“Clearly we need to be focusing more on existing buildings than new buildings,” Wilson says. “The new buildings are easy; that should be a no-brainer. From today forward, we should be building close to net-zero new homes because it can be done with a pretty good return on investment for that extra cost. It’s going to do a lot better than money in a CD or savings account.
“Retrofit is clearly the top priority,” he continues, “but it’s a lot harder and the goals need to be a lot more modest because it’s so hard to attain dramatic energy savings. Every house is different, so there are all these variables.”
One project Wilson is excited about is development of a decision tree for retrofitting existing buildings. “With today’s Internet technology, it’s possible to create a smart system, enter information about a project and the client … and use that to generate the list of projects that might be a five- or 10-year list.”
Another passionate vision is what he calls “passive survivability,” an idea he conceived after observing areas in New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina. He believes homes built since the ’50s, when central air conditioning became prevalent, essentially become unlivable without electricity.
“I feel very strongly about this issue,” he says, “but I’m afraid we are not going to address passive survivability until there is a major catastrophe. That might just be a really warm summer that is coincident with a major drought so power plants start shutting down.”
He talks with urgency not only about passive survivability, but all the other green building issues he’s so zealous about. “Twenty-five years ago I had great visions that within 25 years we’d see pretty dramatic changes in the way we build houses,” Wilson says. “Instead, I look where we are today ...” He trails off.
The battle has not been won—not even close—so the softspoken, down-to-earth man from Vermont will continue to fight the good fight for sustainable ideals and construction practices with zeal, single-minded determination, and dogged commitment.
Builder Abrams succinctly sums up the 2010 Hanley Award recipient: “Alex is the backbone of green building. His influence runs deep. Never flashy, always curious, he has been able to push forward the issues and practices he believes in with great balance and integrity. In fact, as a person, a journalist, a writer, a scientist, a leader, a catalyst for change, and a traveler on the road to sustainability, he is a model of principled integrity. When we look back at Alex’s contributions, we will recognize that he was truly in it for the long haul.”
Jean Dimeo is Chief Editor, Online for EcoHome.