Green Ground Zero: The earth-friendly building movement

Written by Paul Peters, originally published by the Independent on September 20, 2007

Dr. Kath Williams will tell you right off the bat, “I’m not a tree-hugger. I never cared about the environment, I’m not an architect or an engineer.”

She just happened to be in the right place at the right time to help birth the most respected green building organization in the world: the U.S. Green Building Council.

To her, at the beginning, it seemed more like she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In 1994, when the students at Montana State University in Bozeman wanted to build a first-of-its-kind green building on their campus, no one else in university administration wanted to oversee the project. So Williams, assistant to the university’s vice president, got stuck with it.

Williams grew up on a farm in Ohio where, she says, she washed her hair with rainwater and learned to can food from her grandmother. She came to Bozeman after teaching at Stanford, where she found that urban California was no place for her country roots to sink in.

Her life’s ambition, upon arriving in Montana, was to become the president of a university, and overseeing the building project seemed like a detour.

“‘It’ll be good for you,’” she says MSU president Mike Malone told her.

The building was to be a visionary project, way ahead of its time, and an example of how building should be done in the future. Students wanted to call it the Epicenter Project.

“I took that name to Mike Malone,” Williams says. “He said, ‘Kath, MSU is not the epicenter of anything.’”

But the students demanded it, and they had even voted to tax themselves $25 per semester to pay for the building, so Epicenter Project it was.

The project, Williams says, attracted some of the country’s best architects and developers, who wanted to be a part of the revolutionary building.

As they worked on the Epicenter Project, those architects and developers also founded the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). The council’s first meetings were held at Big Sky resort.

The USGBC went on to prominence. It developed an internationally recognized points-based method for certifying green homes known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, and spawned the World Green Building Council (WGBC) in 1998.

Rick Stern discusses green building in front of his Kila home. The home, built by Mindful Designs, will be the first to sell solar energy back to the Flathead Electric Cooperative. Photo by Paul Peters
Rick Stern discusses green building in front of his Kila home. The home, built by Mindful Designs, will be the first to sell solar energy back to the Flathead Electric Cooperative. Photo by Paul Peters

The Epicenter Project, on the other hand, failed miserably.

Too much space in the building was promised out to too many departments, and the project ballooned and ballooned, from 10,000 square feet to 100,000 square feet, and then it popped. In 1999, MSU president Mike Malone died of a heart attack, and the subsequent administration pulled support for the project.

The architects and developers left Montana and moved on to The University of Texas, Houston, where UT’s School of Nursing ended up building the Epicenter Project.

Williams figured she’d go back into administration, but soon people hoping to develop green buildings of their own began calling on her. They’d all been watching the Epicenter Project, had seen it go down in flames, and wanted to hire her as a consultant, to make sure they avoided the traps that killed her project.

“It was like, ‘Why did you fail?’” she says now, laughing. “‘How can we avoid failing like you did?’”

Williams began serving on the USGBC board, representing education, in 1996. She eventually served as vice chair of USGBC for seven years, became the second U.S. representative on the WGBC in 2004, and was then voted president of that organization. She served in that post for three years until she termed out in February 2007. She continues to serve in various roles with both organizations.

While the collapse of Epicenter moved Williams and the USGBC on to bigger and better things, it also moved them out of Montana.

“Montana wasn’t exactly a hotbed of development,” Williams says. All the developers and architects that had come to Bozeman were from urban areas and saw these places, with their high-density living, access to public transportation and sewage systems, as the place where green building would be the most valuable.

And Montana wasn’t exactly cozy with the idea of green building or green anything else at that time. In Flathead County, local logging politics of the mid- and late-1990s prompted a shock jock radio host to coin the term “green Nazis,” a harsher analog to Rush Limbaugh’s “environmentalist wackos.”

But beyond Montana, the concept of greenness was becoming chic among prominent liberals.

Leonard DiCaprio bought his Prius, Al Gore made An Inconvenient Truth and put together Live Earth, and corporations involved in some of the world’s least green industries, like British Petroleum, tried to glom onto the green image.

As head of the WGBC, Williams says, she resisted the idea of greenness as a political and social statement.

“That’s why we don’t have Al Gore as a spokesman for the U.S. Green Building Council,” she says. “He would love to be, but we’re not an environmental group. We’re an industry group that works hard to improve the industry. We don’t need an environmentalist as a leader, we need industry as the leader.”

The GBC has also avoided help from the federal government.

“Clinton was the first president when the USGBC and LEED was being developed, so the government wanted to be real supportive, and we were like no, no, no, no, no, let this organization develop its standards, and stay away,” Williams says. “Because what would have happened? They would have dumped it the minute Clinton left.”

Williams says that when all the politics and ego are stripped away, green emerges as an ethic that Montanans already embrace.

“If you take away the political discussion, get Al Gore out of the picture, and you really look at what green building and sustainability is, it’s very conservative,” she says. “It’s for people like me who aren’t tree-huggers. I cared about the high cost of utility bills.”

But the rest of the country may not see it that way yet.

An article written by Kate Sheppard and posted on the MSN Stop Global Warming website, which works in partnership with Gore’s, sums up both Montana’s view of the green movement and the outsider’s view of Montana well.

“Ever wonder what the greenest place is in all the United States?” Sheppard writes. “While images of a grass-roofed yurt occupied by back-to-the-landers in rural Montana might spring to mind, it’s really quite the opposite. While we might note them for their density and smog, the greenest places in the United States are our urban areas.”

In the years since MSU’s Epicenter Project imploded, Montana, and especially high-growth areas like the Flathead, have become hotbeds for development.

And in the Flathead, of all places, local builders, developers and architects advancing the cause of green building seem to have shouldered their way across the valley floor overnight, like mushrooms.

Williams says the people leading the green building movement today tend to fall into two categories: baby boomers who want to leave a legacy, and young idealists looking to make a positive mark.

Most members of the Flathead Green Builders Guild fall into the latter category.

On Sept. 15, the Guild held its first meeting, with about 12 representatives from various aspects of the building trades. One of them, 29-year-old Marty Beale, is in the process of building two green homes. One, in Kila, will be the first home to sell solar energy to the Flathead Electric Cooperative. The other, just northwest of Whitefish, will be the first to sell back to the Lincoln Electric Cooperative.

Marty Beale, owner of Mindful Designs and a member of the newly formed Flathead Green Builders Guild, is building two homes that will be the first to sell solar electricity into the Lincoln and Flathead Electric Cooperatives. Photo by Paul Peters.
Marty Beale, owner of Mindful Designs and a member of the newly formed Flathead Green Builders Guild, is building two homes that will be the first to sell solar electricity into the Lincoln and Flathead Electric Cooperatives. Photo by Paul Peters.

Rick Stern and Val Edwards own the Kila home, which they hope, with its combination of passive solar heating, solar panels and straw bale insulation, will essentially be energy neutral—taking in as much electricity from the grid as it sells back.

Stern is a former director of the Missoula Urban Demonstration Project, better known as MUD, a nonprofit whose mission is to teach sustainable living practices. With his home as a model, Stern hopes to launch Lost Prairie Rural Demonstration Project, a rural analog to MUD.

“It’s important to share what I’ve learned,” Stern says.

Nick Fullerton, a Kalispell architect, recently designed a show home in San Diego that received the second highest LEED score ever.

But the most ambitious project by far has been initiated by Doug Averill in Bigfork.

It’s a Thursday morning in August and Averill’s lanky figure saunters across the dining room of his dude ranch, Flathead Lake Lodge. He’s 10 minutes late. There’s a seat waiting for him near the head of a long wooden table, but he pulls out a chair at the end, until urged to sit near the reporter’s tape recorder. He is, after all, the impetus for the interview in progress. Even then, the soft-spoken man’s recorded voice is nearly lost in the clamor of vacationing families eating breakfast.
The Saddlehorn development will sit directly above Bigfork, yet only two homes in the development will be visible from town.

But behind his big glasses and quiet mien is a force that makes things happen. It’s a trait that surfaces when he’s in command of a horse, and all that muscle speeding him around the corral bends to his unspoken will.

Right now, he’s wrangled together Dr. Kath Williams, Britain-based green investment company Low Carbon Accelerator Ltd., and some local friends to help him develop a new community in the hills south of Bigfork.

Saddlehorn, Averill says, got started about three years ago when he discovered that 440 acres of property on the ridge top that dominates the southern view from Bigfork had been sold to a developer. That developer, Averill says, was known for building big, and zoning on the property would have allowed him to plant 1,200 condos on the ridge.

“We panicked and thought, if this happens, it’ll ruin the character of Bigfork,” Averill says.

Averill decided he had to find a way to purchase the property, which, besides dominating Bigfork’s southern view, borders 2,000 acres Averill has owned and maintained as open space for horse tours from the lodge. It also borders another 220 acres of open space currently owned by PacifiCorp, which Citizens for a Better Bigfork has an option to purchase.

The immediate problem Averill faced was the property’s new owner, who, Averill says, wanted a price that matched what he’d get if he developed the property to its fullest potential. Averill didn’t have the money, and realized that in order to attract investors, he’d have to do some sort of development.

So in 2005 he and his friend Jim Frizzell started drawing up plans f
or Saddlehorn. Their goal was to create something nearly invisible from Bigfork that would fit in with the town culturally, and have a small footprint on the land and local water resources. But the word “green” hadn’t entered their minds.

“In thinking about it culturally, we ended up with a different thinking for the floor plan,” Frizzell says, “and the effect is, it’s smaller, higher-quality, and it’s green.”

“It had nothing to do with green,” Averill

In other words, they weren’t trying to go green, it just turned out that what was good for the community was also good for the environment.

“We then tried to find deep pockets to help us do this,” Averill says. “We had three different developers, and we worked about a year with each one. And they courted us all along, said, ‘oh we love this plan, we love the low density…’ And then, in the end, about the last two weeks, it was well, ‘let’s just do those ridges, you’ll make so much money you won’t care.’ One by one we turned them away.”

Then, last winter, a regular guest of the Flathead Lake Lodge put the team in touch with Low Carbon Accelerator, a British company that funds projects “that will deliver immediate reductions in carbon dioxide emissions,” according to its website.

The company, Averill says, invested in Saddlehorn, and also shared research on ways of increasing efficiency for the development.

Not long after Williams finished her term as president of the WGBC, she got a call from the Bozeman-based marketing firm Averill and Frizzell had hired to help them sell Saddlehorn. They wanted to know if the development could qualify as a LEED neighborhood, a designation that, until that point, had been granted only in urban settings. The marketing firm sent Williams the standards Averill and Frizzell had drawn up for Saddlehorn.

When Williams first read the standards, she says, “Honestly, I laughed.”

The standards, she says, were so high she didn’t think they’d be able to realistically stick to them.

“My concern was that this was going to be impossible,” she says. “A lot of the places I see, they say they’re going to do all this green stuff, and then they don’t, and that drives me crazy. So when I saw these standards, I said, ‘There’s no way, this is too good to be true, I’ve got to meet these people.’”

At the time she didn’t know anything about the Averill family.

Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge has been a Bigfork fixture for 60 years, and the Averill family has lived in Bigfork since the 1920s. Doug Averill was a key player in developing Bigfork’s growth policies over the years, he’s developed the only Nature Conservancy-approved logging method for use on the 2,000-acre family forest, and he practices sustainable ranching.

“This is their lifestyle,” Williams says she discovered of Averill. “This isn’t something they’re adopting for marketing purposes.”

But what finally convinced her to get involved was that locals told her they trusted Averill.

“You never hear that,” she says. “You never hear anywhere else, ‘We trust the developer.’ That doesn’t happen.”

So even though she hadn’t wanted to take on any more work, she got on board.

So what makes Saddlehorn green?

Averill has already used his Nature Conservancy-approved method for thinning and clearing the 320 homesites, only two of which will be visible from Bigfork. In fact, the most prominent knoll in Saddlehorn, the one where the biggest trophy home would have been plunked down for the largest premium, has been set aside as parkland. Overall, 55 percent of the development has been set aside as open space.
photo by Paul Peters
Left to right: Dr. Kath Williams, Jim Frizzell and Doug Averill. Williams, who was president of the World Green Building Council until her term ended in February, is helping Frizzell and Averill meet the green goals they’ve set for their development.

The roads in Saddlehorn, which were recently cut into the hillside, are seven feet narrower than most roads in the Flathead, which makes them nearly invisible from Bigfork. They will likely be covered by a permeable pavement that allows water to naturally percolate back into the soil. All construction materials will be nontoxic, recycled wherever possible, and, along with labor, will be sourced within 500 miles of the site. The homes will be insulated at more than two times the average U.S. home, and will use the most efficient combined heat and power units on the market. There is also talk of a biomass plant, geothermal energy and ground source heat pumps.

Each home will come with an electric car, and paths throughout the community will encourage walking. And the size of the homes will be limited to 4,000 square feet.

“That’s raising eyebrows everywhere,” Williams says. “The pressure is going to be on to build a 12,000 or 15,000 square footer. You know it’s going to happen. Somebody’s going to come there, and want one of those fabulous lots, and say I want 12,000 square feet. And they’re going to have to tell them ‘Go jump in the lake.’”

For all their work, though, Williams says the developers won’t be able to obtain LEED certification for Saddlehorn. LEED, Williams says, was developed for cities. And LEED communities are currently required to be infill projects, in urban settings, tied to urban infrastructure.

Instead of trying to meet LEED requirements, Williams hopes to turn Saddlehorn into a pilot project for the GBC so that they can learn how to build green homes in rural settings.

The USGBC, Williams says, needs to regionalize their program more, and set standards for issues like the migration patterns of animals through developments, river access, conserving water, and dealing with invasive species. She thinks Saddlehorn is just the development to pilot ways of dealing with these issues. And she’s got enough confidence in Averill to believe that the project won’t go the way of Epicenter.

While Saddlehorn and the Green Builders Guild homes may be in Montana, they’re not designed for the average Montanan. Undeveloped lots in the community start at about $250,000; lots with a home start at $699,000.

Troy Denman, one of the builders founding the Flathead Green Builders Guild, wants to build an affordable green neighborhood in the Flathead.

“We’re trying right now, really hard,” he says. “That’s been my main goal.”

He had hoped that a new 30-lot development he was working on west of Kalispell would get down to the $230,000 to $250,000 range.

“Right now I’m ending up at about $270,000 to $280,000,” he says, for a 1,800 sq. ft. home with a detached garage and unfinished basement.

Even Stern and Edwards’ Kila home, with its straw bale insulation, cost $225,000, and that doesn’t include the land.

An affordable home for a family of four in the Flathead making an average income is $131,000, based on mortgage payments amounting to one third of the family’s income. Statewide, an affordable home is about $120,000.

But the average home in Flathead County costs about $250,000, and members of the Green Builders Guild estimate it costs them 10 to 20 percent more to build green.

Green, like organic or hybrid, has in some ways become a product upgrade for the wealthy. The green home concept has, in fact, collided with conspicuous consumption in recent years, with sometimes hilarious results. Like the 15,000-square-foot monstrosity of a “green home” being promoted in south Florida by Frank McKinney, who calls himself a real estate “artist.”

Williams acknowledges the extra cost of building green, and the perception that “going green” is an indulgence for the wealthy.

“Ten years ago we went to the Oprah Winfrey Show and proposed a green goddess show,” she says. “We wanted to put on 10 women that were working in green, and her producer said, ‘Green is a country club issue.’ They wouldn’t do the program.”

Since then, Williams says, USGBC has been helping put together green affordable housing developments, and green, inexpensive, manufactured homes.

Eight months ago, she says, the Oprah Winfrey Show approached the original group of women who were “working in green,” wanting to produce the same show it had denied 10 years earlier.

“Because it’s now for affordable housing, and low-income people need green building more than anybody,” Williams says. “They need energy efficiency, they need good materials more than anybody. So now Oprah’s looking at it as, ‘This is an affordability issue, it’s public housing…’”

As far as the Flathead, Williams and members of the local Green Builders Guild say that as more green projects get going, each project gets cheaper.

“It’s only going to become more possible as the trend gets bigger and bigger and bigger,” says Troy Denman.

That’s the hope of Williams and the Green Builders Guild. As more green building comes to the Flathead, economies of scale will drive prices down.

They all point to a simple product: house paint. Not too long ago, it cost twice as much to buy green paint, which emits lower amounts of unhealthy gasses over time, and it was hard to find. Now you can buy it at Home Depot, and it costs about the same as regular house paint.

They say that in time, the price of green materials will fall, and their effectiveness will improve to the point that it’s actually cheaper to build green, because of the quick payback in energy savings.

Green building is heady stuff if you let it play out in your imagination. At the very minimum, picture the possibility of a Montana where every hillside in private ownership doesn’t get covered in monuments to the owner’s success.
photo by Paul Peters
Marty Beale, owner of Mindful Designs and a member of the newly formed Flathead Green Builders Guild, is building two homes that will be the first to sell solar electricity into the Lincoln and Flathead Electric Cooperatives.

Picture new housing developments becoming less and less destructive, requiring fewer trees to be cut down, less coal burned heating and cooling them, less gasoline burned transporting building materials.

Ultimately, picture homes like Stern and Edwards’ that create as much energy as they use, that become their own power stations. It sounds like a pipe dream, but Williams notes that in England, all homes are required to be carbon neutral by 2011.

Looking back to 1994, Williams laughs.

“They were right to call it the Epicenter,” she says now, noting that despite its failure, that one building helped propel a movement.

Now, 13 years later, the echoes of that project are bouncing back home to Montana.

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