Green design, green construction, green building — call it what you like, but the field has changed a lot in the last few years. For starters, it’s a lot better to be in the business than it was in, say, 2013. Just a half-decade ago, says Lia Nielsen, co-owner of Simply Sustainable and the Green Building Center in Lambertville, homeowners in particular did not spend on green spaces like they do today.
“From 2010 to about 2015, there was little new construction,” Nielsen says. “It was more minor renovation. But since, we’ve built more ground-up buildings than pretty much ever. And we’ve had more large clients with multiple projects.”
An increase in money among residential renovators is only one part of the story for green builders, Nielsen says. She and her mother and Simply Sustainable co-owner, Mary Jane Augustine, will discuss how the field has so many new things to talk about when they present “50 Shades of Green: Designing with Sustainable Materials” at the MIDJersey Chamber on Thursday, May 10, from 8 to 10 a.m. at the Chamber of Commerce Training Center, 423 Riverview Plaza, Trenton. Cost: $10. Visit www.midjerseychamber.org.
Nielsen grew up in Hunterdon and Mercer counties and attended Princeton schools. Her father was a builder and developer in New Jersey and before she got into green design, and her mother was a construction attorney with McCarter English. Augustine was, in fact, the first woman to make partner at the firm’s New York office. She worked on the contracts — all of them — that went into the building of Giants Stadium.
Nielsen got her bachelor’s in business from Boston University in 2004 and got a certificate in sustainable building management from the University of Florida two years later. She took her construction management education back to Princeton, where she worked on the Peter B. Lewis Science Library and the Frick Chemistry Laboratory. She also worked on the design of the LEED Platinum Bank of America tower in New York City.
In 2010 “along with pretty much everybody, I got laid off,” Nielsen says. She partnered with Jason Kliwinski to start the Green Building Center, and in 2015 began her own green design firm with Augustine that would focus on healthy living and wellness in its designs.
The toxins are everywhere. The shift toward wellness in design space is part of a growing trend, Nielsen says. More people, from business owners to homeowners, are becoming aware of the myriad toxic chemicals that make up our buildings.
And those toxic chemicals are not just in the cleaning products. Yes, commercial bleaches and sprays and disinfectants are filled with compounds that linger long after the smell dissipates, but Nielsen says nasty compounds exist in flooring, rugs, cabinets, paints, and pretty much everything else that goes into a commercial or residential building.
The end result is the same. “We spend 90 percent of our time indoors,” she says. “And people are getting sick.” She adds that a lot of employers have finally realized that the most expensive aspect of running a business is the people, so their health is critical to an efficient business.
Nielsen says Simply Sustainable has no shortage of clients with strong sensitivities to the chemicals that give off gas vapors. Chemicals like formaldehyde, for instance, are in all kinds of construction materials, from carpets to countertops. More and more, she says, people are looking to limit their exposure to these chemicals and find safer, more eco-friendly materials.
Augustine adds that there is also a growing consumer interest in transparency when it comes to materials. Buyers want to know what is in the materials they are going to put in their homes. Think of it, she says, like reading a nutrition label.
Addressing the myths. It’s not really a myth that green building materials are often more expensive. But, Nielsen says, looking at it from only the point-of-sale perspective is shortsighted. Products might cost more up front, she says, but high-quality green products last an awfully long time — which, by the way, is another myth, that green products are flimsier or weaker or will wear out faster.
Over time, Nielsen says, green products will need to be replaced far less often and will not contribute to sicknesses from exposure to volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. What’s more, she says, she has designed green buildings that comply with strict (really strict) Well Building standards for the same price as conventional materials.
Of cost and contractors. “More often than not, you’re paying for the learning curve,” Nielsen says of contractors.
What she means is, contractors want to do what they know how to do, and they want to do it as quickly as they can and make the most money they can. That’s fine, Nielsen says, but problems happen at the collision of what contractors know and what they quote for a job. Often, she says, contractors will not really know how to find the right green products and materials for a good price. They offer a quote based on what they think the job would normally cost and then tend to inflate the price to cover green materials.
The other side of that is that contractors often don’t know how to properly install or work with green materials, Nielsen says.
Augustine calls Well Building design “a specific area of knowledge” that the average contractor or architect would not have. There is, for example, a “red list” of chemicals that cannot be used in spaces seeking a Well Building certification. What often happens, she says, is that contractors don’t realize what they are getting into and often try to talk owners into not using the strict set of materials.
As you might suspect from a lawyer, Augustine says the contract needs to be clear up front, before any work begins.
Onus on the owner. Nielsen says that getting the greenest building you want starts with asking the right questions. “If I want to use green materials for my home,” she says by way of example, “I ask, ‘Do you know where to get them? Do you need to get help to find them?’”
Also, she says, be wary of LEED certification on a designer’s or architect’s resume. LEED certification these days is hard to get and anyone who has gotten one recently is the real deal. But a decade or so ago it was not required to have any green construction on the resume to get LEED certified. So a lot of builders have the certification from years ago but have never worked on a single green project.
There is another question to ask up front, whether a builder actually has a record of working on green spaces, Nielsen says. She also suggests familiarizing yourself with abundant information about working with green builders on websites like BuildingGreen.com or MindfulMaterials.com.
The way to a greener future, Nielsen says, demands a “sea change” in the way we all think about the materials that surround us 90 percent of the time. We have been conditioned to think that fast and cheap is the way to go, but it’s not.
“We have to get past this disposable mentality,” she says.