Living Green in a Black and White World

I’ve been thinking all week about the greening of our culture that seems to be underway. Out there in America 2006 was “the Green Year.” Over the months I collected “Green Issue” covers from TIME, NEWSWEEK, and VANITY FAIR. There were others I’m sure I missed. From January to December “Green” became a national media watchword. Almost every day there was something on TV or in the news about global warming. “A threat graver than terrorism,” VANITY FAIR called it. “From politics to lifestyle… Saving the environment is suddenly hot,” NEWSWEEK claimed on its cover last July.
I also know national trends can slip right through the upcountry like a southbound freight line, so I’m always looking for little ripples that would suggest even the Greenville/ Spartanburg area is going green. It’s now 2007 but recently it finally seems even Spartanburg is getting a little greener around the edges.

Last Friday Scott Horst, chair of the US Green Building Council’s LEED (leaderhip in energy and environmental design) steering committee, came to town. He spoke at 8 a.m. at a breakfast at Wofford College and then later led a forum in Main Building’s Leonard Auditorium. The occasion was partially the establishment of an upstate chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. Wofford, I believe, also wanted to make a statement to the community that green building is now on its radar. In both cases it was more evidence that our community is becoming more sensitive to the issues of sustainability and smart growth.

The turnout was impressive. At the breakfast the tables were full of Spartanburg’s business and government elite. There were few pairs of Birkenstocks and no Mexican wedding shirts and lots of panty hose and black business suits.

Horst leaned on the long Methodist tradition in his family (there are many preachers in his family tree) and reminded us, “I may not know where you are today, but I know where you are coming from.”

Once Horst got started he sounded a little like a preacher himself, and he came primed for what someone had told him Spartanburg would want to hear about-“The issue of costs surfaces every time I talk about green buildings.”

So he preached about the integration of all aspects of construction being the key to cost effectiveness. He said that making green building decisions would lead to payback. “See the building as a whole,” he said. “In the old way of building the developer draws a plan and hands it over the cubicle to the engineer and says make this work. It’s put into construction documents. Nothing is integrated. We’ve created a commodity out of our buildings-biggest, fastest, cheapest.”

Looking around the room I saw more than a head or two nodding.

Horst knows from other talks that it’s a tough road talking about payback, or what will come back to you in costs if you choose green alternatives rather than conventional building choices, but he has to do it. Spartanburg, not unlike other conservative places, is a black and white town. The bottom line is hard and fast. “Life cycle costing doesn’t cut it when you’re ruled by capital budget,” he said. “So focus on things you might not have considered in the past like energy modeling (using more efficient heating and HVAC systems) or even something as simple as choosing more reflective paint,” he told those gathered at Wofford. “We’ve been building so poorly for so many decades [building greener] is low hanging fruit.”

Did the green building camp meeting work? Did all present push away from a feast of eggs, bacon, and grits ready to change age-old techniques and practices for filling space with conventional structures?

In the Q&A period one county school superintendent said, “Well, I heard your sermon but it will take more than one to get me to the altar.” But he was intrigued enough in ways his school district could possibly “go green” to hand Horst a card and have the circuit-riding green evangelist send a video on green schools.

And so after breakfast everyone went back out into a world of the bottom line full of daily decisions about costs and overhead and accountability. Will we change overnight? I don’t think so, but I’m hopeful that we will over time.

“˜We’re not separated from the environment,” Horst said at one point near the end of his presentation. “We are the environment.’

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