Got Green? A Talk with Doug Selby
A chemist by training, builder Doug Selby feels that eco-friendly home construction needs to be a healthier shade of green.
"Homes in America are terrible. Let's just be honest about it," says Selby, co-founder of green home builder and remodeler Meadowlark Builders
and its spin-off, Meadowlark Energy
. Most people don't realize "the air quality in the average American home is worse than the most polluted cities ... People are more conditioned to say oh, what does the kitchen look like ... Traditionally you put money into things that look good, but very little thought in our industry is given to how things work in the home."
Selby, who spent two years as a pharmaceutical chemist and then six more as a cancer researcher at the University of Michigan, created Meadowlark Energy, a company focusing on repair of health and environmental issues in homes, as an offshoot of Meadowlark Builders in 2010. "We were getting a lot of calls from people who really didn't want to build a new home or do a major project. They just wanted to make their home more energy efficient and healthier."
Meadowlark Energy performs energy audits and diagnostic testing to learn where a house is underperforming, and supplies furnaces, water heaters, insulation, air sealing, water saving fixtures, and other ventilation and moisture management products to homeowners.
The original entity, Meadowlark Builders, dates back to 2004. "We're both naturalists," Selby says of his partner, Kirk Brandon. "We used to spend a lot of time outdoors before we started this company. Our goal was to try and sort of bring the carbon footprint of building down in every way that we could."
Consumers are demanding it, Selby explains. The majority of builders are being pushed in a sustainable way by their clients, particularly with insulation. "Things like spray-foam insulation and spray caulk, things that seal out air movement through the envelope are becoming much more widely known," Selby says.
Meadowlark Builders sales leads have increased about 40% over the last few months, according to Selby. "It's not just us. I've talked to other builders and they're saying the same thing. It's becoming a stronger market again. Which is good, because it was just terrible for a lot of years." The company now has 28 employees, while Meadowlark Energy employs 15.
While LEED-certified homes used to be rare, Selby estimates the number of homeowners applying for LEED status has quintupled over the last four years. But now, LEED isn't so leading-edge.
"We're to the point where we're starting to move beyond LEED. We're going to the Living Building Challenge, which is much more stringent." It's exceedingly difficult to get a building to that standard; only three projects in the U.S. have achieved full, 'Living' status, according to International Living Future Institute. "We haven't done it yet. Nobody in Michigan has, but that's where we want to go next."
The Living Building Challenge
, he says, is as much as a philosophy and advocacy platform as it is a healthy home certification program. Mutagens and carcinogens, agents associated with cancer, are common components of building products - formaldehyde in glues and particleboard, and acrylics and polyacrylics in paint and bath fixtures, for instance.
"Builders are like, that's what the industry offers, so that's what we're going to install," he says flatly.
"The program seeks to greatly reduce the amount of toxins that go into building a home and to make the building restorative to the building site that it's on. So it becomes part of the environment, it becomes almost like an organism."
Qualifying homes must use healthy products and have net-zero energy and net-zero water use, meaning that consumption zeroes out over the course of a year.
"The idea is to design with intent," Selby says. "So the idea is really to start designing buildings from the perspective of: if this was an ideal building, how would it behave? And probably the answer is that it behaves much more like a biological organism than a random collection of parts. To me that's where all buildings need to go. Obviously it's going to take a long time to get there, but you've gotta start the conversation somewhere."
Tanya Muzumdar opens the window over her desk on all but the coldest of days. She is a freelance writer and the Assistant Editor of Concentrate and Metromode. Her previous article was "When Wurst is Best".
All photos by Doug Coombe except where noted
Doug Selby at Meadowlark Builders offices in an old schoolhouse on West Liberty
Kirk Brandon, Melissa Kenny and Doug Selby at Meadowlark Builders
A home renovated by Meadowlark Builders on West Summit
A home renovated by Meadowlark Builders on Keech Avenue
A home renovated by Meadowlark Builders on Spring Street (courtesy Meadowlark Builders)
Doug Selby, Kirk Brandon and Melissa Kenny outside of Meadowlark Builders
Doug Selby outside of Meadowlark Builders