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Ten Principles

Each of us, either by commission or omission, lives somewhere on the continuum of a "Green Scale." Our individual habits and choices say something about our relationship to the environment and its resources. Where one may be on that continuum can change; education and growing awareness can have a significant impact on attitudes and behavior.

In thinking about Thorntree I asked myself where along this continuum, on a scale of one to ten, I would place myself (ten being the "earth-firster" whose purist commitment might demand a personal cessation of being, and one being "Joe Consumer" with a five-stall garage for the three Hummers and the Bradley's). Using these benchmarks to illustrate the extremes, I placed myself somewhere around a five. So what behaviors do I believe characterize a five?

  • Buying used cars (four cylinders and fuel efficient) and maintaining them well for at least six years;
  • Preparing meals from whole foods, grown locally and organic when possible;
  • Wearing natural fiber clothing, often nicely broken-in by the original owner;
  • Using a bicycle as often as the car when practical;
  • Transforming personal yard space to low-maintenance hardy perennials well-suited to the locale and using little or no chemical fertilizer or herbicides;
  • Supporting local businesses and avoiding big box stores;
  • Subscribing to non-commercial media... public radio mostly, public television some, and the networks when all else fails;
  • Upgrading domestic energy related infrastructure e.g., better windows, more insulation, switching to compact fluorescents, more efficient HVAC and simply caulking/ weather stripping;
  • Sorting empty containers for recycling and wondering, with all the stuff they won't take, whether it's worth the effort;
  • Acknowledging the many virtues of vegetarianism while remaining a guilty omnivore;
  • Preferring repair to replacement;
  • Understanding that if an item hasn't been used or even thought about in five years, it should be wisely recycled;
  • And finally, seeing home as a place in which all the living spaces are designed for living (examining more critically why rarely used spaces are rarely used) and speculating that "closets" tend to attract stuff more than they help organize and protect important items.

I had always considered myself above average in my environmental awareness and practices; they were, however, not well informed. Since our decision to develop the land at Thorntree, I have taken a much closer look at the pieces of the puzzle that need to come together for environmental sustainability and wise energy use. I have learned enough to state confidently the following:


1. There are many different ideas/methodologies already out there that can greatly improve the way we affect the planet and its resources. Residential construction happens to be my focus and there, too, is a great deal of creative latitude for the designer, builder, and homeowner. Incorporating some basic green principles in the pre-construction and construction process can make important differences and serve the investor well in the short term as well as the long term.

2. "Green" is a business. I say this not judgmentally, but as a fact. It is an economy within a larger economy that relies on creating a market for its products and services that people are willing to pay for. Being an informed consumer is just as important in the green marketplace as anywhere else. "Green" is simultaneously an ethic and a sales pitch, for better or for worse. I've learned to investigate and compare. Though I have maintained a Michigan Builder's License for nearly twenty years, I have never been a practicing builder. My understanding and level of expertise is very reliant on asking the best questions I can and addressing them to as many competent individuals as possible and comparing the technical literature for its varied choices in materials and application processes. It has been an interesting and enjoyable inquiry, and this inquiry is ongoing.

3. Alongside the business element is the "green bureaucracy." This is, in short, "how green are you and how are you going to prove it?" Green is a constantly moving target; technologies change and improve, and yesterday's good practices are altered and become today's better practices. Who or what should be the arbiter? In order to achieve a meaningful result with respect to responsible environmental building practices, do we need a third-party commissioning/certification? And if so, must it be ongoing through the pre-construction and construction processes? I have some thoughts on this and will be discussing them further below.

4. Size is an environmental factor. The quantitative and qualitative have an ongoing interrelatedness and, in the realm of sustainability, a generally negative correlation. One Hummer in the National Museum of Dumb Ideas is a curiosity, but a half-million Hummers roaming the suburbs is an abomination, and social and economic policies that sustain their proliferation are irresponsible. The acculturation process in our society does not lend itself well to the concept that less and smaller can contribute to "the good life". Making "less" work well by knowing how one actually lives in one's space can contribute to the greater good, make an environmental statement and produce a home that will feel right in all respects. The Sarah Susanka model, as set forth in her Not So Big series, is well worth examination. We should be building our homes for how we live and what we do, not following a model of space for the sake of space. Upfront costs are the same for spaces used frequently, seldom, or almost never, and in each case over time the space will need energy support and maintenance. Most of us who are privileged enough to even consider a new home still need to pay attention to cost. So why not focus on extra quality and less on quantity?

5. Building a structure, no matter how thoughtfully is still an environmentally invasive and disruptive undertaking. This is an especially important understanding if the setting has natural features that are central to its desirability, as Thorntree does. So, first, we must build as considerately as we can with respect to the space we take up (the footprint). Second, we must leave around us as much of the world as possible in its natural state. We know that Thorntree is beautiful or we would not have chosen to be here. That natural beauty is evidence that it knew how to take care of itself long before we "discovered" it. These natural resources will keep giving back at no cost to us if we minimize our imposition.

6. If a developer chooses to have a positive impact environmentally, it is through architectural guidelines and preservation-directed land use restrictions. Committing to a permanent and legally recorded set aside of undeveloped common land is one way to protect that environment. Placing responsible limits on home sizes (footprints) is another. We are committed to both.

7. Local ordinances and developer-mandated size restriction on homes is not enough. There must be some additional standards adhered to. All Thorntree homes will be required to exceed Michigan Uniform Energy Codes for Zone Two. Green building is not a type or style of architecture. Rather, it is a committed building practice that can be integrated into many styles to achieve environmental goals. The type and level of integration of these building practices will say a lot about our positioning on that "Green Scale" mentioned above. The two most important physical areas in the build process are the envelope (the shell that defines the conditioned living space) and the air-moving system. Controlling the envelope in terms of thermal loss/gain and air and vapor movement significantly reduces the long and short-term energy needs and costs. The integrity of the envelope also adds to the life of the structure, and makes a balanced air exchange possible. A leaky house is just a leaky house. Understanding the air exchange needs and accommodating them systematically make greater comfort and improved air quality possible.

8. There are good builders and bad builders and everything in between. The same goes for developers. There are good builders who are knowledgeable in green building practices. There are good builders who have not in the past subscribed to green building practices but are held in high regard because of their knowledge and demonstrated commitment to "doing right by the customer". A good builder, if expected to do so, can tackle a green building process more easily than they can an uncommon staircase. A well-informed client/builder relationship will translate into the kind of homes that Thorntree expects and that the owner will be proud of.

9. Commissioning standards and certification for green-built homes exist in several forms and through a number of entities. We encourage each unit owner to become familiar with them and individually engage one if desired. In lieu of that approach and as a show of good faith and commitment, we will provide each unit owner a green builders manual, which lays out a prioritized compendium of practices and procedures (The green builders manual will present good talking points for the owner and builder and and could even serve as a checklist that adds clarity to the client/builder agreement). We will also pay up to $500 for a required "Building Envelope Air Leakage Test." The test results must meet published standards, and remediation will be required if necessary. Any builder (subcontractor) who is aware that this test will be performed at the appropriate time in the construction process will likely pay even greater attention to material selection and quality workmanship. In addition, results of the tests will remain a part of the condominium records, available to future investors and owners at Thorntree. This could be a valuable piece of documentation at the time of resale.

10. Wherever Thorntree positions itself on the Green Scale, it will be defining and narrowing its market. Its covenants and restrictions will undoubtedly cause some would-be buyers to look elsewhere, no less emphatically than I did after reading some other condo development requirements, i.e. "minimum living area of six thousand square feet and no garage with fewer than five stalls." I'm certain that some will be disappointed with our restrictions because to them we will not seem green enough. We would applaud their independent commitment to go beyond our green standards. I want to narrow my market on the side that concerns itself with the future and making better choices. In the whole scheme of things, all of what Thorntree is about is truly a modest proposal. The homes to be built here will be beautiful, intended for living both well and respectfully. We are such a fortunate people. Even when we don't give more we can choose to take less.