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West Coast Green
Jeremy Faludi, 24 Sep 07
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West Coast Green was this past weekend. It's a conference for the green residential building industry, and a huge one at that, far bigger and more hands-on than any green building conference I've yet seen. It's a sign that green building is going mainstream, in some very good ways: the exhibition hall was so full of vendors I lost count of the Structural Insulated Panel companies.

This kind of mainstreaming means improved choices in materials for architects and engineers. It also means more pre-packaged solutions in which the bugs are already worked out -- no need to hack your own solution from scratch.

And if you wanted a really pre-packaged solution, you could walk through Michelle Kaufmann's mkLotus green prefab home, sitting on the green across the street from the conference (and from San Francisco City Hall). I have to say, it was a great house, small and chic. I'd live in one.

Most of the keynotes and large session talks were great, with the usual complement of luminaries speaking, including our own Cameron Sinclair and Gil Friend, as well as Ray Anderson, Hunter Lovins, and Erin Brockovich. Some rising stars were present, like Van Jones (who we've mentioned before as someone to watch in the future). Google also had a surprisingly large presence, with speakers from the company sharing their wisdom, and a presence on the exhibition hall floor trying to convert everyone to using Sketchup. (I don't really understand the latter. Sure, architecture's industry-standard program, AutoCAD, has a lousy interface, but I can't imagine serious CAD work being done in Sketchup. Though maybe it'll be a useful design tool for interior designers or other non-technical types.)

In the smaller plenary sessions, the disadvantage of mainstreaming became clear: many of the talks were basic intro-level material, and didn't get interesting until the talk was done and the audience questions began. Some smaller talks were great, though, delving deeply into their subjects. And a couple of the exhibitors were on the fringes, with the ParkCycle showing up briefly outside.

A highlight of the conference was the announcement by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of the winners of the agency's Lifecycle Building Challenge -- a joint project between the EPA, the Building Materials Reuse Association, the American Institute of Architects, and West Coast Green. Awards ceremonies are rarely exciting, but the concept for the contest was a good one that I hadn't seen before: designing a building for disassembly and re-use. This is an important topic; as the awards announcement pointed out,

In the United States, buildings consume 60 percent of total materials flow (excluding food and fuel) and account for 33 percent of the solid waste stream. Building renovation and demolition accounts for 91 percent of the construction and demolition debris generated each year, while new construction accounts for only 9 percent. Between 2000 to 2030, 27 percent of existing buildings will be replaced and 50 percent of the total building stock will be constructed.

One of the winners was a Miller|Hull building in Seattle that "separates into four modules and can be moved by truck;" another was a renovation of the Haworth building in Holland, Michigan that reused or recycled 99 percent of the old material. The awards also included components, such as GreenZip tape, which lets builders disassemble drywall from walls rather than having to tear it down, and a concrete floor slab system that's modular and disassemblable, like 80/20.

Green building is still a niche, of course, even if it is growing at an explosive rate, as we were reminded at plenaries such as "How to Get Unusual Designs Approved" (which was excellent) and "Giving Consumers What They Don't Know They Want." But I can already see the scale of things like the International Builders Show off in the distant future for green building conferences. It will be interesting to see how the field changes as it heads in that direction.

Whoever runs West Coast Green has thought through what they're doing, with little touches that are absent at most events. The feedback forms weren't soulless bubble-forms, but instead more engaging and open-ended. There was a room set aside as a nap room, which more conferences and businesses should realize the value of. And there was a half-hour gap between every plenary session, so that when one session in one room went late, the schedule of all that followed didn't get thrown off. Why do most conferences never figure this out?

All in all, I'd call West Coast Green a big success. It will be interesting to see how it grows.

Image: flickr/Steve Rhodes

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