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Green building fosters sustainability, jobs, training for contractors

For construction project manager and educator Steve George, “green building” incorporates economic and ecological sustainability, as well as social equity.

Steve George

Steve George

It’s a natural outgrowth of his upbringing.  His father, a biologist, instilled in him an understanding of the web of life and a love of the outdoors.

“I learned from my conservative conservationist father that if you move one strand in the web of life, every strand moves,” Steve said. 

While many ecologically minded people wonder about choices of building materials—resources depleted, toxins emitted in manufacture and cost effectiveness—he said sustainability and equity criteria are the most important factors, because other choices are about weighing trade-offs.

“Green building expects people to choose construction and energy use that makes sense financially,” said Steve, a member or St. Augustine Catholic Parish in Spokane, through which he is active in the Spokane Alliance.  

Through the alliance’s Sustainable Living Wage Jobs Research and Action Team, this contractor, who moved to Spokane five years ago to be near family, is now making a living by training builders in green construction.
In energy use, he is optimistic about the market-based concept of trading “carbon credits.”

When a plant burns coal to make electricity, it pumps carbon into the environment.  If other companies grow trees or reduce carbon production through solar energy or wind power, they produce carbon credits. 

For example, Avista’s buck-a-block program for consumers to purchase wind power encourages construction of more wind-generating farms, he explained.

“Progressive companies should be able to sell carbon credits to encourage replacing power produced by coal,” he said, noting that the credits are part of the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty.

“Institutions can buy power futures from wind-generating farms.  The cost of generating wind power is fixed—building towers, distribution lines and substations.  It’s possible to sell future power contracts, which cannot happen with commodity sources such as natural gas, oil or coal.  The more demand there is on commodities, the higher the price,” he said.

Steve grew up in Eastern Oregon, graduated from high school in Pullman and from the University of Washington in 1972. 

He started his career in the purchasing department for the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle in 1976, when it was building a new hospital.  His connection with the construction work led him into contracting.

Because his wife’s family is in Spokane and his parents are still in Pullman, he decided to dosubcontracting in Spokane. After Sept. 11, the construction industry declined, and he was laid off. 

The common interest revealed during a jobs team meeting spurred him to enter into partnership with Jim Wavada, executive director of the Resource Efficient Building and Remodeling (REBAR) Council, a nonprofit organization that developed the concept and provides the content for “Build Green: 360-degree Training” through Community Colleges of Spokane for architects, general contractors, people in other building trades and building owners.

“We teach building technologies to train new professionals and trades people,” he said.

In winter and spring classes on “How Green Is My Building?” owners and operators of buildings learn about basic building science and sick-building syndrome related to heat and air conditioning systems, efficiency principles, energy audits, mold and mildew prevention, and resource conservation.

Along with his upbringing, Steve said, the Pacific Northwest Catholic bishops’ “Pastoral Letter on the Columbia River Watershed” has influenced his environmental perspectives.

That document informed testimony at the Spokane Alliance’s assembly four years ago when the Bonneville Power Administration agreed to use local suppliers and hire local workers in building the Bell-Coulee transmission line, which was just finished.  Of the 110 workers hired, 90 percent were local, Steve said.

“The bishops’ letter was key to winning Bonneville’s support,” he said.
Led by research for the jobs team into promoting green building and sustainable, living-wage jobs related to new school buildings, Steve is now working to assist nonprofits in economically feasible energy-conserving projects that lower both energy use and costs of operation.

Because energy rates in the region are low, compared with rates in other areas of the country, it’s harder to make environmentally sustainable changes meet the economic bar, Steve noted.

“New sustainably built buildings, however, consume 20 to 40 percent less energy and 20 percent less water.  They have a better indoor environmental quality,” he said.  “Early studies show that they last 50 percent longer and productivity inside is enhanced.”

For example, in new school buildings with windows to let daylight in, students have 20 to 25 percent better scores in reading and math tests, in contrast with students in schools built in the 1970s and 1980s with few or no windows, he reported.

“Daylight reduces the electricity load, provides the full spectrum of light and engages students with the outside world—giving a change of focal length that makes students more alert,” Steve explained.

“Carbon dioxide monitors and ventilation of heavily used areas reduce sick-building syndrome, by allowing conditioned—heated or cooled—air to flow out rather than accumulate.”

Steve told of teaching 11 people for two hours in the upstairs hall at Liberty Park United Methodist Church in Spokane.  At 90 minutes, the carbon dioxide level reached the point that people were drowsy.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of opening a window or door to allow fresh air to circulate in and out, he said.

When the sky is bright, electric lights dim and electric meters slow down in new buildings.

Architects, contractors, estimators and project managers will face increased demand to produce buildings that deliver these kinds of productivity and water/energy conservation, Steve said. In Washington state, the superintendent of public instruction has proposed green-building sustainable schools standards.  The Spokane School District’s Lincoln Heights Elementary replacement project has just received a $300,000 grant—supported by the Spokane Alliance—to evaluate those standards.

The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership for Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program has certified 118 buildings as green.  Another 1,100 buildings are registered for certification.

Along with promoting energy efficiency, fresh air, quality construction and green building, Steve said the alliance’s jobs team seeks to create construction jobs, so it negotiated the school district’s commitment to hire 15 percent of the workers as apprentices and train them in construction jobs.
“Construction is a growth area.  It uses materials that need to be manufactured, creating more jobs,” he said.  “Many people in such building trades as carpentry, sheet metal and electricity are retiring, so there is space to bring in new people as apprentices.

“In addition, green projects use as many materials as possible from within the region to reduce pollution and transportation costs,” he added.
Steve feels his faith community has provided inspiration, enthusiasm, support, ideas and creativity as it connects faith to this work.

“In this work, we collaborate with people with whom we may differ politically.  There is a groundswell of people from diverse backgrounds with a common interest in making the world better for their children and grandchildren in tangible, concrete ways.

“This work is more than talking faith.  It is a practice.  People working together are more spiritually grounded,” he said.  “The practice requires us to chop wood and carry water, with an attention and focus on faith.  If we do that, it’s prayer.”

For information, call 532-1688.

Copyright © January 2005
- The Fig Tree