Green Guru Alex Wilson '77
The BuildingGreen founder teaches how to harness renewable energy and become self-sufficient. by Zeke Wright ’07
During the summer of 1976 a group of students from IC and Cornell received funding through the National Science Foundation to study energy self-sufficiency. The plot of land they hoped to turn self-sufficient was in south Danby; it was owned by two Ithaca College sociology professors, Mark and Deirdre Silverman.
Alex Wilson was one of the IC students. As a biology major, he had one of the strongest science backgrounds of the group. Alex looked at the efficacy of using renewable energy at the site by measuring the wind power and solar energy potential of the property; a report on his findings was published in the Cornell Engineering Quarterly. This work sparked Alex’s interest in renewable energy and self-sufficiency — an interest that has snowballed into a three decades–long career as a leader in the environmental movement.
For the past 20 years Alex has been at the helm of BuildingGreen, a company he founded dedicated to disseminating information about green building. Through its acclaimed monthly newsletter, Environmental Building News, and subscription-based website, Alex’s company has been at the forefront of the sustainability and green building movements since before either term came into vogue.
“I always imagined myself working in limnology [the scientific study of bodies of fresh water] or some ecology field,” Alex says. “But I had also been involved as an environmental activist, and I really saw the impact of buildings on the environment. When I had an opportunity to develop a career around trying to reduce the environmental impact of buildings, I realized how significant it can be.”
According to the EPA, buildings account for nearly half of the United States’ annual energy use and total carbon dioxide emissions. Green construction, Alex says, is about “creating buildings that are very energy efficient, that minimize the use of energy and therefore the emissions resulting from energy consumption.” They’re also water-efficient, healthy to live in, and “located responsibly so that people living or working in them can be less reliant on automobiles.”
Interestingly, Alex eschews the current buzzword, sustainability, when discussing buildings. “I tend to shy away from the term ‘sustainable building’ because we don’t really know what sustainability is yet,” he says. “We know that buildings can be designed and built to have a much lower environmental impact than conventional buildings, but as to whether they are actually sustainable, we don’t know.”
BuildingGreen caters primarily to design professionals, builders, and contractors. But there is a growing presence of “owner-builders,” who are more invested in the construction and renovation of their homes—often taking an active role. Alex’s latest book, Your Green Home, gives such readers easy-to-digest information about minimizing the impact of buildings—on both the land around them and the people living in them. The book is selling well, as there has recently been a groundswell of interest in the green building techniques and materials Alex promotes, sparked by a broadening understanding of the consequences of humankind’s activities on the planet.
When Alex isn’t researching and writing books or speaking about green building design and practices, you might find him out enjoying the nature he works so hard to protect and preserve. He has written a series of books on canoeing and paddling for the Appalachian Mountain Club. “I think it’s very important to maintain that motivation to protect the environment,” Alex says. “So through these books, I’m making it easier for people in the Northeast to get outside and enjoy some of what nature offers.”
Alex is optimistic that as people who visit national parks and appreciate nature’s beauty make the connections between their actions and their effect on the things they love, they will make adjustments in their life choices. And that will add to the number of allies Alex Wilson has in working to ensure that some nature will be left for future generations.
Three decades after Alex and his fellow NSF-funded Cornell and IC students studied their property, the Silvermans finally got a wind turbine. In December 2006 they installed a Fortis 5.8-Kw turbine, which in its first few months provided them with about 75 percent of their household’s electrical needs.
Zeke Wright, who graduated in May 2007 just after he finished writing this story, read Alex’s book Your Green Home as part of his research and immediately bought a copy for himself; over the summer he built a garage at his parents’ home, incorporating many of the green building techniques he learned.