Slideshow: Constructing Solutions
Making a building is a loud undertaking. Drills whine and hammers strike up an odd beat, quickening at the end of each sequence to drive the nails flush. Compressors kick, their motors changing pitch. The low light of a gray day is just enough to illuminate the dust. Finishing time at the emerging store - the new Eureka Natural Foods building on Broadway - calls for lifts to lengthen the reach of men installing large lighting fixtures. The final touches of many hands brush over the building.
Across the room, a forklift is prepared to lower another load from upstairs. Intermittently, near posts and walls, bags of trash, or not, aren't very full. The can for lunchtime trash is obvious, with to-go cups spilling over. Afraid to look up or down I only barely trust the professionals to see me safely through this danger zone. Carefully, I navigate my path through the room's center to avoid any tools, scraps or sharp objects over my head.
I came to scavenge the trash, to uncover how the output flows from this new construction site. Looking around, a pile of wood on a pallet is the centerpiece of the empty floor. At this site, Pacific Builders uses a bag and pile system. For small debris, clear bags hold recycling and black bags are for garbage. In the lot, piles of concrete, wood and steel await recycling. Inside the fence, alongside the superintendent's trailer, building supplies are scattered into piles.
"Things are pretty well-maintained, recycling wise," says job superintendent Chris Carlotti of Pacific Builders. "It's an ongoing process to keep everyone up to speed." He's down for it, though. He thinks it's great that their scraps find a home instead of going to a landfill.
His assistant, Darl Miller, says, "When it first started it was hard, but now we know."
Construction workers aren't famous for recycling. The only "green" they are typically after is their paycheck. But the trend is shifting nationally. Some local industry professionals figured that out, and the paychecks are fattening up, too.
This recycling effort is part of a larger movement. Green building is a new buzz word in the industry, but soon will become a standard. In 1989, the state of California passed the Integrated Waste Management Act (Assembly Bill 939). This legislation required all jurisdictions to divert half of their solid waste by the year 2000. Arcata made its numbers in 2003, but Eureka lags with a 35 percent diversion rate. We're doing all right locally, but the California Integrated Waste Management Board recently targeted construction and demolition waste as a portion of the waste stream that needs attention. They want municipalities to have a program.
Construction and demolition waste accounts for nearly a quarter of the waste stream. Steve Salzman, a project manager with the Eureka engineering firm Winzler & Kelly, says that 2.8 pounds of construction and demolition waste is produced per person every day. Louise Jeffery, project manager for the Humboldt County Waste Management Authority, estimates that there is a little over 100,000 tons of construction and demolition debris produced in the county annually.
The good news is that the local building industry appears more than ready to tackle this problem head-on. Several contractors, designers, architects and engineering firms are already incorporating recycling programs into their projects. More and more retailers are stepping up and providing eco-friendly building materials, some of them recycled from the very material that builders used to dump in the trash. And the industry as a whole is getting closer to embracing the notion that going green is not only good for the planet - it just makes good business sense.
According to a "waste character-ization" study released by the state waste management board in June of last year, nearly three-quarters of construction and demolition waste is recyclable. The conclusion - diverting this trash from the waste stream is possible, feasible and beneficial. As of now, diversion is an option, but because of landfill space and cost constraints, it may become a requirement. That's why the newly formed group known as "Humboldt Plan It Green" devoted its first local industry conference to the topic of green building last week.
Plan It Green - a project of Arcata's Center for Environmental Economic Development - is comprised of founding members Steve Salzman, his Winzler & Kelly colleague Robert Holmlund and Jennifer Fuller, co-owner of Organic House Construction, among others. They started the group about three months ago, after seeing the local demand for an industry-wide green building alliance.
A green building program might include workshops, training, guidelines and certification systems. The U.S. Green Building Council and Build it Green in Berkeley have certification systems to set standards for the movement. For commercial buildings, there is the Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification. The new facility for the Arcata Community Recycling Center in Samoa is shooting for the gold certification level, and the new behavioral sciences building at Humboldt State is going for silver. Build it Green created guidelines for the residential sector, and a certification system based on those guidelines is about four months old.
The "Green Team's" goals are less lofty, but since they're aimed directly at Humboldt County they could have a much greater local impact. In short, they'd like to serve as a center for intelligence and training on all the latest green construction methods, then come up with a strategy for seeing them implemented locally. Fuller said the primary goal of Plan it Green is to "develop or adopt a green building program and then try to get counties and various municipalities to adopt it and provide incentives for contractors and developers to move in that direction."
"We do not have a C&D (construction and demolition) plan in this county, and that is a serious issue," Fuller said. As it stands, Humboldt County lacks a supportive infrastructure to implement a more sustainable way of dealing with building waste. The county doesn't have a re-use storehouse, a scrap lumber handler or a full-diversion demolition company.
That's one of the reasons that Plan It Green chose to address construction waste at its first conference, which was an all-day event held at Eureka's Wharfinger Building. Green building addresses any number of topics, but responsible waste disposal is certainly among the most urgent. With landfills perpetually nearing capacity, Fuller sees green building as inevitable. But, she said, "It's better to happen voluntarily at a slow pace than forced to all at once."
The good news is that many local companies have already found their way into green construction and demolition on their own. With a little push, and some assistance from government, the programs they've already developed could go much farther.
Pacific Builders of Arcata, the firm handling the construction at the new Eureka Natural Foods site, is one firm high-jumping the minimum. They're a general contractor with about 20 employees, and do commercial and multi-family dwellings. The firm's diversion rate fluctuates from 40 to 92 percent, depending on the project and materials that leave the site. Marianne Bithell documents the waste diversion for each project as a project management assistant.
Time is money in the business world, and managers may be concerned about investing time to sort out waste materials for recycling. But if sorting procedures are set at the beginning of a construction or demolition job, then the cost effectiveness is no different than loading a truck for the dump, Bithell said. A resource management plan requires contractors to track the weight of materials, where they are sent and the cost. This additional half-hour of paperwork per week, Bithell estimates, is not a loss. The catalog of data is a resource for business managers to track success and savings. Reports of diversion rates and monetary savings can be made to clients and local governments. They estimate a savings in disposal costs of over $150,000 in three years.
"You're already doing this, it's just a matter of tracking," she said. Her resource management plan includes a checklist for demolition materials where a quantity is listed and whether the material will be reused/recycled by the homeowner or contractor. She also tracks materials with a spreadsheet that lists the material type and its destination. There is also a recycling planning sheet and a reuse log. "On-site separation is possible. It's just a matter of changing behavior and educating laborers so they know what to do," Bithell said.
It's a type of triage. Some things must die in the dump, but most can be reincarnated for an afterlife of continued productivity. Lumber can be chipped. Metal, plastic sheeting and cardboard can be recycled. Concrete and asphalt can be crushed for driveways or sidewalks. Most materials that can't be used on site can be sold or disposed of for free, or at least less expensively than transfer center fees.
Kernen Construction, for example, charges $79 per ton to contractors to send construction debris to the landfill. Hawthorne Street charges about $88 per ton and the station in McKinleyville charges $140. But tonnages can be reduced if contractors pre-sort brick, concrete, glass and asphalt. Unless homeowners want to use old toilets as planters, Kernen will save us all the eyesore and crush them, too. They'll take this stuff for free because they sell the resulting gravel. There is hope among locals that in the future, materials such as drywall and roofing can also be recycled instead of dumped. Drywall alone is about 2,000 tons per year in the county, Louise Jeffery of the county waste authority said.
"There's not much you can't sort out," says Bruce McIntosh, a Kernen project manager. The problem, he said, is that "as a rule, it's not economical."
Kernen also recycles steel, and so does Arcata Scrap and Salvage. After 35 years of business, they finally got a baler running last week. This new addition allows them to take more materials, such as sheet metal, tin roofing, car body metal, flashing and other metal under 1/8 of an inch thick. Bonnie Connor took over the business after her husband passed away a year ago, and is excited about the new baler.
"It helps us clean up the yard and move forward," she said.
Where do these materials end up? At places like the Alternative Building Center, which is scheduled to open in Eureka later this year. This store will offer Eco Timber and cork flooring, no-VOC paint, clay plaster, wax wood finishes, recycled stone counter tops and PaperStone that's made with recycled paper. (More and more people are using no-VOC paints, because volatile organic compounds release as gas from carpets, paints, finishes and other building materials, and remain trapped indoors.)
With these suppliers, contractors have the option of using more environmentally sound products that create the more efficient, "higher performance" buildings. When retrofitting, remodeling, constructing or demolishing, builders have some local diversion avenues, too. These choices are all voluntary, and many building experts say that's the way to go (as opposed to regulation).
Wednesday's Plan It Green conference was packed throughout the day. There were three sessions - about 140 people attended the first, geared toward city and county planning and building departments. It was about three times the number organizers expected. Even more people filtered in throughout the day, until the fire marshal stopped the flow of chairs.
Members of the Humboldt County Planning Commission and the City of Arcata Energy Commission, among others, were at the conference to show support. Jennifer Fuller said that the City of Arcata is very supportive of green building, and has shown its support in its Greenhouse Gas Reduction Plan.
Among government representatives, there was broad consensus that local municipalities would be wise to coordinate their green building standards. Fortuna, for example, has a policy for construction and demolition debris. The city recommends all building permit applicants to divert half of their waste and complete a resource management plan or report. Angie Woods, the compliance coordinator for the City of Fortuna, said at the conference that "it would make the most sense if all the cities and counties have the same green building policy - something that would work for all of Humboldt County."
Pacific Builders' Marianne Bithell agreed, because her company builds all over the county and working with one standard would ease operations. A policy or program may be blooming. In the meantime those doing it will stay on the green wagon.
The event's keynote speaker, Mark Richmond from Berkeley's Build it Green, suggested that green building is not about cutting costs, but about "cutting that trend." He described how the building industry, much like every other entity in a capitalist economy, is continually trying to cut costs to maximize profit. He suggested maximizing value instead. Green buildings should cost more, because they're better, he said. Green buildings are healthier which makes for happier and more productive inhabitants. Many green building practitioners call them "high performance buildings."
"You cannot compare green buildings by the square-foot, they're better. It's not a commodity," Fuller said.
Richmond just calls it better building. He's been talking about green building for 15 years and was a builder for eight years before that. He has helped small and large communities develop a green building program and guidelines, and he's observed what works and doesn't. He came here to educate, encourage and share his experience.
"I think things have value on their own," he said. He said that if planners, home owners and builders understand that they're building green out of self-interest, and they're getting a great value for their perceived cost, then they'll build green.
Some local folks understand that self interest. Since our trash is shipped to Medford, Ore., and most recyclables go at least that far, most waste is outsourced, but local entrepreneurs keep monetary and natural resources here. Another practitioner that recycles, fabricates, uses and supplies green building materials is Eric Almquist of Almquist Lumber. Almquist specializes in native hardwoods and flooring, much of which is cut at its own mill. The mill's dust collection system fills a 30-cubic-yard dumpster about every two weeks to send to a flake board plant, for reuse in particle board. The company grinds other waste wood into mulch, and allows it to age to decrease the acidity. This "waste" is then sold, saving and earning money.
With the mill and store, Almquist estimates that his company fills a two-yard garbage dumpster once a week. He recycles plastic wrap from deliveries, paper, packaging and beverage containers. Some of this work is done by Almquist himself, in his own truck. The Arcata Community Recycling Center collects his paper through its commercial paper pick up program.
Pacific Builders finished a new building for Almquist Lumber last year. The facility exceeds the mandated energy efficiency, and also includes other environmental and money-saving aspects. There is a radiant heat system in the floor and low-energy lighting in the vaulted warehouse. The H5 light fixtures are the most efficient on the market, Almquist said. Many lights in the store have a motion-detector option, so lights go off when not in use.
"You can pay extra money up-front for fixtures, but payback is forever," Almquist said.
The new Almquist store not only surpasses code, but also includes innovations that reflect the owner's ideals. The gate is adorned with saw blades from a long-gone mill - Ironside Mountain Metal Works salvaged the blades from Blue Lake Forest Products in Glendale. The panels in the gate are made of siding left over from the building's construction. The radiant heat system in the flooring is powered by a scrap-wood-fed furnace.
"We're big cheerleaders for `Think globally, act locally," Almquist said.
His store offers a line of green building materials such as bamboo flooring, Fiberon decking, formaldehyde-free fiberboard and SmartWood-certified lumber. Fiberon decking is a composite of recycled maple and virgin plastic. SmartWood is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, an independent organization. This lumber is monitored in the entire chain of custody from the managed forest to the mill, and some redwood comes from the Arcata Community Forest.
A representative of Almquist was at the conference as well as a representative of The Mill Yard. These companies want to supply green building materials to the area. Tanka Chase of The Mill Yard said that the demand for green products is growing, but it's challenging to get large companies to supply the small market of Humboldt County.
Paul Bias - Jennifer Fuller's husband, and her partner in Organic House Construction - said that he uses Almquist and The Mill Yard and he's found support for his projects.
"I've been impressed with what materials we've put in and used and the building departments have been open about it," he said. With his company, they've never had any problems implementing alternative materials. He also said that some companies carry green materials and don't know it, or don't publicize it. Joyce Plath, who is a building designer in Arcata, said that she knows of a store that carries recycled flooring, but doesn't say anything about it.
"It takes all of us working harder at it," Plath said. "It'd be great if we could let each other know what's offered where."
With the Plan it Green Conference opening the dialog, this infrastructure and support network may happen faster. Some locals are looking into buying a diesel grinder to process wood. The Arcata Community Recycling Center will open its Samoa site tentatively in July to facilitate residential curbside recycling. When this happens, depending on how the transition goes for residents who use the 1380 Ninth Street drop-off site, the center's Reusables Depot may have space to take more reusable construction material. (Mark Loughmiller, the executive director, explained that it's a possibility, but the center has dabbled in recovered wood before, and it wasn't a fast mover.)
Plan It Green will host workshops this year, probably one on energy and another on waste, and the Second Annual Plan It Green Conference will be held next January. With the large turnout, they plan to make it more of a trade show at a larger venue.
Steve Salzman, one of the Plan It Green organizers, is thrilled at the progress being made. "You can't predict the future, but you can create it," he said.
Cynthia Gilmer, who is relocating to Austin, Tex., graduated from Humboldt State with degrees in environmental science and journalism.