The Greening of Southie (2008)

Directors: Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“Green is the new black,” has become a popular phrase these days. Of course, greenbacks have always been chic. But as a decades-long recycler and environmentalist, I’m both heartened and a little amused by the sudden sexiness of ecogreen. What are the odds that in our current, celebrity-obsessed culture, young people would make room for a wonky eco-crusader like Al Gore. Whatever the reason, a new generation is pushing the boundaries of ecofriendliness that my less global, less technological generation could barely begin to comprehend.

The Greening of Southie takes us right to the bleeding edge of green architecture by chronicling the design and construction of the Macallen Building, an 11-story condominium development that is hoping to be the first such residence in Boston to receive a gold LEED rating. The site for the revolutionary building is in South Boston, a working-class neighborhood that has undergone gentrification in recent years. The Macallen Building is perhaps the ultimate break with the past in an area undergoing revitalization through the gradual and uncharacteristic razing of a part of a city that identifies strongly with its own history.

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The first culture clash comes when the construction crews are briefed on the nature of the project they’ll be working on. The veteran plumbers, ironworkers, tile layers, and others don’t really understand the philosophy behind green building. As the film progresses, it will be obvious that even young members of the team don’t understand what green really means.

For Tim Pappas, a 33-year-old man working in the family construction business, green building is both a responsibility and a challenge. He has set himself the high goal of a gold rating; each step of the project is planned with the help of an LEED certification consultant to reach the number of points needed for that prestigious designation.
And just how does a building qualify as green? The criteria outline areas in which a building can score points, with a minimum of 39 points needed for a gold rating:

• Sustainable sites (14 points)
• Water efficiency (5 points)
• Energy and atmosphere (17 points)
• Materials and resources (13 points)
• Indoor environmental quality (15 points)
• Innovation and design process (5 points)

The documentary offers title cards of specific strategies taken with the Macallen Building and their point values. For example, dual-flush toilets that allow for full or half flushes are discussed almost to the point of absurdity, but their water efficiency can add up to more than 1 million gallons of water saved each year for the entire building. The building will also have a green roof—literally—as materials are used that not only seal the roof, but also allow for planting. The older workers who are finishing the roof say a rooftop garden is a nice thing if it works, but that it will be hell if the roof leaks and they have to come back to fix it. Seeing all of the layers and the labor-intensiveness of creating such a space emphasizes the practicality of that view.

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In fact, the biggest problem with green building is that many of the ecofriendly products that are used are relatively untested and reveal problems only after they’ve been put to work. The wheatboard used for the apartment cabinetry is found to swell with changing weather conditions. Pappas must consider whether to replace all of the cabinets or simply cut the problem units to fit. A flooring adhesive that does not contain the high concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used in ordinary glue completely degrades. All of the bamboo floors must be pulled up and reordered. The shipment from China comes in with wildly mismatched coloring and must be returned. (As someone with a bamboo floor, I was dismayed to see how fragile it is, developing dents and scratches that a hardwood or composite floor would have resisted. I wonder how the floors in the Macallen Building are faring.)

The contractor wonders about all the energy used to transport materials from all over the world and thinks maybe that should be factored into the green rating. A helpful graphic on which materials came from where, and the distances and means of transportation used, put this part of green construction into perspective.

However, I don’t wish to emphasize all the negatives. It’s clear that reusing building materials has almost entirely net-positive effects. A Trinidadian laborer salvages tiles that were to be discarded and uses them in his own home—not only good for his budget but evidence of the developing “reduce, reuse, recycle” mentality awakening in him. One woman who thought green was “dorky” became so sold on the idea that she had a construction recycling truck tattooed to her ass.

One fascinating part of the film shows a Bolivian lumber company harvesting hardwoods at a rate of only one or two trees per hectare. It’s important to realize that the United States really isn’t a leader in resource conservation, that smaller, less economically diversified countries are taking the renewal of their natural resources very seriously.

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The story has a wistful quality to it as well. A single yuppie who grew up in Southie decides to buy one of the condos. He had been away from Boston for a long time and hadn’t realized that the neighborhood had become so young, single, and well-to-do—a perfect fit for his current lifestyle, even as he points to a family portrait showing him as one in a family of 10, typical of Southie 30 years ago and longer. The owner of Skip’s Barber Shop sees the progress around him as the return of a fixed-up neighborhood but certainly a threatening shadow over his working-class building and business. The long-time residents of Southie, particularly renters, are being priced out of their homes, and none of the workers who built the Macallen Building will ever be able to afford to live in it.

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Still, someone has to go first. The Macallen Building is beautifully designed and as sustainable as an early entry into green construction can be. As the green market continues to develop—and it is definitely on the rise—materials will be improved, costs will come down, and the environment should benefit. To a person, the people Cheney and Ellis interviewed are proud of what they’ve made and look forward to a greener world—one they helped get going. l

  • Rick spoke:
    30th/03/2009 to 5:09 pm

    I like this piece.
    But the mention of residents being priced out of their neighborhood reminds me of the re-gentrification going on in a lot of cities. The one I’m most familiar with is Atlanta, where the yuppies are moving inside the perimeter, paying 300k and upwards for cottages, fixing them up, driving up the property values, and making it impossible for the current residents to remain. How green is that?

  • Greg F spoke:
    30th/03/2009 to 10:17 pm

    Being priced out of a neighborhood really scares me. My wife and I rent because of severe financial problems and thus can’t afford to buy. But this area gets more well-to-do with each passing month and if we get booted out we can’t afford to deal with a move, new deposits, etc.
    On the good side this is one of the greenest areas I’ve ever known and we recycle practically anything and everything we can. Hopefully all this can start to happen for everyone, not just the well-off.

  • Joe Valdez spoke:
    31st/03/2009 to 1:44 pm

    My girlfriend is a green roof consultant in L.A. She gave me a tour of the LEED certified BP gas station where she works, which includes a restroom that has been “green roofed”.
    My question to her after seeing a green roof was, “Why aren’t more people doing this?” You keep your building warmer in the winter, cooler in the summer, reduce maintenance costs over the long run and have the coolness factor of having a small ecosystem on your roof.
    Her answer was: “Cost.” So the challenge for the eggheads isn’t how to build a green building or green car that will appeal to Hobbits. That’s preaching to the Shire. The challenge has to be how to make this stuff fiscally appealing to John Q. Capitalist.
    Excellent review. Is this movie available on DVD yet?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    31st/03/2009 to 1:53 pm

    Yes, it’s all about cost. But also about developing green materials that work. The low-VOC adhesive was a disaster. I believe a dvd is available.

  • Bill_Marston_LEED-AP spoke:
    23rd/04/2009 to 11:51 am

    Marilyn et al –
    COST: some things cost more, some cost less but a well designed LEED-rated building can make LEED Silver at no cost premium over conventional buildings. Even cost premium items will come down as they penetrate the market and competition emerges.
    TRUE COST: the capital cost of constructing a building is a tiny percentage of the cost of OWNING and OPERATING it over its lifespan (obviously varies with type of bldg). If a “green building” can be operated at just 10% less than a conventional one imagine how much faster that construction loan can be paid off, for example…
    CARBON FOOTPRINT of MATERIALS: You failed to mention that the majority of materials were undoubtedly domestic, and a moderate portion of those are SPECIFIED to be harvested/mined, refined & fabricated within 500 miles of the site.
    LOW IMPACT MATERIALS: LEED scores for responsibly produced, low-impact materials. So that Bolivian forest you mentioned might well have sought a third-party certification on its operations and goods produced, such as the best one – Forest Stewardship Council.
    QUALITY of CONSTRUCTION: new materials have ALWAYS been installed successfully when the installers understand the conditions under which they must be handled. This may not have happened w the adhesive and/or wheatstraw cabinetry – so it might not have been the fault of the materials per se…
    HOPE THIS HELPS! I am so glad there are film reviewers pursuing the greening of our world.
    Bill Marston, LEED Accredited Professional
    Trainer, University Professor, Advocate
    Philadelphia

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/04/2009 to 12:24 pm

    Bill – Thanks for stopping by. The information you provided is helpful in evaluating the feasibility of more widespread LEED-certified building. Despite the emphasis on problems, I do believe very heartily in green building. It’s important for people to know what they’re getting, what it requires, and what they can expect of it before the starting the project, as you point out. It was a good thing that local builders were hired for the job, even if it meant more labor and materials costs, because hiring locally is as important to the social environment as buying local materials is to the carbon footprint. I think Tim Pappas is to be commended for his commitment to the community as well as the planet.

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