July 28th, 2008 5:33 pm | by Hannah Hultine News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Environment, CLEAN UP

Live at LEEDS: King Corn producer talks about new film on green building

Curt Ellis at the Aladdin

Before Saturday's Live Wire taping at the Aladdin Theater, WW had the opportunity to speak with one of the nights' guests: corn star Curt Ellis. Ellis, who lives in Southeast Portland, was the co-producer of King Corn, a successful film that piggybacked on the food revolution paved by Michael Pollan's book The Omnivore's Dilemma.

Ellis' latest project is a film on green building, The Greening of Southie. Set in a working-class neighborhood of South Boston that Ellis calls "fiercely" Irish-American, the film tells the story of Tim Papas, a young real-estate heir, and his dream to construct the first green building in Boston, the Macallen Building. But the film is not about paint drying. The Irish-American frankness of the hard-nosed workers brings life to the film and levity to the tensions surrounding green gentrification. The film also captures strife over untested green products that raised questions as to whether the Macallen Building would reach its goal of becoming Gold certified by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system.

Since 1994, the LEED system has provided a suite of standards for eco-friendly, sustainable construction using a point system that designates scores ranging from simply “certified” (a score of 26-32 points) to “platinum” (a score of 52-69). SPOILER ALERT: In the film, the Macallen Building obtains enough points to achieve gold status (the second-highest rating) through implementing green products like bamboo flooring, wheatboard cabinets and double-flush toilets.

According to Ellis, The Greening of Southie was almost just an educational film – at best, three fourths through construction Ellis imagined the film to be mostly a cool time lapse of: “This is how a green building works, first you pour the cement, then you raise the walls, then you put on the roof, and then people move in.”

Fortunately for Ellis' film, however, at the three-quarter mark an incident occurred that shed light on how far the green-building system has to go before reaching platinum-policy perfection. Bamboo floors were installed using a new type of eco-friendly glue. Before carpenters realized the glue had failed to do its job, the greenie glue had ruined 70 units of bamboo flooring. Soon after, the Macallen building design team sucked up the folly, ripped out the floors and reordered another shipment of bamboo from China—thus enlarging the "carbon footprint" of the project and reducing its greenness.

WW being somewhat exhausted by gentrification woes coming out of the Pearl and No Po wanted to know more about the LEED's system.

WW: Why did the project go for gold and not platinum?

Curt Ellis: Gold was really ambitious for Boston because no one had yet developed a green building in Boston. There was a real question whether the building would get gold or silver – they were ecstatic when it reached gold.

WW: Your film exposed that the LEED system does not account for an increased carbon footprint due to materials being transported from afar. How do you see the point system changing in the coming years?

Ellis: I think green buildings could actually do a lot to educate their residents about why their buildings are the way they are. The Macallen design team went to great efforts to hide that the apartments were in a green building. They wanted you to feel you were always in a luxury apartment—and to not always be conscious you were in an environmentally friendly apartment.

And I think that was a great mistake—I think people should have meters on their showers telling how much water they are using, and I wish every material had a little stamp on it telling how far it came and what the conditions were on how it was grown or manufactured. I think that is the new frontier.

WW: It's easy to see that building green has many benefits in the long run that make building eco-friendly a worthwhile added cost – yet to become LEED certified there is a huge fee involved. Why didn't you address that bureaucratic chink in the system within your film?

Ellis: It is a huge bureaucracy. We had to cut hours and hours of paper shuffling and the mountain of paper certifying the building as Gold – it was all really kind of funny. As it was, the problems with the bamboo flooring created a much more interesting way for us to show the system's imperfections while still showing how great it was.

WW: So do you still support the system?

Ellis: It is an evolving system. And it is wonderful that there is a dominant system. And it is as good of a system as we could hope for. With that said, there is a lot of work that needs to be done there.

WW: Many believe that new green buildings are the wrong way to think of things. Portland's Armory Building, for instance, was renovated and has been accredited Platinum. Why did you choose a new building rather than support a renovation project?

Ellis: Finances. This one fell in our laps. [Director] Ian [Cheney] went to school with a hot-shot real estate developer [Tim Papas]. Originally he wanted just a time-lapse film – but he got excited when we got excited about something more.

WW: Was it simply a matter of funding then?

Ellis: No, we located the building in a walkable place right next to the T [transit] stop. I think it is really reasonable because it became a headstone in the area, which promoted a neighborhood green lifestyle. Though I do think it is unreasonable to build new green buildings on the edge of sprawl.

WW: Portland has 27 LEED certified buildings and supports a mayor pushing for a bag tax. Why haven't you released The Greening of Southie in your hometown?

Ellis: I think Portland imagines itself much further along than a place like Boston. There are only a few theaters in Portland that will show a film like this. It is like fishing – there are more fish in places like Boston and New York.

WW: When and where can we expect a showing?

Ellis: We are working on it. Hopefully it will show at the Living Room Theaters or the Hollywood later this summer.

[Top photo: Ellis before Live Wire show.]
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