that fosters creativity while leaving a minimal environmental footprint. The AFH EpiCenter is an experiment in sustainable building, one with 159 Massachusetts-manufactured solar panels on its roof (the most of any building in Boston); fly-ash concrete (fly ash, a byproduct of coal mining, is toxic unless it’s encased in concrete); and a comprehensive recycling program that deals not only in separating garbage, but in creating art out of used materials (such as the car windshields that replace guardrails in AFH’s reception hall).

Rodgerson — who expects the building’s green innovations, completed in 2004, to shave close to $60,000 from her bills this year — had a difficult time selling her idea. Now, she says, "It’s becoming mainstream. Young people are saying, ‘No, we’re not going to buy your crappy condos for a million dollars unless it’s this way.’... We can only hope this is going to be a sea change, and that depends on young people."

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Issue Date: August 12 - 18, 2005
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