Believing in Pockets of Green Champions

Order up a coffee at Starbucks and you might expect a shot of cream. But a shot of green? Exactly what Brett Little got in his mug. A college kid working on his associate's degree at Baker College in Muskegon, he was making a buck as a barista, but he was also getting some education – from that same mug.
"We were using organic milk, soy milk, Fair Trades," he says. "So I started to wonder. You could say an awareness was born. That's how I learned about climate change." He helped develop a recycling program, reduced water and electricity usage, and used green cleaning methods at the Starbucks branch.
One heck of a cup of coffee. While Little was earning an associate's degree in small business management at Baker, he was so captured by his new interest in sustainability that he started to look for a more advanced degree.
"I looked online for some kind of tangent for environmental studies," Little says, "and Aquinas College popped up. So I came to Grand Rapids and dove head first into sustainability."
The resulting bachelor's degree in sustainable business management -- one of the first such degrees in the country, Little says -- led him to a job as administrative director of Alliance for Environmental Sustainability, or AES, at 949 Wealthy Street SE, Suite 201. AES is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization in business to help buildings get green. He now calls himself "the green building geek."
Little began his time at AES as a volunteer, still brewing coffee at a Grand Rapids Starbucks at the same time, and still handling another position doing research for a company called Rockford Berge. He was finding out about onshore and offshore wind projects while learning the ropes at AES until the director at AES made an out-of-state move. AES needed a new leader. Little had made an impression on the organization's president and owner, Michael Holcomb, and was invited to step up.
That was in 2010. AES was a decade old by then, founded to fill the need to educate people about green building. The organization defines its mission as: "To increase the adoption of sustainable choices in the residential built environment through educational programs that bring awareness, expertise, and access to sustainable building resources and programs."
AES spreads the green by training homeowners, architects, designers, builders, and other stakeholders in the construction industry in sustainable building principles. They partner with other nonprofits, homeowners, and the local government to provide training, education, seminars, and consulting to anyone who is interested in investing in their homes, communities, and environments by the use of sustainable building practices. Topics include green products, green building, LEED, energy efficiency, Indoor Air Quality, Energy Star V3, Green Communities, and sustainable residential design.
In 2005, AES was selected to be the Midwest’s regional LEED for Homes Provider, and, in 2011, AES was selected to serve as the Enterprise Green Communities Foundation Technical Assistance Provider.
"We can certify LEED homes and buildings up to 12 floors, so now we are getting into commercial buildings," Little says.
The reasons for being certified as a LEED building are many, encompassing health, environmental, and economic reasons. Affecting health are: the removal of allergens; using non-toxic materials; and generally improving the comfort of the living space. Affecting environment are: reducing the impact of building construction; using less energy from fossil fuel sources; more efficient use of materials; integrating into the local environment; and improving natural water hydrology. Affecting economy are: building durable structures that last with less maintenance; reducing electricity, water, and natural gas bills; dramatically lowering heating bills; raising property values. Building LEED-certified buildings can also include various rebates in state or federal funding, and discounts in insurance.
"LEED is our bread and butter," says Little. "We offer monthly webinars on becoming LEED-certified, and we have had people dial in from as far away as India."
Much of AES's work is done online, through their website, although coming in for consultations is also welcome.
And then, there's Little's personal touch. Since becoming administrative director at the Grand Rapids office, he has become an advocate of going paperless. When asked for a pamphlet about AES, he lifts empty hands. The small office on Wealthy Street, he says, is too large already for his small staff, including an intern who is building their media network connections -- online, of course.
"In fact, we are looking for a smaller office space," Little adds. "We don't need all this space, so we are putting it up for lease. With computers, I can often work from home. Our president, Mike Holcomb, works from home, too. With a cell phone, a computer, and a coffee shop, I can do my demos online from any place."
When Little says he takes his work home, he means it in more ways than one. He takes it to the very structure of his house. Recently married, he and his wife Laura purchased a 1,500-square-foot home in Grand Rapids that was built in 1926 and immediately set to renovating it to go green, practicing what he daily preaches.
"We were planning our wedding at the same time that we were planning our renovation," Little laughs. "That's stressful. But Laura trusted me."
AES energy auditors did their work on the new house, designating areas for improvement. Little took advantage of various financial incentives and rebates he knew about through his work to help finance the updates.
"We took out the old, oversized gas furnace and updated the water heater. The place had minimal insulation, so we put in spray foam, drilling into walls and pouring in cellulose and adding 10 inches of insulation in the attic. We got up to a 50 percent reduction in heat bills."
With the help of his father, Little rebuilt leaky basement walls. With other renovations, such as adding an electric blower to the furnace and changing the exhaust fan, their electric usage took a 30 percent to 60 percent cut.
"We invested about $30,000 in the house," he says, but then shrugs. Comfort was improved, carbon footprint was lessened, monthly bills were reduced, and the wedding took place with a happy bride. The home assessor, however, came through the house and declared market value had only gone up by a thousand.
"We have a long way to go in this area," Little declares. He adds, "Laura likes paper, I like online. Laura misses the rattle of the old exhaust fan, but she appreciates the comfort of the home and the lower bills. It's an investment in our future."

Zinta Aistars is a freelance writer from Hopkins and editor of the literary ezine The Smoking Poet.

Photos by Adam Bird. 
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