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The Greening of Southie

Ten years ago, realtors wouldn't have guessed they'd be selling luxury apartments based on cotton insulation and dual-flush toilets. High-end highrises are gaining environmental cred. But while we hear a lot about these beacons of sustainable living, we know little about the people who build them—ironworkers, carpenters, and masons who pour the foundation and tar the roof. The Greening of Southie is a new documentary that follows the blue collar laborers who are becoming our green collar workforce.

 

Photo by John Horner

The film chronicles the construction of the Macallen Building, Boston's first LEED-Gold accredited mixed-use residential project, located in South Boston (a.k.a. "Southie")—a neighborhood that has historically been home to working class Irish-Catholic families. Filmmakers Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis spent months on the construction site with the union workers, many of whom lived in the surrounding area and most of whom had never heard of green building. Over the course of the project, the crew grappled not only with the need to adjust their skills to accommodate new materials and techniques, but also with the impact of the Macallen Building on Southie communities, and the broader significance of environmentally-responsible building.

An official selection at numerous independent film festivals, The Greening of Southie will be released in theaters later this spring and will air on the Sundance Channel later in the year. It is currently available on DVD at greeningofsouthie.com and from Amazon. In honor of Earth Day at the end of this month, the film will be screened in 70 union halls and in building trade training centers across the US.

I had a chance to speak with Cheney and Ellis earlier this week about the making of the film. Our conversation follows, as well as a trailer. Having had the privilege of a sneak preview, I can honestly recommend watching it in full when you have an opportunity.

Let's begin with a little background on the two of you and how and when you came to work together.

IC: Curt and I became best friends in college. We shared the feeling that school wasn't teaching us the things we cared most to know. We both wanted to look more deeply into where the things we consume come from—things like energy and food. After college, we linked up with Curt's cousin, Aaron Woolf, to make our first film, King Corn. For that project we farmed an acre of corn in Iowa and filmed the process of trying to trace the crop through the American food system.

As we were finishing that up, we were asked if we were interested in filming some time lapse footage of a new green building that was going up in Boston. As we installed the setup for that we got to talking with some workers and thought it would be better to make a film focusing on them. It was around that time that we founded our production company, Wicked Delicate. Basically, these two feature projects came from a curiosity to know how things are made.

Did you have a particular interest in green building?

CE: We were really embarrassed on some level to know so little about how a house goes together. To graduate from a school like Yale and not know the first thing about plumbing, on some level, is stupid. So part of the appeal of the film for us was to reconnect ourselves to the buildings and houses we live in. We got a real education on the construction site.

What was you opinion or understanding of LEED before the project and what was your opinion of it by the end?

IC: I did a year of graduate school at the Yale School of Forestry where I became interested in green building while studying food and agriculture. I remember learning about LEED then and feeling skeptical of this idea of awarding gold and silver "medals" to buildings. But when we emerged from the cornfields after King Corn, LEED had really blossomed. Essentially, it was the simplicity of a somewhat competitive system that was motivating developers to make change and acquire points. I was surprised and excited to see that it had really caught on.

Through the process of watching the Macallen Building go up, we came to feel that the LEED system remains a work in progress. It will change over time as we learn more about what a green building needs to be. The public has latched onto climate change as the biggest environmental challenge of our time and energy is at the top of our list of concerns. We heard a lot of criticism throughout the filming from people who felt that LEED wasn't putting enough emphasis on energy and emissions. You can be a Gold building without having done much to reduce your carbon footprint.

On some level it just points out how difficult it is to invent one rubric to describe all of the things green building is trying to do. LEED is a lot of work; you have to learn about rainwater collection and wastewater handling and so on. But that also ensures that people start thinking broadly about the scope of our environmental footprint. There are myriad ways in which the built environment effects the natural environment.

Photo by John Horner

What was the dynamic between the developers and the union workers? Was there even much interaction?

CE: There was some inherent tension between the developer and the workers throughout the project, largely because the Macallen Building is a luxury building. A lot of the workers' initial skepticism about the green aspects of the project stemmed from the fact that it was going to be so fancy.

But over time it was actually the green features that helped them to connect to the project. Some of the natural animosity that's often there between the developer (who has the power) and the workers (who are dealing with the daily grind) really broke down because everyone felt proud of having created something that was innovative and green.

The relationship between the developer and the builders highlighted for us a lot of what's changing in the environmental movement now. The developer, Tim Pappas, was 30 when they broke ground. He grew up in a culture that recycled and worried about global warming and he can afford to buy a hybrid. The union workers approach environmentalism from a different angle. These are green collar workers—they may drive a pickup truck but they see the value of leaving resources in place for the next generation.

Photo by John Horner

It seems like the guys who had the most personal and direct understanding of the green products were the drywall and insulation installers, for whom the health effects of their job are really immediate. How did the crew take to heart the way green building could affect them?

IC: The guys working with low-VOC paint knew that it was much less toxic than the paint they normally work with, but they seemed mildly annoyed with the fact that it didn't seem to stick or coat as well. Of course this isn't uncommon in the process of working with new materials. I think we each come to believe in the environmental movement in our own way and for our own reasons. For some it really is because the materials are better to work with day in and day out. For others it's a more abstract notion of preserving resources for future generations.

A green building is a pretty powerful way to notice that in many ways the best way to educate and empower a new generation of green collar workers is just to get to work, rather than try to force everyone to wear the badge of environmentalism from day one. That said, Curt and I found during filming that we were often the only ones telling some of the workers what was green about the place. There wasn't a system for educating everyone about the big picture of why this building might be a good idea and how all the interlocking parts worked together. I think there are real opportunities for better involving the men and women who are actually building the new green infrastructure we're all hoping for.

Photo by John Horner

It's apparent, especially in the portrayal of the salespeople who must market these apartments to potential buyers, that the Macallen residences possess the sort of exlusiveness that often makes "green living" seem inaccessible and elitist. Do you think that can change as the industry grows? 

CE: What we've done so far is to build a lot of green buildings of only a couple of types: institutional facilities for universities, corporate campuses, government; and some really beautiful high-end luxury apartments. But we've missed the boat on making green buildings accessible to people of all income levels, most importantly the people who build them. As we saw in the film, the sheer act of working on a green building for a couple of years really changes your personal outlook. Many of the workers left that job feeling like they'd like to live in a green building. But many of them don't want to live in a luxury high-rise; they want to be able to fix up their own house in a way that's green.

What's really needed in the next wave of green development is to make sure that all kinds of structures are built green, with a lot of focus on retrofitting, so green is not just a luxury add-on for the condominium crowd, it's built into the fabric of small towns and city neighborhoods. There's a chance every time you build a green building to broaden the community of environmentalists. Some of those environmentalists may be wearing steel-toed boots and hardhats.

IC: LEED is not the only game in town and the core concepts of green building—energy conservation, access to green space, using recycled or reclaimed materials—are very old. We're seeing some of the most lauded projects right now in the form of pretty slick futuristic looking buildings. But my apartment could be much greener with some simple retrofits. It's really important in the race to get a gold or silver medal for your green building, to remember there's something that can be done in any building.

Photo by John Horner

At the end of the film you see the developer doing a walk-through with someone from the mayor's office, touting the green features and talking about how much the workers enjoyed installing some of the healthier products. Do you feel that the laborers really did get a greater sense of satisfaction from working with green products?

CE: Watching that whole process was really great for us because the workers got an immediate reward for working on a green building. A lot of the time these are things you can see and experience and appreciate right away. The payback on using cotton insulation or non-toxic adhesive is really immediate and satisfying for the builders.

Still, after spending the film in the workers' shoes, it somehow felt strange to hear the developer representing their experience in their absence for the benefit of the guest, as though the veil is being pulled back down between consumer and builder.

There's no doubt that the primary reason why the Macallen Buidling was built green was so that it would be more competitive in the marketplace. That is a great thing, to see that green building has become a selling point. Making LEED a benefit with value in the marketplace is what has made green building explode so tremendously.

Photo by John Horner

What is the plan for screenings in the union halls later this month?

CE: We're doing screenings in union halls and trade schools around the country in honor of Earth Week. There's a massive campaign underway led by union organizations and the unions themselves to mobilize today's blue collar workforce to be tomorrow's green collar economy. What's being taught is very specific—how to wire a solar panel or install a dual-flush toilet. What we hope our film will contribute is a broader picture that shows how the pieces fit together.

Trailer - The Greening of Southie from Wicked Delicate Films on Vimeo.

Images of construction from Greening of Southie website

Images of completed project by John Horner Photography

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