Lunch with Gill Holland

Sep 29, 2007

The Courier Journal

Gill Holland, who is creating "the first, hard-core green building" in Louisville.

First of all, who are you and what do you do in this town?

My day job, I'm a film producer. And then I have side jobs. I have a little record label, and I run Gallery NuLu.


I thought it sounded like SoHo, New Louisville, New York Louisville — for this area I thought it would be fun.

This area needs a name. It doesn't have one yet.

Well, technically, most people call it East Market District, but I never knew that. So when I started coming here two and a half years ago, I thought this was like SoHo 25 years ago, so I started thinking about what's a fun little brandable name? And I came up with NuLu.

I named the gallery after what I thought the neighborhood should be called.

It's a super-fun part of town that does have a distinct identity. Maybe it's the Bohemian side, the New York side, but immediately I thought, "Let's find an office here," as opposed to an executive suite downtown.

And then my wife, Augusta, and I were still falling in love with this neighborhood, and a building a block away, next door to Toast, was for sale. When you come from New York City, everything seems so incredibly undervalued. We'd been living there. So we bought that building, and she's kind of the one who opened my eyes to the whole concept of sustainability. So we thought, "Let's make it the first, hard-core green, self-sustaining, run-the-electrical-meter-backwards building in Louisville." We broke ground on the renovation process five months ago maybe. And we're aiming to be ready for Derby: have a big party for Derby.

I want to make it like a film premiere: the premiere of the building. I want to do a poster: "a so-and-so production."

We're going for LEED-certified platinum. LEED is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and the U.S. Green Building Council, I think it was in 1993, said, "We should promulgate a list of standards, requirements — things that people should look out for when they're renovating or building buildings." And they've made a huge, long list of all these things you can do to be green.

And then after you finish your building, you do all this paperwork and submit all these files and say these are the things you did, and then they tell you whether you made it. And then if you did better than the lowest, there's silver, gold and platinum. We're going for platinum. It's hard. And also taking an existing building is extra hard because you just can't control everything.

So tell us what your process has been.

The building is 108 years old. A beautiful, three-story: They lived upstairs and had their store downstairs. It's at 732 E. Market Street.

The first thing, you go in and ask, "Now what can we preserve?" Buildings in the United States count for, I think, over 60 percent of total electrical use. Buildings are a huge carbon footprint in terms of humans on the Earth.

First we went through to see what we could recycle. We started, just like the meth addicts do when they see an empty house or a house for sale, they go in and strip out the copper wiring. You make a list of everything you can recycle: the doors, the door knobs, the light bulbs, the copper plumbing. We tried to sell as much as we could; we gave away the other stuff.

It's also how much can you divert from going to the landfill. Normally when you demo a building, you take some sledgehammers and just trash it, fill up the dumpster, take it to the landfill — you don't think about it twice. So it takes a lot of time to do it environmentally friendly. You want to reduce as much as you can what's going to the landfills. Land is finite, and more and more humans live on it. I've been joking that in our building, our contractor, Tim Peters, is in there eating dust — anything to divert stuff from going in the dumpster. Because they weigh it, and it's a percentage of total weight going in the landfill and physical space.

So the demo is all done. It took a long time. We recycled. And there are beautiful old timbers in there that other people wouldn't have spent the time to save. We remilled them, we finished them, and we're reusing them. And if you think about it, the building is 108 years old. There are 16 x 4s, which they don't even make anymore. You figure the tree had to be over 100 years old, easily, so that's like first growth timber — beautiful stuff. So we actually set up a workshop in the back of the building to plane down, take off the smoke and soot. It was blackened with age, and so we cleaned them all up. And it looks beautiful. And we recycled it — it's being used — and a lot of the things that we take out — as we take out a wall or part of the ceiling — we use that wood in another part of the building. If we can use it, why sell it? Why give it to anybody else?

All the plaster, instead of using sand to blast it, we actually used a corn sand to blast it off. It's biodegradable, a natural, local product. Obviously, the plaster had to go to the landfill, because there's no place to use that.

So that's part of the demo process. And then as you start building, you try to use only local products. You don't want products that come from Brazil, because of the carbon footprints of the travel of that product. So you get points for local products. You get points for not using finishes and paints. The EPA says that indoor air is three times worse than outdoor air, which is gross when you think of all the off-gassing going on. Obviously, lead-base paints are no longer in use, but most paints have lots of toxins. So you breathe them all day long, they go in your blood system; when your kids are born they're born with these toxins in their blood system, then they get more toxins over their lifetime. It's a generational increase of toxins in our bodies. So anyway, we're not doing any VOC —volatile organic compounds. You don't want any of those. Low to zero VOC. All the new wood we needed is local, it's Forestry Stewardship Council-certified, FSC-certified wood. That means it comes from sustainable forests. Instead of clear-cutting, there's a rule, like one out of every three rows. Why clear-cut an entire forest and destroy the biodiversity and the plants, and where are they going to go when there are no more woods? You can take out a third of the woods in alternating rows, and the plants can be saved, the animals can be saved, and you can still get the wood. It's like letting land lay fallow every second or third season.

We knew this was going to cost a little more money, because right now there's no demand for a lot of this stuff. So you get on the radar. You're paying your people. They're basically getting educated as to where to buy these products, what to look out for in these products, why these things are important.

Why is a green roof important? It's important because it saves you energy. A black tar roof in the summertime goes up to like 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously, you're air conditioning your building to 76 or whatever it is. You're spending a lot of electricity to get your building down there. A green roof: the dirt, the grass collects all that heat. It doesn't even make it to your interior.

And the earth and grass act as a natural filter, and it takes three days for rain to run through a grass roof. Right now, there's a huge problem with storms. Heavy rainfall runs off of roofs, floods the drainage system, increases the amount of everything from animal feces to oil from the streets. It basically goes right out into the Ohio River, and that's not good for anybody. When they had the triathlon in Louisville, they almost had to cancel the swimming part because of the storms the three preceding days, because of the e coli. It just makes sense: Let's try not to send non-treated water through our fresh water systems.

A green roof basically is approximately six inches of soil and local plants. Now obviously you're not going to plant an oak up on your roof because it might get too heavy, but there are a lot of grasses and sedum we've been learning about. It's a grassy little roof.

No bushes and flowers?

You can do that. You can build a stronger roof and have bushes, but we're not doing that. We're just doing the basic green roof. And then we're going to have our conference room sit up on top of it. Or you can have lunch, and you're overlooking a grassy plain. You could have a picnic there.

It adds green space. It gets more oxygen in the air. And the heat island effect — cities are 7 to 10 degrees warmer than other places and that creates worse storms, we're in a tornado area to begin with — we should be incentivized to have lots of green roofs.

My dream is that UPS and the huge companies that have big warehouses put green roofs in. It seems to me it's not that hard to do. It doesn't cost that much money.

Compared to green roofs, solar panels have taken off. Solar panels are easy. You can order them, have them shipped here, and then it's just a matter of installation. Whereas with green roofs, you actually have to pay a little bit of attention to them. So the positive there is that in Germany, I think there were 10,000 jobs created there in the last decade for solar panels: making them, installation, sales. This could be a huge growth industry: green roofs and solar panels. A lot of people could be getting jobs as demand increases. As electricity gets more expensive and gas gets more expensive, it's going to seem that green is green.

So a third of the roof is going to be covered in solar panels and a third in grasses. And the front third a is a photovoltaic skin. Solar panels are made out of photovoltaic cells, and this is sort of a skin of photovoltaic cells, but not panels, but I don't know the exact percentages of what is what.

Then we're also going to have sky lights — natural lighting — very important. There are also intangible benefits. They've done studies that show buildings with natural lighting have higher employee productivity, higher employee retention. People just like working in a building that has sunlight as opposed to artificial light. It makes sense. Humans are animals. And that also counts as a LEED point.

They had actually blocked off all those windows. If you look at the building now, there are nine basically holes on the side of the building where the old windows were. So we're restoring that. We'll have tons of light.

We're also putting in geothermal. Basically, I think, 10 feet below the surface of the Earth the temperature is always between 50 and 60 degrees. So you can put coils 10 feet down below the ground surface, and then water runs through the coils, then comes back up into the building and releases heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. So in the winter, it heats your building, and in the summer, it cools your building. It's free energy from the Earth. In Iceland, they have geothermal that provides 95 percent of the total electricity in the entire country, but there the geothermal is literally the magma from the Earth's core. There are so many volcanoes, so they just tap that.

I think there are only four states in the country that have geothermal plants, and that's when they dig way down and release that super-pressurized, heated water and it spins turbines.

So these are the three main forms of energy.

What about insulation?

We're using the original brick wall. It's one of these buildings that's, I think, four bricks wide because they didn't have steel. Actually, there is steel in the front, but maybe they put that in when they changed the ground floor. TKTKTK CHECK WHOLE SECTION Anyway, we're keeping the original brick as the interior wall, and then on the outside there will be some insulation — I don't know what that's made of — but on the outside we're using some concrete blocks that are actually — cement plants, they say, are 5 percent of the world's total CO2 output, which is astounding, and you need cement for concrete, and our concrete blocks are made out of slag and fly ash. Slag is a byproduct of making iron. Fly ash is a byproduct of coal. So instead of those things going to landfills, we're using them in a constructive way.

So coal companies are going to get credit for recycling.

So how much more is it going to cost you to renovate this way?

We're going big guns. We're just going for it. It's probably 30 percent more. We did the math, and solar panels generally pay back their original investment after nine years. So that's almost like putting your money in a certificate of deposit — about 5 percent, a pretty good return on investment. And then you have some solar panels nine years from now.

So I'm actually trying to think of a way to put up farms of solar panels on some brownfields in Louisville. If you can do a deal with LG&E — they have a monopoly, but it seems they need more green energy, and supposedly they're looking into more alternative sources — you could put down an acre of solar panels, do some kind of fund with some bankers and investors who are happy with that 5 percent, very solid, not risky return — and that's without the electricity prices going up. And they're going to keep going up. So I met with a banker the other day, I've talked to some people in the Mayor's office who know something about solar. There was a full-on positive reaction from the bankers.

My other idea for brownfields is organic greenhouses. The problem with brownfields is you have to pay to clean up all the dirt, but you wouldn't necessarily touch the dirt. You could just use it on the surface. It wouldn't be touching, so you wouldn't have to pay for all that cleanup, but still would make productive use out of all that space.

The reality is, the Earth is basically a big terrarium, and we live in it. The good Lord put the coal way down under the mountain for a reason, because he knew it was bad for us. And he hid it. Well, we're digging it up, and it's polluting the water and polluting the air. We're not going to be able to breathe. We need to get rid of all of our fossil fuel addiction, not just oil.

Why are you doing this now? Why is this the moment when so much is happening?

Did you just see Nicolas Sarkozy in France? He said he wants to see all government buildings go green by 2020 — be self-sustainable. And it makes sense. Any building that uses taxpayer money, and schools and hospitals — they should all be doing green stuff. That's the 21st Century. We can use the building techniques of the 20th Century, but we really need to start thinking ahead.

Why now? We've seen the storms, starting with Katrina. Hurricanes are getting worse, temperatures are getting higher, ice caps are melting. Obviously, "An Inconvenient Truth" lays it out for a lot of people, but Al Gore was talking about ozone back when he was running against the first George Bush. They called him "Ozone Man," and kind of ridiculed him.

Prince Charles has been talking about organic farming for 50 years, and everybody teased him until the last couple of years. As gas prices get more and more expensive, I think the American system of agri-business and the food that travels 1,500 miles to get to your plate — we're going to have to go back to more local sources. If you assume that peak oil has happened, which it's definitely happening around now, I would say — you can't pump out 8 million gallons a day forever. It just makes sense that there's a finite amount of oil on the planet. Then gas is going to start getting more and more expensive and you just can't afford to transport stuff.

So how did you go about figuring out how to build this building, since it's, as you have said, not the usual thing?

Augusta has a master's degree in urban planning from Columbia, and she did her paper on farmland development and the farm bill in Kentucky, and we did a move called "Sweet Land," which is about whether a family should sell their farm to a developer. It was actually the first independent carbon-neutral film. You use a lot of energy transporting actors and lights and everything. So we got certified by a Swiss company. I guess they planted a lot of trees. We counted up all the miles traveled and the electricity we thought we would use with each light — all that kind of stuff.

We did a lot of research on green building. We didn't know much about it. My mom's Norwegian. There are a lot of green roofs over there. I don't know if some of the people out in the countryside know how environmentally friendly they're being. The Vikings probably had the green roofs. Of course, sometimes they have goats up there, and I don't think in Louisville we're going to have goats. And the Kurds have sod roofs.

So we just researched. My best friend is an architect in L.A. and he just left the Frank Gehry office. He worked there for 10 years. So his architecture firm had done some green stuff, but never a full rebuilding, so they have been very helpful. We had to get our license to apply for this LEED thing and then he had to get a person in his office to become a green-certified architect as well.

So it's been a great learning curve. We've learned so much. Two years ago, I didn't know any of this.

Platinum is hard. At the end of the day, we may only be gold, but we're going for it. Chicago is way ahead of the curve, compared to us. We're slow. I think they have 200 green roofs in Chicago. Mayor Daley has been really proactive.

Paint a picture of how you think it could be. Your daughter is...

Ten months old.

When she's 20 years old, what do you think a city like Louisville could be like or will be like?

History will decide if I'm out of my mind and delusional, or if I was ahead of the curve, but I would not be spending any money on more bridges in this town, because I don't think in 10 years we'll be driving cars the way we drive cars now. I think we're going to be driving smaller, solar-powered vehicles. We're not going to be needing as much road space. I just don't see, the way we're using gasoline and the way China and India are going to need more, we're not going to have that much gas in 10 years.

I feel like unless we put a moratorium on mountain-top removal, we're going to be spending billions of dollars on water filtration, trying to get these toxins from coal-processing out of our water systems. I also think Louisville is going to double in 10 years, because I think five years from now Arizona is going to empty. I'm finishing a documentary on water, and those cities are totally unsustainable. And they're still building golf courses! How can you green-light a golf course now in a place like Arizona? There's a finite amount of fresh water on the planet, and we're multiplying like rabbits. And then as the planet heats up, there's going to be more evaporation, so there's even less fresh water.

I'm even more fervent — I'm like a reborn environmentalist — now that we have our baby. The Native Americans said, "Think seven generations ahead." I'm bummed Beshear was in the paper supporting mountain-top removal, but don't get me started on that. So Kentucky might be the mesa state. We'll be like New Mexico if mountain-top removal doesn't stop. We won't have any water, because mountain-top removal will have covered up all the streams. So more people will come to Louisville, and that's assuming people north of us don't increase their dumpage of pollutants and sewage into the Ohio River.

So what's the positive scenario of what life could be like?

A positive scenario is that we are stricter about violations. The problem is the violations for coal slurry spills, whatever, are so minor in the scheme of things that they're like a slap on the wrist.

In a perfect world, things will not be worse than they are now. If we had a lot more green roofs in this town, we'd have better air quality. Louisville already needs better air quality. My allergies have gone crazy since I moved here. I think there will be more local farms. I think there will be better produce. I think those big agri-businesses — I think we'll go back to having more local tomatoes that taste like tomatoes. They may not be as "pretty," but let's redefine what "pretty" is. We've got to stop all the pesticide use. One of the boondoggles of ethanol is that corn is going to be the savior. The problem is we use so many pesticides on the corn. The pesticides not only require more water for the earth to digest the pesticides and to grow the corn. The pesticides then leak into the water system. We drink it. In the last 10 years, sperm rates, fertility rates have dropped 10 or 15 percent across the United States. We still use a pesticide called atrazine TKTKTK, which has been banned in the European Union. They've done extensive tests where atrazine causes tadpoles, fish TKTKT to change sexes, so we could be neutering species by continuing use of atrazine. We've got to go back to non petrochemical fertilizers.

And, since it will cost so much to transport stuff, I think we'll return to having a passenger rail service to Louisville. I think Louisville will become a more important city, because more things will travel by the waterways. I don't think we're all going to go back to being Amish and driving horse-drawn buggies. I think there will be solar, alternative-energy fueled public means of transportation. Transportation is going to have to get more green. Even if you just swap out all the traffic lights with LED — I think it's Spartanburg, S. C. where they saved $180,000 a year in electricity just by doing that.

As we spend more time and demand increases, things will get better. Just like we went from that big mobile phone to little bitty phones, so we'll figure out ways to maximize potential and minimize cost.

So we're trying to help the market develop.

You know, Mark Isaacs is doing a great green project. I don't think he's going to bother with the paperwork for LEED, but he's doing a very green project right here behind Bodega. This will be a little green corridor. The parking lot: We're looking at doing a porous one, because parking lots are terrible for storm-water run-off, so there's a porous, organic parking lot surface. This surface, I'm guessing, could turn into something for streets.

Assuming that the carbon tax will come, and the cap-and-trade will be in effect in the future, if we had really long-term-thinking leaders in the state, they would start realizing trees are really good carbon receptors. We can sequester carbon. And all the trees we're now blowing up and dumping to get the coal underneath, in 10 years the trees may be worth more than the coal is now. We're basically borrowing this money from our kids and grandkids. Kentucky could be a green leader. We have great land, low-density living, we haven't exploited everything. Florida, all their wetlands are now communities. All that water's just going into the sea, being wasted. They're putting in desalination plants. Think about the cost long-term. Let's invest a few pennies now, and our kids won't have to be paying dollars.

How will all of this affect the residential patterns in Louisville?

I think way more people are going to start living downtown. I think, also with Baby Boomers, a lot of people don't want to be driving at age 65, 70. They want to walk around. So I think more of them are going to start living downtown. I think it's going to start looking more like Europe: higher downtown density, public transportation out to various suburbs.

How about retrofitting of suburban houses?

Solar panels. One of the greenest things you can do is use an existing house. Construction is such a huge cost in terms of energy and resources. You can put solar panels on pretty much any surface now.

You can plant native grasses in your front yard and not have to go out and water grass that's not supposed to be in Kentucky in the first place. You go to New Mexico, and there are lots of people that have cactus front yards and little brown and green rocks. Some of these grassy lawns you're not going to have to water.

Retrofitting can be another growth industry. Let's retrofit all these houses. That's a lot of jobs we're going to create.

The way laws are written now, they encourage new construction and sprawl.

It's going to have to start happening. There is going to have to be a legislative or a voter movement to say there are enough houses and apartments. The problem is our whole economy is based on increased productivity, increased sales. There's only a finite amount of land.

Another problem with the carbon issue is that big houses are not energy-friendly at all.

There's a lot of beautiful farmland that's getting developed. And I know people need places to live, and I'm pro-development as long as it's responsible.

If you can make it so it's almost shameful to sell you land knowing it's going to a developer who's not going to protect it at all, and make better tax incentives for people to put easements on their properties, and then all of a sudden people will stop doing that.

So where did you grow up?

Davidson, North Carolina, a college town, on a dirt road surrounded by woods and a creek.

I worked in a law firm in Paris, France, and one of our clients was a film producer, and I was like, "Oooo, I want to do that." I had never met anyone in the film business until then, at age 29. So I gave up the law, and I went to intern in New York.

Tell us about your films.

We're finishing a documentary now on the globalization and privatization of water. We just got invited to screen it in Lincoln Center on Feb. 26, which is a big deal, and I'm hoping we'll have our official premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, but we'll see. Our first film won Sundance like 10 years ago.

We have a documentary on mountain-top removal, which should be coming to Louisville soon. We're doing two other documentaries on less socially relevant subjects, but now that I have a baby I just want to save the world, so I'm looking to do movies that are issue movies. I have a movie in post production, a bunch of stuff coming down the pike.

The new building will be our offices, on the third floor. We'll move our art gallery to the first floor, try to rent out the second floor. I kind of want to keep the creativity of the neighborhood. Hopefully, we'll rent to an architecture or graphic design firm. And then we'll have maybe a coffee shop or an internal café in the front. It's going to be, to me, a very inviting building.

And then in the back, there's going to be a green wall. I don't even know if there are any in America, but we saw one in Paris: literally a wall of plants. It's beautiful and it's environmental. It will be under the solar panels, so it will have kind of a dappled, sunlight effect. Then we'll have our little recycling center right there. You get an extra LEED point for having a dedicated parking place for a hybrid car, so that's where I can park my Prius. You also get an extra LEED point for having a shower in the building and a bike rack, so people can bike to work and shower. They've thought things through pretty thoroughly.

Hopefully, we'll have a lot of school kids coming by to see the building. We've already shown it to a lot of people.

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