Building Green in Bozeman
He had seen the end of an era, the sunset of the pioneer. He had come upon it when already its glory was nearly spent. So in the buffalo times a traveler used to come upon the embers of a hunter’s fire on the prairies, after the hunter was up and gone; the coals would be trampled out, but the ground was warm, and the flattened grass where he had slept and where his pony had grazed, told the story. —Willa Cather, A Lost Lady
Even those who have never read a Zane Grey novel or seen a shoot-‘em-up-and-settle-down Western are familiar with the mythical lure of the American West. We’ve learned that the pioneers who followed good ol’ William and Meriwether into the wilderness didn’t just come to get a new start and strike it rich. To have a piece of land as their very own, to stretch their limbs in a sprawling ranch house, and wander for miles by their own creek—that was the real gold that drew many of them to this territory.
Though the West has changed considerably, this vision has not. And like Old Yeller hot on a squirrel’s scent, people still follow this fantasy right into the Gallatin Valley. But who can blame them? Don’t we sell ourselves as the “Last Best Place,” one of the few spots left in this country where someone can carve out his own hillside mansion and live with the wonderfully reassuring buffer zone of acres upon acres of mine?
It comes, then, as no surprise that 2005 was another record-setting year for residential development in Bozeman. And the only thing that has kept pace with the rampant growth are the numerous—and often knee-jerk—complaints about it, which are voiced on many different grounds. There’s the obvious issue of aesthetics—our pristine valley isn’t quite as pastoral with all of these ugly houses in it. And quality of life—we can listen to War and Peace on CD in the time spent stuck in rush-hour traffic. Even the issue of ethics often arises—those huge homes on the edge of town must be inhabited by greedy newcomers whose only connection to their land is the money they pay their landscapers. These concerns are legitimate, but the most pressing one is also the most logical: the finite resources that give Montana its idyllic aura can only sustain exponential growth for so long. Though efforts to curtail sprawl often seem to be Sisyphean struggles, local support for green building—the umbrella term that covers countless aspects of responsible growth—is indeed on the rise.
Cluster zoning is one manner of preserving the valuable and finite resource of open space. The idea is simple—instead of developing ten separate ten-acre units on one hundred acres of land, for example, plan smaller units that are closely grouped and allow for the maximum amount of open space. The result is much kinder to the eye and to wildlife, which are able to migrate with the least amount of resistance from human structures. Logistically, each homeowner in a clustered community is responsible for the small piece of land—perhaps an acre—that surrounds her home. The owners’ association manages the remaining open space and must make decisions and fund the upkeep of the land (weed control, for example). Often, the owners will decide to lease the open space to a farmer or rancher.
Generally, cluster zoning takes the form of incentive-based provisions for developers. Under Hebgen Lake’s regulations, for example, a developer who sets aside 50 percent of his parcel for open space can increase the density of the development by ten percent. According to Gallatin County planner Sean O’Callaghan, roughly 75 percent of the county’s 17 zoning districts have cluster provisions in their regulations. “Lots of people are doing it,” he says. “Open space sells.”
Chips off the Old Block
Walk around Montana Reclaimed Lumber (MRL) in Gallatin Gateway and you’ll come across countless stacks of salvaged, seasoned wood. Owner Mike Halverson points to a pile of wide, tightly grained planks that are virtually knot-free. “These came from an old house in Oakland, California,” he explains. “The trees must have been six to ten feet in diameter.” Most of MRL’s supply comes from the old-growth Douglas-fir forests that once covered the West Coast. The superb wood typically wound up in the East in every imaginable type of building, and just recently has made its way back across the country in the form of top-notch salvaged lumber. Talk about a lengthy detour.
The recycled-lumber industry makes the most of an unfortunate reality. The clear-cutting of forests in the early 20th century decimated one of our nation’s most valuable resources, but companies like MRL are putting the wood to good use. Some of the salvaged lumber is water-damaged or contains too much metal to be useful, but the majority has aged like a fine wine, tempered and proven by Maine winters or California sun. “This is all old-growth stuff,” says Halverson. “You can’t find planks like these anymore.”
One drawback to the reclaimed lumber industry is the cost of recycled wood. Numerous factors, such as processing and shipping expenses, contribute to its price, which can be two to three times that of new—but often lower-quality—lumber. In Bozeman, however, the higher-end market has never been bigger, and MRL has no trouble finding buyers for its wood. Its biggest obstacle is demolition companies who often place efficiency over responsibility. “It’s hard for us to convince [the companies] to salvage the wood when they’re in a hurry to get the buildings down,” explains Halverson. When MRL is able to salvage and process the wood, however, the rewards of preserving a beautiful natural resource and sustaining the environment outweigh any logistical difficulties.
Using recycled wood saves trees, no doubt, but you can use it build a 10,000-square-foot palace that spins the electrical meter faster than the Griswold house at Christmas. There are many popular methods for conserving power, and perhaps none are growing more rapidly than the insulated concrete form (ICF). At first glance, they look like oversized Legos. The forms consist of two expanded polystyrene (EPS) panels (similar to Styrofoam, which is extruded polystyrene) connected by plastic supports. Once in place, the forms are filled with concrete to create a uniform wall.
“There’s no better way to build a structure,” claims Stewart Holzworth of Bozeman’s Innovative Building Systems, a distributor of an ICF known as ECO-Block. Holzworth cites many benefits for homebuilders who decide to use ICFs, the most evident of which is its superior insulation. Like adobe structures, ICFs absorb heat during the day and release it at night. Unlike stick-frame homes, which lose extensive amounts of heat due to their stud-and-gap construction pattern, ICF-built structures contain no thermal breaks—there’s no space to allow heat to escape. Consider this: the U.S. Department of Energy recommends that exterior walls in new homes have energy ratings of R-11 to R-28, and typical ICFs, when filled with concrete, carry an R-50 rating. That translates to some serious savings on your energy bill.
Like other energy-efficient means of construction, ICFs are significantly more expensive than their stick-frame alternatives. But Holzworth argues that “the savings are immediate.” For a moderately priced house, the ICF-inflicted two-percent spike in initial costs equates to a $50 or $60 increase in mortgage payments. “You’ll easily save that on your monthly energy bill,” he says. Other benefits of ICFs include increased firewall protection (up to four hours) and superior air quality (no noxious fumes). “It’s one of the fastest-growing segments of the construction industry,” claims Holzworth. No wonder—with ICFs, you reduce your home’s ecological footprint along with your energy expenses. What’s not to like?
The Latest Chapter in EcoDesign
The most visible evidence of the effort to build responsibly sits adjacent to Lindley Park on Main Street. Bozeman’s new public library, scheduled for completion in October, already commands attention with its eye-catching glass front. Building an environmentally friendly structure was an explicit goal of city officials, and they’ve succeeded—the new library meets Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver-level standards. The LEED system awards points for certain eco-friendly aspects of the construction process, and the library scored big for replacing a contaminated site—it took two years for crews to clean up the lot, which previously was home to a train depot, tannery, and battery-reclamation location, and was rife with asbestos ore. The designing team of Seattle-based Johnston Architects and Bozeman’s own Studio Forma oriented the building to maximize solar radiation and harvest the ventilation benefits of prevailing winds. They also designed the landscape so storm water will percolate through the soil rather than contribute to run-off and flooding, and obtained construction materials as locally as possible.
Kath Williams, a local LEED faculty member who runs professional development workshops, volunteered her services to ensure that the library achieved its environmental goals. She credits project’s success to the generosity of others. “We wouldn’t have been able to reach LEED Silver without an anonymous $500,000 donation,” she claims. “That gave us the extra funds [to develop the necessary] models.” Other donations helped as well. “The Two Dot Wind Farm donated two years of green power,” she beams. “That’s huge.”
Not that the new library will need much power to operate. Its design ensures that interior lights will rarely be necessary during the day, and solar panels on the roof will soak up the sun’s energy. A sensor on the roof will regulate the blinds (donated by Blinds and More of Belgrade) and automatically adjust them to changes in natural light. “The city’s looking long-term with this project,” Williams claims. The library will use “roughly 40 percent less energy than a conventional library of similar size.”
The city’s hallmark undertaking will spread the green-building gospel while serving as environmental model for future projects. There will be a “green board” by the entrance that will explain the building’s eco-friendly aspects; guided tours will highlight its green features; and an interactive online program will enable curious web surfers to track the energy that the building’s solar panels are generating. According to Williams, the project has created a buzz of excitement. “It’s getting attention because the city is being responsible with taxpayer dollars.”
Though Montana—and the West—will never again realize the wide-open spaces of its legend, the choices facing its residents have never been clearer. Either we must carefully plan future growth to meet the needs of our finite resources, or we’ll stumble upon their limits faster than you can say “Josey Wales.” Let’s make sure that Gallatin Valley pioneers yet to come can dream of the same America that we now enjoy.
Surely you’ve seen them—perhaps you’ve even complained about them as you putt around town in your Ford Festiva. Starter castles, McMansions, Mini Taj Mahals—whatever the pejorative term, these oversized palaces are rapidly becoming as ubiquitous in Bozeman as in Orange or Westchester counties.
So what if people want to build big houses? What kind of pinko commie rag is this, anyway? We can’t tell people how to live their private lives! No, but when the issue involves the abuse of precious natural resources, everyone suffers. Our government holds standards for fuel economy and levies taxes on gas-guzzlers; why not develop a similar system for new home construction?
Certain local governments have. In Pitkin County, Colorado, regulations require new homes greater than 5,000 square feet to have onsite renewable energy or pay a $5,000 fee, which will go toward renewable-energy projects across the state. BEST (Building Energy Efficient Structures Today), a Marin County, California program, requires, among other things, that any residential construction over 3,500 square feet meet the energy budget of a 3,500-square-foot home.
What has Bozeman done? Nothing, as of yet. Instead of letting this issue slide and compound the game of environmental catch-up that we call the energy crisis, why can’t local officials develop a Gallatin County program that would serve as a model for our beloved state of Montana?
Until then, we’ll just have to honk those mighty Festiva horns a little louder.
Green Builder Magazine
Are you a contractor who wants to be more responsible? Or a homebuyer looking to go green but overwhelmed by names and products? Or perhaps an environmentally minded citizen wanting a better grasp on the green-building industry?
Look no further—Green Builder Magazine has arrived. The publication covers all aspects of environmentally friendly construction, from industry news to product profiles to intelligent tips about green-building methods. This year is the magazine’s first, and its bimonthly printing schedule is sure to keep track of the rapid advancements in this developing industry.
Publications that encompass potentially trendy topics are often trite and repetitive, but Green Builder is laden with educational articles and informative diagrams. Take, for example, “10 Practical Ways to Go Green Now,” a feature article in the magazine’s inaugural issue. Instead of bullet-pointed clichés, the article includes ten page-length essays, each chock-full of illustrations, statistics, and product suggestions. A feature in the most recent issue carefully explains the logistics and benefits of geothermal heating and cooling systems, an important development in the effort to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Green Builder Media, a Vermont-based publisher of sustainable home-building literature, produces the magazine, and its goal is clearly to effect change, not profit: National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) members and other interested home-building professionals receive the publication at no cost. For more information visit greenbuildermag.com, which contains flash versions of current and back issues of the magazine.