The green revolution may be a much-ballyhooed fixture with architectural, engineering and construction cognoscenti, but what happens when the revolution actually arrives on the doorstep of the traditional blue collar, Irish Catholic, family-oriented stronghold of South Boston? Wicked Delicate Films' production of The Greening of Southie successfully explores that theme with a hip blend of time-lapse photography, great music and on-point dialogue as a young management team leads skeptical tradesmen through the experience of assembling an 11-story, 144 unit condominium project called the Macallen Building.

Photo: Wicked Delicate Films

Southie, of course, is best known for fighting school integration and Irish mobsters. But it also has benefited from the $15-billion Central Artery/Tunnel project, better known as the Big Dig, which transformed an area of old warehouses and clannish neighbors into a hot, trendy and very valuable piece of real estate. The spin-off is dynamic new development such as the Macallen Building, the first LEED certified residential structure in Boston, and Gold at that. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is a rating system established by the U.S. Green Building Council to measure the green performance of buildings, which can be either silver, gold or platinum.

Culture Shock

As the building rises from the vacant site of a former manufacturing plant, the film documents how the owner, Tim Pappas, and his building team assembled the 39 points needed for LEED Gold certification through conservation efforts in categories ranging from materials and resources to water efficiency and energy and atmosphere. The work involved, among other things, pouring 30,000 tons of locally-sourced concrete, placing 3.2 million pounds of recycled steel requiring 66,000 bolts, and installing recycled cotton insulation in lieu of fiberglass, dual flush toilets, bamboo flooring and non-formaldehyde wheatboard cabinets, as well as 13,000 web cells to contain roof plantings. It also generated lots of team education and self-examination along the way.

The film is an unfolding learning experience as workers initially question green building technologies then rise to the challenge by ramping into recycle mode to change the way they build and to change the way they think about building. Construction waste and the CO2 generated in building and maintaining structures (44% of U.S. greenhouse gasses come from heating and cooling buildings) impacts us all and contributes to climate change that could put parts of Boston underwater in the foreseeable future. The point is made that buildings consume 70% of America's electricity and workers, thinking through the process trying to understand the green revolution, come to the realization that energy conservation is a good thing for them and for their children. This is a legacy project for some.

Recycling on site, using locally (within 500 miles) produced materials and hardwood substitutes such as bamboo and straw (the wheatboard cabinets) helps stop deforestation and trips to landfills. Along the way the wheatboard expands when exposed to moisture and needs trimming, the bamboo flooring lifts because of an environmentally sensitive but low adhesive glue, the roof plants die and some transportation costs, such as reordering a new load of 60,000 board ft of bamboo from China, impact the project. But when all is said and done, the Macallen Building will use 30% less energy than a conventional building and 1,227 tons of building waste was diverted from landfills in the process. Luxury living, the condos sell from $500,000 to $2-million, was never so green.

Note: The Greening of Southie was used April 15 to May 7 in a national campaign, Earth Week in the Union Halls, to help raise awareness of green-collar jobs.

Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney co-founded award-winning Wicked Delicate Films in 2004 to create documentaries that explore "the human relationship to the natural world." The firm is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.