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The Green Life: Trendsetter

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June 27, 2007

Trendsetter

Steve Fradkin
Fradkin Fine Construction

As part of our continuing series on green building, The Green Life talks with Seattle-based builder Steve Fradkin of Fradkin Fine Construction:

StevefradkinHow did you get into the green-building business?

When the idea really started to take hold five or six years ago, we were already incorporating some sustainable practices in our operations--separating waste, recycling as much as we could, and doing salvage--and we wanted to start bringing it into the buildings too. A couple of the employees I've hired recently have environmental degrees and they're really leading the charge.

What percentage of your business do green projects comprise?

About half of our work is custom construction for clients, and half is spec. All the spec work meets the local Built Green criteria and this year we're going to start doing new spec construction under LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] standards. Green building is also informing our custom construction. We're not giving clients a choice on some things--certain types of insulation, for example--and we're guiding them to healthier options.

What changes have you seen over the years in terms of clients' interest in and knowledge of green-building techniques?

We have a dedicated green realtor, GreenWorks Realty, locally now, and they're doing a lot to educate buyers. Especially here in Seattle, people are at least willing to look into, if not invest in, green building. It is more expensive right now, but there is a payback.

What green things are people most interested in doing in their homes?

Low-toxic environments with low-VOC paints are high on the list. People are also moving away from forced-air heating systems, which are tough on air quality, mainly because the duct work can house mold and dust that can then blow through the house, to radiant and decentralized heating systems that also save energy. The Energy Star program has been good at educating people, so they’re looking for energy-efficient appliances. That's not really a sacrifice and they can see savings more immediately.

We're also seeing people wanting a lot less carpet and more hardwoods and linoleums, as well as more metal siding and more recycled materials like cellulose insulation. Clients are happy to hear that we salvage lumber from projects and reuse it and that we separate the waste stream during demolition and recycle it. We're starting to see some interest in renewable-energy heating sources, like solar hot water and photovoltaic systems, but that's still pretty expensive.

What’s hard to sell people on?

Getting people to pay a premium for sustainably harvested lumber, like FSC-certified wood, is difficult--they don't really see a benefit. In part, I think this is because the timber industry has done a good job positioning wood as a renewable resource. Also stuff like super-insulated windows. People want the energy saving and the healthy home, but they also want to see some manifestation of the green design. So there has to be some sizzle too--like recycled-paper countertops or something like that.

What's the most difficult aspect of building a new green home from scratch?

With custom construction, there has to be a comprehensive commitment on the part of the customer, the builder, and the architect before any work starts. With a spec project, the toughest part is finding affordable land to build a high-quality project on. You can get a premium for better-designed homes, but it doesn't necessary compensate for the cost of building them. The requirements for LEED, for example, add a cost overlay that clients may not see the benefit of, or even know you complied with.

Another obstacle is city permitting. Bureaucratically speaking, you're not really rewarded for building sustainably in residential construction. There can even be a penalty. For example, we're doing a project with no impervious surfaces, but we still have to do comprehensive drainage plan for the city. We have to design for the ordinances and then redesign for the environment. Residential storm-water reuse is also tough to get the city to agree to.

How about doing a green remodel?

With remodeling, we make suggestions for improving the envelope of the building, but we’re really dealing more with healthy finishes. A lot of existing homes are not going to encompass as many green features as you’d want. We try to get in energy-efficient lighting, formaldehyde-free glues and panels, things like that. When you start with a blank page--a new structure--that's when you can really get somewhere. With whole-house remodels, we can really improve water usage, for example. There's a device where when you walk into the bathroom, the pump sends hot water to the fixtures. The average American family wastes 10,000 gallons a year just waiting for hot water.

What's the one thing you wish every prospective client--or even everyone in the world--would understand about green building?

That it's an investment in their health and the future of their communities. They have to be willing to make that investment even when the economic payoff may not be obvious.

What innovations do you see coming down the line?

To me, affordability is a big issue. As long as this is a boutique kind of practice, its impact will be limited. But growing demand is forcing manufacturers to appreciate that it's not a fad. So the exciting thing to me is that increasing interest is drawing more research and development in the industry. Even little, incremental steps that people take can have a huge impact on energy use and the health factor of our homes. That's a reason to have a lot of optimism about the building industry.

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Want to learn more about green building? Read an interview with the owner of the EcoBuilders, Inc. in North Carolina and look for one with a Portland-based builder next week. Then check out the latest issue of Sierra magazine for remodeling tips and author Bill McKibben's account of building his ecofriendly dream home.

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