Bill Walsh | November 30, 2007 | Policies

Earlier this month, the Healthy Building Network (HBN) attended Greenbuild, the US Green Building Council's (USGBC) annual conference and exhibition in Chicago, Illinois. As in previous years, we could be found at our non-profit tabletop on the exhibition floor, where the real networking happens, rumors swirl, and you get a feel for the state of the green building movement. With apologies for its extended length (it was a big conference) here are the perspectives we gained, from A to Z, from our post at Tabletop 18, the HBN exhibit at Greenbuild 2007.

A. Animal Crackers, and the nutrition label on the side of the box, provided the idee fixe of USGBC President and CEO Rick Fedrizzi's message to USGBC members. It's an inspired symbol of how basic information about green buildings could be transmitted. After all, those labels, once resisted by food industry trade associations, are now the law.

B. Bottled Water drew audible boos from the luncheon crowd at Greenbuilds past. This year USGBC's commitment to tap water avoided more than 100,000 single use bottles. Cheers!

C. Conference Culture is inherently wasteful. But some unsung hero at the USGBC is creating a healthier conference culture by paying attention to little details that make a big difference: reusing carpet, curtains and signage; 100% recycled content paper and soy-based ink in the program book and our favorite, corn-based plastic table liners in the exhibition hall replaced over 8,000 square feet of vinyl.

D. "Democratizing information is the business of Autodesk," said company Vice President Phil Burnstein to sustained applause. Information is the life blood of democratization. Now if we could all get as much information about carcinogens in building materials as carbs in animal crackers . . . .

E. Eisenberg, David. Many worthy people were honored at Greenbuild, but we want to highlight David Eisenberg, who received the USGBC Leadership Award for Organizational Excellence, because no one calls less attention to themselves relative to the respect they command in their field. Learn more about David and the other award recipients here.

F. Funky Buddha. The scene of Greenbuild's best afterparty. And an apt moniker for party host Alex Wilson, whose green building bible, the Environmental Building News, has enlightened us for over 20 years. Check out EBN's Top Ten new green building products.

G. Gail & Guenther. Gail Vittori and Robin Guenther, the genuine girl geniuses gamely guiding grassroots growth of the green health care movement, graced the Greenbuild bookstore with their grand new book. says "Sustainable Healthcare Architecture. . . will be considered THE guide to learning about sustainable practices for healthcare, along with historic and ecologic underpinnings and health care's intrinsic relationship with environmental stewardship and public health." Emphasis in original.

H. Horst, Scott. Imagine Garrison Keillor extolling the virtues of handsaws while channeling Bob Dylan, and you'll have a sense of the LEED Steering Committee Chairman's powerful exposition on the tools of our craft and the disease of conceit. If your imagination fails you, you should watch it here [link no longer available],but be careful, you will be moved to sign up for yet another USGBC Committee.

I. Information & Infomercials. Green building professionals can look forward to more information than ever from the futuristic Autodesk dashboard, the accessible, and our own Pharos materials evaluation system. But the aisles buzzed with complaints of too many "infomercials" by Greenbuild speakers. Let's keep information at a premium in the learning sessions, and confine the infomercials to the exhibition floor. That's what those comment forms are for!

J. Judith Helfand, missed this year's Greenbuild. The Director of the award winning Blue Vinyl was busy with the release of her latest toxic comedy Everything's Cool. Watch the trailer here.

K. Kirya Traber was one of the poets who slammed from the plenary stages. Clinton wowed us, Hawken inspired us, but no speaker moved us more than Kirya and her fellow poets from Youth Speaks. Kirya gets the last word here.[link no longer available]

L. Lake Michigan was the source of our drinking water at Greenbuild. In 1992 the International Joint Commission on the Great Lakes, whose U.S. Chairperson was a conservative Republican from Indiana appointed by President Bush, formally recommended that the use of chlorine as an industrial feedstock [for PVC] be phased out in order to protect the world's largest fresh water source [1]. Gordon Durnil's memoir, The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist.

M. "This isn't about making money, this is about making meaning. And nothing could be more meaningful." Paul Hawken [2]. It is meaningful (and democratizing) that the USGBC maintains its commitment to providing non-profit groups with affordable access to exhibition space.

N. Nobel Prize winner Al Gore would have recognized the Assault On Reason that continues in the exhibition hall and in the board room as timber and plastic trade associations continue to jab at the USGBC membership with the same combinations of slick public relations, cigarette science, and legal intimidation that Gore decries in his book of the same name. The New York Times said, "this volume . . . diagnose[s] the ailing condition of America as a participatory democracy," and the threat to consensus process in the green building movement.

O. Outpaced. With the introduction of the LEED for Homes website, the USGBC has thoroughly outpaced the greenwash competition, the Green Globes rating system, launched several years ago by the plastics and timber industries to end run the USGBC consensus process.

P. Pharos. Some have called it the iPhone of materials evaluation systems. Everyone wants it. When can they get it? Revolution takes time, and will render nicely on your iPhone. Please hold, an operator will be with you shortly.

Q. Question: Having just attended the nation's largest premier conference and exhibition, can you now identify any building products or materials that are not "green." Think about that.

R. Recycling at Greenbuild was the most intensive ever, thanks to host committee partners whose omnipresent staff helped us distinguish between old-school disposables and the new bio-based plates and cutlery that were composted this year.

S. Shots of Tequila, gratis, poured from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) booth, along with post cards lobbying me to lobby you to lobby the USGBC to allow SFI wood certification to compete with the reputable FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certification in the LEED rating system. A more sober assessment by the Yale Program On Forest Policy And Governance released at the Member Day Wood Forum found that "Competition among systems would generate less pressure to strengthen environmental and social requirements and more pressure to reduce costs by lowering certification requirements."

T. Target Stores. On Day 1 of Greenbuild, Target Stores announced they were phasing out PVC in their packaging. Last year Target switched from PVC to TPO membrane roofs for their facilities after their supplier, Firestone Building Products, announced they were no longer offering PVC for environmental reasons. Positively coincidence? Or a positive influence?

U. Urban Legend. The chlorine in vinyl/PVC comes from salt [3]. That's like saying coal comes from plants. You can't make PVC without large quantities of chlorine gas [4]. That's a fact. Want some with that Tequila shot?

V. Vinyl Institute. With Schwarzenegger banning vinyl softeners in toys, CNN warning you about them in your ear buds, Target phasing out PVC packaging altogether, and Metropolis magazine saying green clients shun it (and that's just the October/November roundup) it's no wonder that the Vinyl Institute's booth was one of the few places to find PVC (a.k.a. vinyl) products displayed with pride at Greenbuild exhibitions.

W. Women leaders' significant influence in shaping the green building movement was celebrated with a dedicated Greenbuild session, a new book from Ecotone Design (Women in Green), and renewed with the return of exceptional women to national leadership of the USGBC, as Rebecca Flora and Gail Vittori were elected Chair and Chair-elect of the USGBC Board.

X. X-Ray fluorescence hand-held analyzer, a.k.a. the zapper, was (carefully) used by HBN's own Madame X to scan green building products for heavy metals and other elements.

Y. Yes, we found some surprising ingredients in "green" building materials. Stay tuned.

Z. Fedrizzi, Rick. In our 2004 A to Z we wondered how he would "steer the Council through the shoals of corporate greenwash, ahead of the threatening clouds of trade association lawsuits, into the stiff head wind of the most anti-environmental federal government ever." The USGBC is an unwieldy vessel still, awash in swells of opportunistic commercialization. The shoals of greenwash are ever present, and the crew includes mutinous elements from chemical, plastics and timber industries. But Fedrizzi has rallied the loyal mates, steered by his compass, and tacked into the gales of resistance. Important policy decisions -- from last year's Precautionary Principle to this year's wood policy recommendations -- signal that the green building movement is getting its sea legs. Arrrrr [5].


[1] International Joint Commission (IJC), SIXTH BIENNIAL REPORT ON GREAT LAKES WATER QUALITY (Ottawa, Canada, and Washington, DC: International Joint Commission, 1992), pg. 30.

[2] Excerpted from the concluding remark or Paul Hawken, Greenbuild Luncheon, November 8, 2007. [link no longer available]

[3] A brochure distributed by the Vinyl Institute at Greenbuild states: "PVC saves fossil fuels. Its principal raw material (nearly 60 percent) is chlorine derived from common salt."

[4] The plastic industry rarely admits that the chlorine in PVC is actually chlorine gas. But it is. See, e.g., estimating that 38% (in 1987) of chlorine (gas) production goes to PVC; [link no longer available];

[5] According to HBN's Director of Policy and Research Tom Lent, readers should not confuse "Arrr" with "Arrrgh," which is of course the sound you make when you sit on a belaying pin. "Arrr!" can mean, variously, "yes," "I agree," "I'm happy," "I'm enjoying this beer," "My team is going to win it all," "I saw that television show, it sucked!" and "That was a clever remark you or I just made." And those are just a few of the myriad possible connotations of "Arrr" according to The online news magazine Slate, on the other hand, while primarily discussing "Arrr" as repopularized by Johnny Depp in recent flicks, does note that Lionel Barrymore used "Arrrgh" in a 1934 film. The Google vote is split with Arrr at over 1 million results, but "Arrrgh" clearly has a very strong following with 441,000 results and with "Arrgh" with almost 700,000, one could argue that the combined vote on adding the "g" therefore does slightly edge out the "g"-less version but that must be tempered by the observation that many of the "g" versions are clearly expressing exasperation rather than approbation which was the intended emotion here.