Back in April I gave a quick shout-out to The Greening of Southie, a documentary that tells the story of the construction of Boston’s first green residential building project, the Macallen Building.

As a film about the trials and tribulations of green building, The Greening of Southie functions as an insider-y look at the oft-perplexing LEED rating system. But perhaps more importantly, the film is about the blue-collar laborers behind the Macallen project (many of them residing near the building site in traditionally Irish Catholic South Boston, aka “Southie") and their skepticism/curiosity towards green building methods. More than a movie about a place or a thing, which it could easily be, The Greening of Southie is a movie about people.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Ian Cheney, the director of Southie and one half of Wicked Delicate (the other half being Curt Ellis), the Brooklyn-based production company and advocacy project behind the film. Ian and Curt were also the stars and co-producers of another eco-documentary, 2007’s King Corn.

Ian, it turns out, is a neighbor of mine so I was excited to find out more about a new Wicked Delicate project that I’d seen on neighborhoods streets: Truck Farm. Ian also filled me in on the Earth Week in Union Halls events where the film was screened at over 60 union halls across the country (The New Yorker recently published a great story on one of these screenings) to great acclaim. The screenings went over so well that Southie is being pushed as an educational tool for the construction trade.

Being an inquisitive guy who spent several years living in Boston, I had a few questions for Ian. He was kind enough to answer.

Matt Hickman: Let's start at the beginning. I can't imagine a place with more, and I hate to use this phrase, "local color," than South Boston. Did Southie find you or did you find Southie?

Ian Cheney: The developer of the Macallen Building, Tim Pappas, approached us about creating a time-lapse video of the building, but as we spent more time on site, we realized that there was a real story here that deserved a longer treatment. Having grown up just south of South Boston, I was very curious how this neighborhood would receive the Macallen Building. Our hope as storytellers, of course, was that it would prove an enlightening and entertaining backdrop for a very new way of building.

I'm surprised that Boston, a metropolis famed for innovation in so many areas, retains a somewhat old-school attitude when it comes to green building and other environmental concerns. Has the acceptance of green building changed in Boston since the Macallen Building opened?

I think the turning point occurred in 2007, when Boston’s mayor decreed that all large buildings (bigger than 50,000 square feet) need to be LEED-certifiable. By establishing a baseline standard for Boston’s big buildings, the mayor spawned a real shift in the construction business in the Boston area — just imagine all the contractors across town scrambling to write new “green mission statements” so that they could more effectively bid for jobs on new green buildings.

The gentrification of a traditionally middle-class, Irish Catholic enclave plays a major part in the Macallen Building story. I'm curious as to your thoughts about green's long-term association with "luxury" and the possibility of green housing for all income levels.

I see affordable green housing as the most important new challenge for the green building industry. For one thing, we’re in a recession! As many of us seek to cut utility bills, the idea of living in a space that saves energy and reduces waste is almost irresistible. There’s also an environmental justice component here; many low-income communities are disproportionately exposed to toxic living environments, and lack access to clean air and greenspace. While it’s understandable that many green projects have been developed initially by/for wealthier clients, it’s time to prioritize green housing for low-income communities.

You really take the mystique out of the LEED point system in the film. Going into filming, were the intricacies of LEED something you were familiar with or was it a learning experience for you?

I grew familiar with LEED while in graduate school, when I attended a big Greenbuild conference in Austin. Frankly, I didn’t think that the Olympic-style medal system would really take off — but it has. Its simplicity is brilliant, and its attempts at being comprehensive are admirable. In the film we didn’t shy away from pointing out some of the ways in which LEED falls short, but that’s more a way of saying that it’s a work-in-progress, a dynamic system that will change in response to our understanding of what green buildings need to be.
The Earth Week in the Union Halls events have proven to be a hit. Tell me more about how The Greening of Southie is playing a pivotal role in educating and inspiring the construction trade.

While watching the Macallen Building take shape, Curt and I were struck by how much the construction workers wanted to know about this newfangled green building they were building, and by how little they were told during the process. Without a system in place to educate workers about what a green building really is — why it’s important that it save energy and water, and how the multiple parts of the system interact — it seems like green buildings are only fighting half the battle. These buildings are a powerful opportunity to bring more people — especially folks with steel-toed boots and hard-hats, not your run-of-the-mill environmentalist — into the conversation about environmental sustainability.

Showing The Greening of Southie in over 60 union halls across the country during Earth Week was our way of getting the ball rolling. But the real work is being done by the union trades themselves in training workers for new green jobs, and by groups like Green for All in connecting workers with developers, contractors, and policy-makers. We want to help get the conversation going, so if The Greening of Southie can serve as an entertaining introduction to the basics of green building, then we feel we’ve done our job.

Given that there were more than 60 Earth Week in the Union Halls events in 17 states, you and Curt couldn't personally attend them all. Give us an idea of the reaction at one specific event.

At the ironworkers training facility in Queens I was thrilled to share the film with over 200 men and women who filed into a cavernous space filled with I-beams, welding equipment, and folding chairs. The guys didn’t miss a beat, asking a barrage of questions after the film ranging from critiques of the building itself — “I didn’t see a lot of passive solar in this building” — to questions about why many of the materials weren’t sourced more locally. It was clear, in the end, that the designers and developers of green buildings could have a lot to learn from the men and women who are working with these new green materials everyday.

Tell me a bit more about Truck Farm and other Wicked Delicate projects that are in the works.

It didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have any place to grow food here in the city. So I took a good long look at my old pickup truck and decided to go for it. There’s a green roof system in there now that allows it to retain moisture without getting too heavy, and I’ve planted several rows of heirloom lettuce and arugula, tomatoes, basil and a bit of broccoli. We have a solar-powered camera system that takes a picture of the farm every five minutes throughout the summer, and we’re shooting a short film about the entire process — called, needless to say, Truck Farm.

My main project is a film called The City Dark – it’s a documentary about light pollution and the disappearance of night. The film asks a simple question — do we need darkness? — and sets out from the city that never sleeps to see our darkest (and brightest) places around the world. Along the journey, and from the film’s home base in New York, we learn how light pollution not only affects our connect to the broader universe, but also affects our ecosystems and human health as well.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

A wicked green Q & A
Filmmaker Ian Cheney explains how his documentary, 'The Greening of Southie,' is helping inform and entertain the blue-collar construction trade.