Green Building: The Greening of Southie

Do you live in a city? If you do, you know that city dwellers face a particularly unique set of sustainability challenges. Cutting through the complexities of the effects of global climate changes on cities and providing answers to the below questions should be on the minds and desks of every architect, builder, designer, construction worker and city resident.

• How to reduce carbon emissions?
• How to make buildings comfortable, healthy and affordable?
• How to deal with waste needs?
• How to look at changing water needs?
• How to make green spaces for people, plants and wildlife?

What happens when you try to build a building of tomorrow today?
I recently viewed, the award-winning film, The Greening of Southie and found some answers.

The subject of this documentary is the first residential green building in Boston. The film chronicles the lifecycle of the building from the rainforests of South America to the steel mills of New England to the streets of a Boston and the densely urban community of Southie.

With hopes of changing the building industries tremendous amount of waste, owner and developer, Tim Pappas embraces the idea of creating the first green building–the Macallen building in Boston. “If the building sector doesn’t do things differently, we are adding to the problems facing the environment.”

The goal of the team of architects, builders and construction workers was to build an environmentally friendly, LEED apartment building. The building would be, “green from the ground up.” The film followed the team as they struggled to learn together how to tally up enough points to achieve gold LEED certification.

While the architects held the knowledge and vision about building green, the workers were not accomustomed to many of the materials. A construction worker is interviewed about the usage of dual-flush toilets and he quips, “Dual flush? Yeah, I flush twice all the time!” Another, in regards to green building says, “At first I thought that meant that we were painting it green.” The workers discover for themselves what eco-friendly building means, “I’m not a nature person and I’ve never been in a green building, but I like that everything is recycled.”

One of the workers enjoyed the challenge of green building and brings his daughter to the worksite to share what he’s learned. He also takes the leftover and castoff building materials to his Southie home and rebuilds his kitchen in the same flavor of the Macallen building.

Some of the green building materials that achieved the LEED rating and added to the “loop” of a sustainable building for the 11-story Macallen Building are:

• Fiberglass irrigation tanks that collect rainwater for reuse

• 99% of the steel used was recycled steel made within close proximity to job site in Boston

• A sand stone foundation came from local quarries

• Renewable bamboo flooring was used and a statement made about the amount of fossil fuel being a huge trade-off for a green product

• Dual flush toilets

• A heat recovery system that takes some of the heated air and recycles it back into the building

• Double pane windows

• Recycled cotton insulation

• A liquid roof membrane made from dry rotting soil that allows the residents to plant no eminence succulent plants

• Wheatboard cabinets made from wheat straw

• Cumaru decking material came from a controlled forest with no clear cutting

The building comes together with all of the usual trial and errors. The team was in constant problem-solving mode. The builders faced problems with the expanding wheatboard cabinets, and the no-VOC green guard glue caused the floor to buckle. The bamboo floors had to be ripped up.

But, as the project began to take shape and the building leaders visions came to fruition, it is the attitudes of the construction workers that is so delightful. After rough talk and resistance, the workers found the building a healthy alternative to typical construction sites. They liked that the recycled carton fabric caused less skin irritations. The insulation was better for the workers overall health. The workers had doubts about the wheatboard cabinets since they were expanding and holding water, but were happy they didn’t have to install formaldehyde cabinets. The workers took immense pride in the fact that they had a hand in giving the old city of Boston this landmark building. One worker summed it up, “We’ve ruined the environment, so why can’t we help fix it.”

The Greening of Southie is being released to theaters in May and will air on the Sundance Channel. The film will be screened in union halls and building centers across the country on Earth Day.

Ronnie Citron-Fink lives in New York with her husband, two children (when they come home to the nest), two dogs and a cat. Ronnie is a teacher and a writer. She has been a contributing writer for Family Fun magazine. She currently writes articles about education and home design. Her writings are in four books including Family Fun Home and Some Delights of the Hudson Valley.



Bruce R.
Bruce R.8 years ago

oops! I meant air sealing and insulation is the fastest and cheapest way to achieve significant greenhouse gas emission REDUCTIONS.

Bruce R.
Bruce R.8 years ago

Ronnie: you are quite correct that builders and homeowners will need to weigh the pros and cons of using green building materials. But it's often quite difficult to do without good info or data. I'll take a look at the sites you reference but please do let me know if you come across any actual data on these issues.

Bottom line - air sealing and insulation is the fastest and cheapest way to achieve significant greenhouse gas emissions.


Ronnie Citron-Fink

Bruce, I appreciate your thoughtful analysis of the cotton insulation issue. You may be correct in saying that the possible working conditions of imported cotton production is probably not great and the pollution laws not very stringent.

Most of the research I acquired for the points below stressed the health benefits of cotton insulation, so you may be correct in assuming that the cultivated agricultural practices of cotton production are energy and carbon-intensive.

Builders and homeowners will need to weigh the pros and cons of using green building materials. Here are some sources for more information on cotton insulation:

Bruce R.
Bruce R.8 years ago

Ronnie: I’m not sure I would agree with you on some of these points
- as organic material, cotton is susceptible to fungus and mold – that’s why mfg’ers add a fire retardant chemical like boric acid that will also kill mold and pests
- I don’t know if any chemical irritants and or carcinogenic materials are added (or in) cotton insulation. Have you seen any data to that effect? I have not but would be interested. Are there any carry-over of pesticides or herbicides? I truly do not know. Would you know where to go to get data?
- Cotton insulation is typically 85% by weight post-industrial (not post-consumer) recycled cotton and 15% by weight added fire retardant/fungicidal chemicals
- I have not seen any data on what energy it takes to make cotton insulation from recycled cotton or denim. Have you seen any? I do know that many cultivated agricultural practices are energy- and carbon-intensive. There is a great article in the New York Times about the carbon footprint of orange juice. Tropicana was surprised at how carbon-intensive it is to grow oranges. In fact, fertilizer production and application accounted for nearly 60% of the carbon emissions from overall juice production.
- Again, what are the working conditions of the ag workers and are sustainable agricultural principles adhered to?
- How much water is used in producing the cotton

Ronnie Citron-Fink

Hi Bruce,
I am not sure the exact product used for the Macallen building or where the cotton originated from, but cotton insulation tends to be a superior and sustainable alternative to fiberglass for these health and environmental reasons:
• Cotton impedes the growth of fungus, mold and bacteria.
• Cotton uses no chemical irritants and no carcinogenic materials.
• Cotton insulation consists almost entirely of 100% post-industrial recyclable fibers, reducing landfill waste.
• Cotton requires a minimal about of energy to manufacture aiding energy conservation and pollution reduction.
As mentioned by one of the union laborers who installed in insulation, “Fiberglass insulation itches, and it gets all over your clothes. I’ve got two little kids, so before I go in the house, I’ve got to change clothes before they hug me. Cotton is a lot better.”
Hope this helps!

Bruce R.
Bruce R.8 years ago

Do you have any data/info on what makes cotton insulation a superior, sustainable product? Most cotton is not grown with sustainable, organic practices and requires carbon-intensive fertilizer and pesticides and herbicides. I know that some denim for denim insulation is made with pre-consumer denim scraps from cotton grown in Mexico where the working conditions are probably not that great and the pollution laws not very stringent.

Bruce Ray, Johns Manville

Bruce R.
Bruce R.8 years ago

Do you have any info/data on what makes cotton insulation a superior, sustainable product? Most cotton is not grown with sustainable, organic practices and instead requires much carbon-intensive fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. Some denim insulation is pre-consumer denim scraps from cotton grown in Mexico, where working conditions are probably not that great and pollution laws not very stringent. Plus, cotton insulation is 15-20% by weight added fire retardants since cotton is flamable and I understand cannot be used as insulation without added fire retardants.

Bruce Ray, Johns Manville

Stephanie Baker
Past Member 8 years ago

cool, ;)