Steve Thomas, Host of Renovation Nation on Planet Green



After hosting This Old House for more than a decade, Steve Thomas is now your green building guide on Planet Green TV's Renovation Nation. Steve shares with us some of the crazier things he's done on the show, talks about greenwashing in the industry, and elucidates his "five rings" of green building wisdom. He also lets us in on his plans for two exciting personal projects he's got in the works (don't tell his wife!).

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: You've done some pretty wild stuff on your show. You climbed up the inside of a wind turbine into this tiny little parapet and smashed solar panels with rocks. You built a solar ventilator for a doghouse. What do you think is the weirdest thing you've done on Renovation Nation?

Steve Thomas: I think the solar ventilator for the doghouse was pretty out there.

TreeHugger: How did it turn out?

Thomas: I think it worked out all right! This was a couple who was kind of new to all things green, and they were trying to think of something to do. They had just done their house, this was in Austin, Texas, and so they wanted to keep their doghouse cool. So they ended up rigging it up with a little solar panel that ran a little electronic fan.

In terms of serious green it's not that serious, but it's fun. It gets people thinking. The wind turbine that you were talking about is a full-on 212 ft. Vestus machine with 59-foot-long blades, and it powers a whole condominium complex in Chelsea, Massachusetts, right across the harbor from Boston. I mean that's serious.

So you go from something like that to something silly, like the doghouse. But you know, it just helps you to think outside the box a little bit. It can't all be serious.

TreeHugger: You've got what you call a "bubble system," these five bubbles of green building. If somebody's trying to build a home that's green, or make their home greener, is this something of a road map?

Thomas: Yeah. I mean, you mentioned that I was on This Old House. I was on This Old House for 14 years, and then I did some interesting stuff on the History Channel on historic houses. Over my career, I've covered historic residences, personal residences, but I've also done a number of films about historic public buildings, like Washington's Mount Vernon, and Madison's Montpelier, and the Longfellow House in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

And these projects give you a chance to see how heirloom houses fare over time. And then, of course, on Renovation Nation we've been all over the country for the last two seasons doing everything from rammed earth to straw bale to conventional construction with foam insulation, and so on. Everything.

So I have developed, as a way of explaining what green building is, the five bubbles, or five rings of green. And some of these are old, and some of these are relatively new. So imaging a nice picture of five rings, interlocked, you know, twinkling.

TreeHugger: I'm seeing the Olympic logo.

Thomas: Well you know, it's Frodo and the rings of power. I went from bubbles to rings because rings have a kind of mystical quality.

Anyway, the first one is energy. So it's all things having to do with energy in a house: energy in/energy out, insulation, energy management, etc. So that covers insulation, it covers renewables, it covers low-voltage lighting, LEDs, and so on. It's all the ways you can reduce the use of energy in the house. All of those issues are in that first ring.

The second ring is workmanship, and this is not new. I mean, the guys who built my house that I'm standing in, in the 1700's, understood how to detail a house. All of those little tiny details when you put a house together will either insure that it doesn't fall apart by rotting, or that it rots in ten years. The way you detail the sidewall features, and the way you apply shingles, the way you do the flashing, and so on. All of those little assembly details, carpenter details, etc., are what allow water into the building or allow the building to shed water.

So workmanship is tremendous. In general, good workmanship lasts a lot longer than poor workmanship, and that makes a building green, because you're amortizing the carbon costs of the structure over time, and reducing the amount of maintenance. So that is the second bubble.

The third bubble is materials, and this is a relatively new concept. Certainly the quality of materials is not new—builders have been concerned with the quality of their materials for a long time. But chain of custody issues is new. Nobody ever worried about chain of custody before. It came from the Pacific Northwest, it came from Honduras, it came from Burma, it came from wherever.

And now, we're worried about chain of custody. Are starving children in Vietnam or China producing the bamboo flooring that we are laying in our house and calling green? For that, you really need someone who has studied the chain of custody and can tell you: "We obtain our stuff from trusted sources." So that part of it is new. But it's a significant ring.

Then health is the fourth one, and health is relatively new as well. Indoor air quality is big. This house that I am standing in, when it was built in the 1700's, leaked like a sieve. Indoor air quality was not a problem. The buildings were cold, they were drafty, they had big fireplaces, and it wasn't an issue.

Also, you weren't using synthetic materials. All of the materials were natural, and in the old days, all of the wood was first growth, so it tended to last a long time. So health is a big issue, everything from "Does the glue in my cabinets contain Formaldehyde?" to "Is my house too sealed up? Do I need better ventilation in the form of a heat recovery ventilator?"

And finally there's design. And design, of course, has been around for a long time. And the reason that I include design in the five rings is that at the end of the day, you've got to like the home you that build or renovate, whether it's a house, condominium, apartment, tent, yurt, or mobile home. Whatever it is.

The design has to function, it has to endure, it has to fit in with its neighborhood, and moreover, in strict terms of green building, a highly designed house can be smaller. And small is green. It just is, because you're using fewer resources, it automatically takes less to heat and cool it, and so on. So that's the fifth ring of green.

Now they all interconnect and cross-feed. There is no hard and definite border between design and, say, workmanship issues. An architect can specify how he or she wants the detailing of the sidewall. But it's a good way to think about all the issues and I find it a useful overall definition of green building.

TreeHugger: Do you come across buildings in your work that claim to be green but are not living up to these claims?

Thomas: Yes. I find buildings that claim to be green, and I find people that claim to be green builders, realtors, what-have-you that aren't. That bothers me because I think if anything is going to challenge green building it is greenwashing. I'm always pretty skeptical on the show: somebody makes a claim, I try to figure out a way right there and then on the show to make them prove it. Without being a total jerk about it, I try to call people on their greenwashing. A healthy dose of skepticism is not a bad thing. I think, going back to the five rings of green, that helps you orient yourself and ask the right questions.

One of the things that is lacking in building and renovation in general (and in particular in green building and renovation) is a trusted source that the average person can go to and say, "What do I need to think about?"

I mean I get questions all the time that are like: "My husband and I want to go green so we're thinking about solar panels but they are really expensive. What do you think?"And the answer to that is not simple. The answer to that is, well, you've got to think about energy consumption, which would be the first ring. Think about it as a pyramid. The first level of the pyramid is straight conservation. So it's a big, wide base on that pyramid. You can get a lot of mileage, a lot of savings, out of conservation: turn the heat down in the winter and turn the heat up in the summer. Straight conservation, that goes for a lot.

Second level of the pyramid is efficiency. So Energy Star appliances, upgrading your heating and cooling system, LED or compact fluorescent lighting, and so on. Of course the insulation will make the make the house use less.

And the top—which is this little triangle—would be renewables. So the least sexy alternatives of conservation and efficiency are the most effective, but doing that education is difficult. People don't have a ready source to help them puzzle through these problems. That gives greenwashers the opportunity to step in and make these claims that are unsubstantiated. It drives me wild.

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