The Urbane Environmentalist
When it comes to green, Jim Hackler likes to spread the word with a light-handed touch
Jim Hackler, green communication consultant, has a passion for educating everyone about energy efficiency in all aspects of their lives, not just in the home they live in. Hackler took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to talk energy efficiency— from his journalism background to green marketing tips—with Jennifer Powell, staff writer. Hackler discusses the good, the bad and the green.
1. How did you make the transition from broadcast journalist to director of the EarthCraft program in Atlanta?
I actually came to Atlanta to get my masters in journalism at University of Georgia. I picked up a few jobs here and there - one of those was doing freelance work for CNN, working for a bunch of different departments for them.
Through some contacts I had, I started doing a little bit of work for Southern Company [one of the largest generators of electricity based in Atlanta] in their GoodCents program, which was an energy-efficient demand side management program that is one of the oldest in the country. [I] just really became very interested in energy-efficient construction and doing what [started out as] a newsletter.
They were starting to launch a program called the GoodCents Environmental Home, which was a little ahead of the curve as far as green building. They also had a magazine called GoodCents. They got very positive feedback on the newsletter, because I tended to profile builders and try to make the topics of energy efficiency and green construction interesting because of my broadcast journalism background. I really tried to step away from being too technical and tell the stories of the different people who were the leaders in the movement.
Well, they used to outsource [the magazine]. And because they got such a positive response to the newsletter, they asked me if I would be interested in being the editor of the magazine. Even though I'd never done a magazine before, I thought this was a good opportunity to go ahead and try it. I really enjoyed it. Probably the thing I enjoyed the most and one of the things that they really wanted me to do was profile builders.
Now the GoodCents program was licensed out to different utilities across the country, so they had participation up in the Pacific Northwest, in Iowa, Ohio, and Texas. They had builders all over the place. The magzine reported on some of the builders who were doing the GoodCents Home and those who were doing the GoodCents Environmental Home.
I got to meet the builders out in the field and see what they were doing that was unique. I found the whole industry very interesting and that there was a story to be told. I did that for nearly five years with the magazine. During that process I really got to know who were the real movers and shakers from a technical standpoint in the green building movement.
I met Dennis Creech, who was one of my contributing writers, while working with the local greater Atlanta Home Builders Association and Southface Energy Institute. They had a builder, Pam Sessions, who was a real visionary and felt that now was the time to start up some kind of local green building initiative. Sessions was willing to be a part of the pilot and she was the incoming president of the HBA so she'd had a professional relationship with Dennis Creech. They'd had some conversations and felt Southface could be the technical part and really support this program. It was a real partnership between the two organizations.
They had some folks at the Home Builders Association and at Southface who were trying to handle the responsibilities of starting up this green building program. They'd done the legwork, and they'd done the science of it and the gist behind it, but I think it was Dennis's thought that they really needed a director; they needed one person for whom this was their primary responsibility.
I think Dennis had the understanding that there were a lot of great folks at Southface who were extraordinary as far as engineering and architecture and the technical, but he felt there really wasn't someone who was a really strong communicator. He really liked what I did with the magazine. He approached me and said, "Would you be interested in being the director of the [EarthCraft] House program?" I had enormous respect for Dennis and the organization that he worked with. It was one of those things where I just jumped in with both feet and, fortunately, had a very good knowledge as far as how to build a good energy-efficient environmental home and was able to talk about it. We just kind of built it from there, and I ended up doing that for five years.
I've always felt that the whole environmental movement and just the impact that buildings have is just one of the most exciting and interesting stories that's out there, and I feel that there are very few people that understand how to tell it effectively.
2. Why is the green movement—be it in home building or consumption in general—important to you?
I think people who go into journalism really want to do something meaningful with their lives. When I worked in journalism I got to do really fun positive stories, but one of the real drawbacks is there are some pretty horrible things that you report on. I was working during the Oklahoma City bombing and covered that story, and I covered the O.J. Simpson trial. It's just.. it's really tough. I'm a very optimistic person. When you're in journalism, some of those stories can really kind of beat you down.
What I feel is great about what's going on with green building is that it is a positive story, and that there are some wonderful people that I've had the privilege to meet over the years.
Each time [I spoke with them] I found out a little more information. I love to be challenged about it, and I love to ask questions about it. So many people feel this is black and white, and none of this is black and white. Each of these issues has certain nuances to it. As any builder knows, you can build a house that's incredibly over the top green, or you can just cover some of the basics that are still green. There are a lot of different ways we can get there.
I guess my underlying philosophy is—and it really goes into the Web site that I started and the way I refer myself—the "Urbane Environmentalist." If you look up the word urbane, the definition in Websters is "notably polite". I feel very strongly that if you respect what somebody does and you're there to help them and give them solutions to how they can do their job better, they're open and receptive to that. I think there are some people out there that are very self-righteous and sanctimonious about what they do, and they feel like they can do it better than someone else and you get this knee-jerk reaction from folks who are very defensive. I know that builders are very passionate about what they do and there's almost a nurturing quality to the builders that I've dealt with, they take to heart that they're providing a home. For someone to come along and say what you're building is not good, I don't think that's constructive.
3. What advice do you give to builders who say it's difficult to build green, too expensive, just a fad, etc.? Are there some small steps that builders can take to get started?
I think that some builders are a little leery of folks that are out there that are really trying to say you aren't doing enough, and to me it's much more productive if we celebrate the little victories and that we come up with solutions and make the builders feel good about it. I'm not talking about green washing; I'm talking about constructive steps where you're saying, "Wow, that's great you're doing this and this and this." You create this relationship where they're like, "Wow, I can do this? This is not that difficult. This is not that expensive. What else can I do?" You start seeing the builders doing more and more and more. They get excited about it. They feel good about themselves. A lot of what I love to do is these great positive stories that builders have.
A lot of people, whether it's other builders or whether it's consumers, don't hear these stories and I think if people knew what was going on with this, people would be much more receptive and understand what it means to be green as far as construction. And that it would just be a no brainer. I mean to me, this is not about totally sacrificing your life and becoming granola or it doesn't have to be super high end—these are stereotypes that I'm really trying to work on, that I know there are affordable housing groups that are really probably doing some of the greenest construction that's out there.
It's real exciting to see. I've been seeing Habitat for Humanity, that they're really driving what's going on with green and affordable housing. You look at these projects that are all over the country—not just in California and in New York—they're in Michigan and in Iowa and places that you really wouldn't expect it. I think that it's exciting. The more people who know about this, then we can step away from these arguments that it's too expensive or it's too complicated or that you have to sacrifice to be green. To me it's just a tired argument; we have evidence out there that it doesn't have to be that way. There are builders who are saving money by doing green and we just have to realize that this is a really good positive thing, it has so many benefits to it.
4. You recently taught a class at the NAHB Green Conference in New Orleans about the Language of Green. What are some common mistakes builders make in marketing green building?
There's a little bit of frustration and confusion out there. Some people say it's green washing. I've seen a little bit out of that. If anything, there are a lot of great green stories out there that haven't been told yet. What I feel is that we need to step away from gloom and doom. When "An Inconvenient Truth" came out a few years ago, people needed to hear the message, "Wow, there is some serious stuff going on."
I think most Americans, most of the world, realizes that the way we're living right now is just not sustainable. I certainly see that with builders who are doing green. I hear it over and over again that they're saying it's the right thing to do. I think in their heart they believe that, and I admire that.
Then you try to figure out, okay, it's the right thing to do but certainly it should never be a gimmick. And at least with the builders I have talked to, it's not a gimmick. They're doing it for the right reasons and trying to figure out, "How can I build the best house for my customers?"
You'll hear some complaints that consumers aren't asking for it, and they don't care, but I say part of my job is to make them care. Don't just throw technology at them, because it gets overwhelming and it's very confusing. Talk about the benefits, talk about the sense of community. Sometimes people just have a hard time wrapping their minds around green. I tell people to just step away from the word, and ask them what do they want in their house?
You want a house that you're not going to have high bills for energy, so you want energy efficiency. You want a house that's healthy for your kids. I actually suffer from asthma so I'm very tuned into the idea of indoor air quality. But I tell builders please don't call it indoor air quality. Talk about fresh air that's inside, that it's going to be healthy; it's going to be quiet to live in this house, that they're not going to have to spend a lot of time maintaining it, that it's going to be built well, it's going to be a quality house. Those are all things that you can step back and say, "Oh by the way, it's environmental." "It's green." There's that extra bonus. You don't have to hit them over the top
with it at the front end. You can sort of sneak it in at the back, and it reinforces to me what is really just a logical, smart decision.
I think consumers are more sophisticated than we give them credit for. And I think we need to be giving them a little more information, not overwhelm them with tons of technical stats. I think we need to go to the next layer of really telling them why these homes are better.
5. Do you have an opinion, one way or the other,on whether there should be a single national standard for green building (LEED, NAHB, etc.), and if so, what standard would you choose?
There are the different ratings systems out there, and I think competition is great. The green building systems including Energy Star are great tools for builders to help them figure out what makes sense for them to do. It's like that balanced meal. You can go high-end gourmet and
spend a fortune on it, or you can go somewhere that's very reasonable and still get a balanced meal. There are some choices.
There are some folks out there that think the ratings systems are the end all. To me, it's a tool to help builders figure out what it makes sense to do. I don't think one program is better than the other—the big debate going on now is the accountability—what type of third-party inspection you need to do, which is certainly important, but there are some builders that are really accountable to themselves and are doing a great job.
The other thing is—what is green enough? There's a lot of debate because there are regional differences, there are different markets that are at different places in time. To say they're not as green in a certain area as some other places in the country is not fair because if you try to jump up so high to that example in Chicago, you get some consumers who say I don't want that. But if you take baby steps, whether it be Energy Star or a dual flush toilet, then they start becoming comfortable with it and maybe their next house is more green and maybe they'll get to that point.
I get nervous when people say, "This is the example that's green," and that's their definition of it. I respect that's their definition of it, but I know there are lots of other definitions out there. We need to respect that, and we need to understand that. That's going to move us forward rather than someone saying, "I'm green and you're not."
I think incorporating an overall green standard that's a blanket definition, I feel that there's so much regional variation and there's so many ways that we get there, that it'd be really tough to put something like that in place. Now maybe some shared definitions of the different approaches that are out there would be good thing. I think what we're seeing right now with the NAHB and their guidelines and with LEED.
I think Energy Star is a national program that is a great baseline, and at the heart of any green building is energy efficiency. That's always one of the toughest things to get right. If you haven't done any type of ratings systems before, do Energy Star. There's no debate whether Energy
Star is good or not. I tell them do Energy Star first. Get comfortable with that.
You can learn more about Jim Hackler at his Web site, The Urbane Environmentalist.
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