Waiting in the Rocks

A few miles from where I write these articles, around the other side of the mountain, there stands a house on the side of a granite slope. The house is multilevel in nature and it is notched into a hillside of solid rock.

By Ron Jones | March 31, 2001


E-mail Ron Jones at greenbuilder@juno.com.


A few miles from where I write these articles, around the other side of the mountain, there stands a house on the side of a granite slope. The house is multilevel in nature and it is notched into a hillside of solid rock. It rests on an acre lot that drops eighty feet from top to bottom. We busted that rock for five straight excruciating weeks just to find a place to anchor the house.

We broke ground on January 31st and finally pumped the first load of concrete on April 30th. In spite of the extreme challenge of the site, we disturbed less than 10 percent of the surface of the lot for the house, driveway, septic system and leach field. It was August before we could park two pickup trucks on the site at the same time.

Inside that house is a chunk of tile that reads “Green Builder Program: Contractor Number 001, Project Number 0001: Four Stars.” It was the very first home ever registered under the local home builders association’s new green building program and ours was the first company approved for that program, and as the rating implies, it met the highest criteria possible in the system.

A few years have passed since that ground breaking and the program has evolved. A new set of guidelines recently has been adopted that has dramatically affected some of us who were “charter” members. The new criteria specifies a different approach, one in which the emphasis is no longer on flexibility but on conformity. The bar has been raised, or so they say.

I remember spending hours with my crew manually moving and stockpiling surface rock so that it could be used later in landscaping.

I remember struggling for weeks with the county and state environmental departments to secure a permit for a gray water system that would allow us to reuse some of the waste water that the occupants would produce. Wastewater is a touchy subject when you’re attempting to build in solid rock, as it turns out.

I remember negotiating with the regional rep for the manufacturer of engineered wood products, and how hard it was to justify the additional cost for that component to our client, even though they shared a genuine concern for the environmental issues we were trying to address.

Meanwhile, the local green building program was starting to focus on energy issues as a priority and eventually those of us who are members of the program were called together and informed that a new set of rules were being implemented. From now on every house would have to be tested and registered under the program guidelines, or you could no longer call yourself a green builder.

The guys in baseball caps were furious. The custom builders cried foul! What are we supposed to do when a client comes to us who wants nothing to do with the rating system, they asked? If we’re already building to the highest standards of the program why can’t we enjoy some flexibility and discretion? Tough questions.

Administrators of the program, directed by the association leadership, held firm. Every house must be tested, no exceptions. Small volume and custom builders feel betrayed and abandoned. After sticking by the program through the initial years they now find themselves on the outside looking in.

I remember all the care that went into developing exactly the right orientation for the house on the mountainside. Perfect siting for solar considerations. The most efficient boiler and heating system money could buy. Proper overhangs and shading. Considerate color choices, lighting and landscaping. It starts to get personal.

Builders start to drift away from the program. They feel resentment. They say it has become about one or two production builders and how they want the program to go. It seems like a lot of time and effort has gone down the tubes.

Bottom line—the association decides it is better to lose some of the pioneers if it means the initiative moves forward. Better to have four builders who are producing several hundred houses annually that meet the program criteria than to have maybe forty builders producing a couple each. The numbers work. They are right. There is less detriment to the environment under their formula.

I can’t help thinking about the house in the rocks. Best windows and insulation package money can buy. Norwegian beech hardwood flooring from the most environmentally sensitive producer in the business. Thirty-one truck loads of crushed rock and we kept every spoonful in the subdivision by putting it to use on lots that needed fill. Someone’s going to tell me we don’t build green?

It doesn’t matter. All the “designer green” or “boutique green” projects in the country aren’t going to amount to a hill of beans when we get down to it. Until the big boys decide to make a commitment to the environment all the efforts of the guys in caps are just for show. There are builders in this country who build more houses in a year than ten guys like me will build in a lifetime.

This issue of Professional Builder profiles the Giants in the industry. Who says size doesn’t matter? Not me. You guys can make a real difference if you decide to. Yeah, I know, I don’t walk in your shoes. I don’t answer to a board of directors or a bunch of stockholders. I’m more likely to be seen in a baseball cap than a suit.

But that’s not why we’re different.

Deciding to be a “green builder” is a personal decision. It’s also a business decision. Either way, it comes down to a choice; you can follow or you can lead, but you can’t hide. It’s your company. It’s your industry. It’s everyone’s future. It’s about the courage of your convictions. It’s about looking in the mirror.

I drive by the house in the rocks every now and then. I look at it from a distance and still ask myself if it really looks like it just “grew” there on the side of the mountain. I’m proud of the fact that we recycled every possible shred of waste there, and that we only destroyed two trees on the whole acre in the process. It feels good to know that we’re harvesting runoff and wastewater through our efforts and care.

We won’t be registering any more houses under the local program.

But I’m sure hoping there are some builders who will. I’m happy just to slip into my cap and stand out of the way, over there, in the rocks, waiting to see who steps into the light.