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The Green Life: Trendsetter

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July 06, 2007

Trendsetter

Stephen Aiguier, age 30
Founder, Green Hammer Inc.


Although he comes from a long line of builders, and put himself through college as a journeyman carpenter, Stephen Aiguier didn't cut a straight line back to his family profession. Only after getting a degree in community development and applied economics, working for an organic chocolate company, and putting in a short stint at a securities brokerage did he found his Portland, Oregon-based contracting firm. greenhammerconstruction.com

Q: What makes the houses you build green?

A: All our new homes are LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] certified. We build with 100 percent Forest Stewardship Council-certified or salvaged wood, and we're trying to get all of our materials from within 100 miles of the site.

Q: What aspects are hardest to sell clients on?

A: The hidden items, like weatherization and energy systems, but those are what make your home efficient in the long run.

Q: What do you see for the future of green building?

A: "Green building" shouldn't even be a term; it should just be the way we do things: low-impact, using the materials around you. Thirty years from now, our children are going to be asking, "Why did you build any other way?"

(Photograph by Annie Portlock)

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Want to learn more about green building? Check out our interviews with green builders in Seattle and Asheville, North Carolina. Then click on over to the latest issue of Sierra magazine for remodeling tips and author Bill McKibben's account of building his ecofriendly dream home. And read the rest of our interview with Stephen Aiguier after the jump.

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How did you get into the green-building business?

I spent three years in Italy as a lead carpenter doing restoration on 700-year-old homes as part of a program that ran internships for fieldworkers. We were working on this 1,300-year-old estate that was operating as an FSC-certified chestnut forest with vineyards and olive orchards as well. We removed some of the old timbers and they were three-foot-in-diameter chestnuts. You just don't find that anymore. The steward of the property was an architect, and he showed me on a map where the original logs had come from and where the chestnuts had regenerated from the root ball. Wherever they had taken something, the policy was to leave its descendent there until it was ready to be used for the same purpose.

It made me think about forestry and building in a different way: It showed me what environmental integrity and long-term durability really meant and made me a firm believer in building with the sustainable product of the land that you're on. When I came back, I decided I wanted to be involved in something with the same level of integrity. I really enjoy working with wood and what better place than the Pacific Northwest? There are a lot of really great examples of restoration projects and FSC-certified projects here, but I was shocked to see the disconnect between that and what was happening with actual builders.

How are you trying to change that?

Right now we are building two homes that are LEED platinum. 100 percent of the lumber is local and FSC-certified, and it all came direct from the forester. That's pretty unique. We can often get it all certified, but not necessarily all essentially from our backyard. We do our own urban salvage too, salvaging downed trees with a biodiesel crane truck that we use to pick them up. It's a really different, vertically integrated system. There are a few really committed green builders in Portland, Seattle, etc., and the industry has to be an absolute passion for them.

Why? What are the challenges?

You can get discouraged by the myopic building code system. We're also trying to take care of our employees; we're trying not live up to the "carpenter's pension" of nine fingers and a bad back. We're not inexpensive, but we do have sliding-scale projects. If you can't afford to do solar panels, we'll design the house for passive solar.

How do you approach building a new home vs. doing a remodel?

In new construction, you're focused on the systems--how the home is heated, how it's cooled, how it's gaining electricity and acquiring water. Remodeling focuses on materials. If you want to do an extensive remodel, sometimes we just suggest that you move--maybe it's not the right home for you. It might be doing more justice to the home to just leave it alone. But salvaged wood is really trendy right now--something that looks nice and has a good story behind it is always an easy sell. We use quite a bit of salvage in our new construction, but especially with remodels, for cabinetry, floors, and finish work. We also try to make the energy systems in the home more efficient.

What specific technologies or techniques do you incorporate?

We do homes with hydronic heating/cooling systems and earthen (cob) floors--that's an ancient technology that we’re bringing back into modern science. It doesn't have to be all concrete slab. Cob can be very efficient and more aesthetically pleasing and little softer to the knees. Straw bale is another one of "yesterday’s technologies" that we use.

We're also trying to find the most efficient ways to heat homes, like heat pumps for example. We're doing double-walled staggered framing, where you have no thermal breaks. You use less wood and stagger the studs. There's kind of an exterior wall and an interior wall and in between there's full insulation. It makes for a very tightly built home. We can do a roof deck in standing-seam metal; it's great for rainwater catchment, which we can bring into a couple of cisterns. Up here in Portland, we get plenty of rain to fill those up. We can then use a UV filter to bring that water into the home as potable water. With a metal roof, you can clip solar panels on, or roll them out between the seams. Solar technology keeps changing, so we want to have a roof that can adapt to that.

In my mind, good wood is a huge story too. In this area, it's about connecting rural communities and making them viable through value-added products that are brought to the urban market. It has worked in other places, and it can work for generations and generations. We don't have that history here, but we're starting to build it and I’m happy to be a part of that.

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