GREEN EXPO NOTEBOOK: Yo, Green Spacers. Last week, the BJCC exhibition hall was the site of the Green Building Focus Conference and Expo, one of the largest events of its type in the Southeast, which is hosted by Birmingham firm Green Building Focus. Sustainable building experts, entrepreneurs, academics and politicians gathered from Tuesday through Friday, August 24- 27, to share ideas, trends and technologies. Green building and sustainability have been hot topics in certain circles in the Magic City the last couple of years, driven in part by last year’s Green Expo and by a belief among many greenies that Birmingham, as a Southeastern rail hub, could become a center for green building and manufacturing. The following are a few highlights:
OPENING UP: The expo’s opening session was held in the ballroom at the Sheraton Birmingham hotel next to the BJCC. Michelle Moore, Federal Environmental Executive for the Obama administration, stressed Obama’s commitment to clean energy and his mandate that federal agencies set targets to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Several times, Moore used such phrases as “leading by example” and “practicing what we preach” in discussing the government’s role in helping to reduce U.S. energy consumption. “The federal government is the biggest consumer of energy in the U.S. economy,” she said, referring to the government’s 500,000 buildings and 600,000 vehicles.
“And thinking about it from a taxpayer perspective, in 2008, our total utility bill topped $24 billion for energy for our buildings and our fuel,” she said. “That’s a pretty big chunk of energy use to take on, but it’s also an extraordinary opportunity to leverage that size and scale to help support businesses directly in transitioning to a clean energy economy.” According to Moore, the feds spend a lot of money with a lot of suppliers and can drive the market for eco-friendly products, including in the green building sector. “Government buys half a trillion dollars in stuff, and that’s an opportunity to partner with private businesses in our supply chain,” she said.
GREEN CITIES: Another speaker at the opening session, celeb San Francisco architect Eric Corey Freed, who said he’s “been obsessed with sustainability for 20 years,” put his obsession on display in a wide-ranging, irreverent presentation using text, video and other images on a triptych of large screens.
Freed offered a series of responses to a question once regularly posed, he said, by essayist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to Freed, “Emerson said to friends he had not seen for a while, ‘Hey, what’s become clear to you since we last spoke?’” Freed listed some of the things about American culture and sustainability that had become clear to him.
“It’s become clear to me that we should put everybody’s power meter on the street so the neighbors can see,” Freed said, only half kidding. “We have nine square miles of polar ice that falls in the ocean every day, and yet I meet people everyday who say, ‘Global warming is just a myth.’” Freed shows a photo of a guy sitting at a ball game wearing his cap backwards and yet using his hand to shield his eyes from a bright sun. “It’s become clear to me that we’ve forgotten function,” Freed said, pulling a few laughs, before making an analogy to the energy-wasting ways in which many buildings are situated. This is what our buildings do,” he said. “When you have a large expanse of south-facing glass, things get hot.”
Freed asserted the importance of doing little things to help the environment.
“It’s become clear to me that we still have a lot of low hanging fruit we’ve been talking about for the last three decades,” he said. “McKinsey & Co. did a report last July and showed that we could cut 23 percent of our energy use by 2020 and save billions of dollars every year just by caulking and sealing windows, doing simple stuff.”
Freed discussed the trials of tribulations—and possible rebirth—of Detroit, Mich., a decaying post-industrial city with some of the same problems as Birmingham, only on a bigger scale.
“Detroit used to be a beautiful place,” Freed said. “Hustle, bustle, all the things you expect in a big city.” Freed enumerated some of the factors in Detroit’s decline, including the problems of the American auto industry, as well as race riots of 1967 that hastened suburban flight. Detroit is now afflicted by crime, poverty and corrupt politicians.
“It’s the uniquely American phenomenon we call a donut city,” Freed said, pointing to a map of Detroit that showed a small downtown surrounded by lots of suburbs. He also said that the city will never again have nearly two million people and that city leaders there should recognize that fact.
“We need to right-size the city,” Freed said.
Freed suggests that in some ways Detroit has become a great laboratory to learn how to rebuild cities and communities in a more sustainable way. The median home price in Detroit, according to Freed, is an astonishingly low $5,737. “To give you a sense of perspective, you could buy over
100 houses in Detroit for the cost of one in San Francisco or L.A., which really kind of makes me sick, because I live in San Francisco,” he said. He mentions the phenomenon of “Rust Belt Chic,” in which artists move in and buy houses. “You can buy a whole city block for what you might pay for one house in other cities,” he said.
There is plenty of room for experimentation in Detroit, it seems. According to Freed, Detroit is a large city, with 139 square miles, about one-third of which is vacant. “Detroit is a chance to undo the mistakes of the past and to [create] a new urban paradigm for the 21st century,” Freed said.
“The AIA (American Institute of Architects) came up with this very clever plan that said the city should have an urban core with nine mini-villages, then turn the rest into parkland. That’s what [Detroit] should do. The best part is, it’s already happening. Nature is consuming the buildings. These are literally feral buildings.”
Freed said there is another good use for some of the abundant vacant land in Detroit. “Grow food,” he said. “I’m an architect. I like buildings. I think buildings are the solution to everything. But we have enough buildings. Why? Detroit is a food desert. Residents have to get all their food, all their groceries from liquor and convenience stores. No produce-carrying chains are in Detroit.
Thousands of these tiny little urban farms have taken root,” he said.
Freed discussed a project in Dallas, Texas, in which he helped coordinate a design competition for a vacant block near city hall in downtown Dallas. He also honed in on global warming, a subject never far from the lips of almost any speaker I heard at the event. He discussed the problem in getting politicians from coal-producing states, whether Democrat or Republican, to vote for federal cap and trade and criticized what he sees as double-speak by coal producers. “The coal industry is trying to convince everybody we’re going to have clean coal, that this Orwellian term exists,” he said. “It doesn’t. They don’t even have a prototype for it.”
According to Freed, the images he used in his presentation are available at www.organicarchitect.com/downloads/ed.pdf
GREEN FAITH: Famed Indian architect Karan Grover, who was also one of the speakers at the opening session, offered his own elaborate video presentation called “Dharma: Doing right and the difficulty of being good.” Grover drew freely from myth, philosophy and every world religion from Christianity to Islam to Buddhism to make the point that the world’s ecology is in danger, particularly from global warming, and that we all have not only the responsibility but the means to respond. “If you really want to help this world, you have to learn to live in it,” Grover said. “We have the power to make conscious choices.”
Grover showed a picture of earth. “This is our home, appearing to float in blackness,” he said.
“Our atmosphere, the protection of life on earth, is much, more fragile than we can even realize. Our future, our dreams, our wishes rest on a thin blue line of hope.”
Grover suggested that in the last hundred years or so, the population and technology have both boomed, and that we have not taken the needs of the earth into account. “We have failed to think about what we need to sustain ourselves, not what we need to protect our environment,” he said.
“Today, we’re at the crossroads of what we can still save and what we have already destroyed.”
On his video screens, Grover played a series of horrific scenes of pollution to the sounds of Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World.”
Stats crawled across the screen: For example, “1000 new cars hit Beijing roads every day” or “50,000 newborns die from air pollution each year in the 14 largest Chinese cities.”
Grover’s showed video of a polar bear paddling desperately in frigid waters. “Some say [global warming is] a hoax, but if you see an image of a polar bear trying to find home, this is no a hoax,” Grover said. “And he will not find it. Because it is not there.” Another shot shows the bear from high above as he swims toward a distant and rapidly disintegrating ice floe.
Grover also addressed the role and responsibility of the building and design professionals in the audience. “Buildings consume 50 percent of the world’s energy, more than industry and more than transportation,” he said. “This is the one single sector that we must look at, and the people in this room have the power to change this whole equation of climate change.”
GREEN MEDALLION: During the opening session, Birmingham Mayor William Bell cited what he said was Birmingham’s role as “the cradle of civil rights” and as a leader in steel production for much of the 20th century before urging that the city become a leader in sustainability. “The model we create here in Birmingham, Ala., in cooperation between each other, that model can be duplicated and replicated all around the country and all around the world,” he said. Bell announced the city would create a new medallion to recognize eco-friendly buildings constructed in Birmingham according to the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards of the U.S. Green Building Council.
FLOOR SHOW: The Green Expo included presentations and panel discussions in temporary conference areas around the perimeter of the BJCC exhibition hall. There were booths for purveyors of green building products and services, as well as Birmingham-area environmental groups.
Speakers at the breakout sessions included social media guru Chris Brogan; Yalmaz Siddiqui, director of environmental strategy for Office Depot; Jerome Ringo, environmental justice advocate; and eco-friendly interior designer Robin Wilson.
I caught most of a presentation by Dr. John Bacon, a systems integrator with the International Space Station (ISS), who spoke on Thursday. Bacon discussed the sophisticated engineering on the ISS and the ways in which the craft and its crews conserve energy and recycle water. He said that this engineering can assist in saving water, power and other resources on earth. “If we can build the space shuttle, we can tackle the problems of climate change and water use here on earth,” Bacon showed a photo of a seven-member ISS crew in orange space suits, posing before their flight with helmets at their sides, and addressed the dangers of space flight and the responsibility that he and the other planners have to keep them safe. “They take the risks and they trust us to do it,” he said. “And when we have a problem, we get together with the Russians and Japanese and Germans and Dutch and British and solve it. It’s a real model of how we can fix things on earth.”
CLOSING REMARKS: Llewellyn Van Wyk, an architect from South Africa who is attempting to use innovative technologies to develop affordable housing for the poor in his country, delivered the closing remarks at the expo from the BJCC exhibition hall demo stage. He suggested that conferences of any type should be about more than food, parties and meeting fun people. “A conference should put into the public domain an awareness of what the conference stands for,” he said. “I think in that regard we can tick that off, because I think that this conference has done that. Last night I heard about the impact of last year’s conference, that last year’s conference raised the bar in the city of Birmingham around what sustainable building is, around what green building is, and about sustainable human settlements. The conference put that notion, I am led to believe, on the radar screen.”
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. Send your comments to jesse@ bhamweekly.com