Green on the Big Screen
LEED ratings for green building is explained in a gripping new film from the streets of South Boston.
The Greening of Southie is a feature documentary about Boston’s first residential green building, and the skeptical workers who are asked to build it.
April 25, 2008 by Steven Castle

You may have heard about LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), but do you know what is and how it works? That’s the subject of a fascinating documentary, The Greening of Southie, which takes us inside the planning and building of a green condominium building in South Boston, and the goal of its builders to achieve a LEED Gold rating for the building’s ecologically friendly design. The film’s world premiere is this weekend at the Boston Independent Film Festival, and it’s already had a showing on the Sundance channel.

The Greening of Southie isn’t your typical Ambien-laced docu-no-drama. We’re quickly introduced to the objective: build a green building in the notoriously insular and blue-collar community of South Boston, or Southie as its known to the locals. We meet the principal players in the drama, the builder, his team, and the skeptical local construction workers who must create a building with materials they haven’t used before. Think crusty extras from The Departed and Mystic River, but with hard-hats. And this time, the attitude and accents are real.

Along the way, we actually learn what environmentally friendly designs and construction practices earn the building “points” en route to a LEED rating. This is a huge accomplishment, because to actually describe what goes into a LEED rating would require numerous white papers sure to induce a coma. This 72-minute production won’t, and you’ll have a far better grasp of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program and what it takes to get a LEED rating.

The 150-unit ski slope-shaped Macallen Building received LEED points for its urban site selection close to a commuter rail, its use of concrete made locally, recycled steel made 95 percent from scrap metal, a rainwater collection and irrigation system, a green roof that helps cool the building and provides oxygen to the atmosphere, a heat recovery ventilation system, recycled cotton insulation, and the recycling of construction debris (more than 1,200 tons of waste were diverted from landfills). More points were earned for using dual-flush toilets, bamboo floors, glues that emit low volatile organic compounds (bad chemicals), wheat board cabinets made from wheat straw, energy efficient lighting and dimmers, and decking lumber harvested from a sustainable forest where only selected trees are removed. 

For many builders, getting a LEED rating is an epic struggle, and that drama is played out in Southie in a condensed and compelling way. This is a valuable resource for anyone interested in sustainable design, building green or making a home more environmentally friendly.

But the most fascinating aspect of the film is the workers’ initial skepticism about green building—some retained that throughout—and their gradual acceptance of this new way of building and what it could mean. One of the most telling scenes comes early, when a construction manager stumbles badly in explaining to the work crew, amid numerous wisecracks, what green means. The scene deftly reflects our society’s low eco-IQ and its crawl toward efficiency.

One of the workers, Wayne Phillips, says considering the environment “never came across my mind.” Later, he does a fair job of explaining the green thing to his daughter. At least better than the construction manager. Dual-flush toilets seem to be a popular topic when people start talking green. Come to find out, Wayne and his daughter wouldn’t mind living in the Macallen Building.

The evolving attitude on green is summed up best by waste hauler Carrie Mowbray. “When I first got involved in the LEED program, I’ll be honest: I thought it was ########. We’re a country of waste. We’ve always basically been a throwaway society. I used to think of green as being dorky. And it isn’t, because, you know, I’m trying to teach my kids as well that you can’t just throw away things. There’s certain stuff that other people can use.”

Don’t worry, there’s no big green Southie hug forthcoming, because green building doesn’t come without its problems—and no good drama does, either. We see the bamboo floors being ripped up because they cupped, probably due to the low-emitting glue. The green roof plants have to be replaced. The wheat board cabinets seem to expand with humidity. And the sawdust from ripping up the floors may affect the clean air test and lower the building’s LEED rating. Such is life on the green frontier.

Being green isn’t all rosy, either. Come to find out, the LEED Gold rating doesn’t take into account the energy costs used during construction. And using green products such as dual-flush toilets shipped from Australia, bamboo floors from China, and sustainable cumaro decking from Bolivia fattens the old carbon footprint.

The marketing people don’t exactly see green in green, either. They claim the price per square foot is roughly comparable to other buildings, but that buyers don’t necessarily care if the building is green. “We’ve definitely had buyers that came here and thought it was a really exciting project and really neat, but they look at everything,” says Macallen sales manager Marsha Yamaykina. “They look at the design, the amenities, and the building being green is just another plus.” 

Oh, and we’re talking about luxury condos here, as in starting at $500,000-plus, but think a mill or two. The one tragedy of much green building today is that those costs price construction workers like Wayne well out of the building. Pretty much all of blue-collar Southie won’t be living on this green mountain, either. 

Kudos to filmmakers Ina Cheney and Curt Ellis, known for their King Corn documentary, not to ignore the green economic gap and the assorted trials and travails of green building, though the few underbellies of the eco movement were pushed far to the end. But as one insightful worker said in The Greening of Southie, all this stuff will come down in price as it becomes more popular. We can only hope. So can Wayne and the rest of South Boston.

The Greening of Southie DVD will be available in a few weeks. You can be alerted by joining the mailing list at the film’s web site. You can also screen the film for others in your community.

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Steven Castle - Contributing Writer
Steven Castle is Electronic House's managing editor. he has been writing about consumer electronics, homes and energy efficiency topics for two decades. He is also the co-founder of GreenTech Advocates.

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