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WILL IIIby M. R. Smith

With the word “green” being so often used and abused as a marketing tool—often with minimal concession to anything remotely “sustainable”—it’s understandable if people tend to tune out to any significance the word may have. But when constructing a building, using all manner of wood, metal, plastic, stone, concrete, glass, insulations, glues, paints, wiring, and systems—some people like knowing that the source of the materials is a responsible one, that the design takes into consideration proper land use, insulation, and energy efficiency, and that renewable energy sources can meet most—if not all—needs on the premises.

If somebody is looking for a “green” builder to meet the above criteria, they need look no further than New Paltz-based William Whitsfield Johnson the Third, aka Will III (pronounced Will Three). And if anyone tells you that “green” building is not “sustainable” profit-wise in the homebuilding market, they should be sure to tell Will too. If he has time to talk, that is. He’s a very busy man these days.

Some of us lived in dormitories when we went to college; Will III lived in an elaborate treehouse he built himself, out of found materials. An art major at the University of Georgia—he grew up in Decatur, near Atlanta—he put himself through school with carpentry work before dropping out and moving to New York City with his girlfriend in 1988. Though he was getting some contractor work in the city, and doing some superintendant work, he found himself spending more time in the Hudson Valley. “When my friends in Woodstock asked me to work on their properties that’s when it really came together for me. They were really creative, and had travelled the world….(they) influenced me a lot.” Pretty soon he made the move upstate in 1990, working for a contractor whose specialty was dismantling and moving barns to new locations, and either re-assembling or recycling them. When the contractor retired, Will “inherited” the equipment and employees, assumed the moniker “Will III,” and was soon in business for himself, building in the Hudson Valley.”

So what exactly does a self-professed “green” builder like Will III do differently than a “non-green?” First consideration is available materials: are there any onsite that can be successfully harvested or recycled? For harvested, Will likes locally available white pine; “Back in the day when we were colonies the English claimed the tallest (white pines) as the property of the King, as masts for the ships. I try to avoid wood that’s trucked in from California.” If there’s a usable existing structure, Will prefers to incorporate it into the design. “It’s such a waste to just destroy it, when you can take it, change it, use the foundation, whatever parts of it are good.”

Wood planks and beams from demolitions are de-nailed and reused. Outdoor exposed wood can be used inside, most barn floorboards are good and thick, easily reclaimed. Will also favors “mushroom wood” for siding: wood that has been used in mushroom growing and harvesting, and has a resulting variegation of grain color and texture.

All wood has to be from honest sources: Will favors Woodstock Wood Supply and Rothe Lumber, both of which only deal with sustainably harvested products, often plantation-grown. Recent improvements in lightweight high-insulating concrete also make that a “responsible” option.

“One of the things about being a (responsible) builder is that you’re really working with the community. If you’ve been there awhile, and can pick materials straight from the community, what could be more sustainable than making sure you’re building with stuff from the neighborhood, and providing local jobs (in the process)?”

So: local materials, local crew, and low carbon footprint in acquiring materials. The next consideration is heating/cooling and insulation. Insulation in particular is not the most bio-friendly of materials, and though some clients will go the less-expensive fiberglass route, Will advocates the use of SIP’s: structural (pre-)insulated panels for walls and roofs, as they tend to have a higher “R” value, which indicates an insulator’s resistance to heat flow. It goes without saying: insulation is the main key to energy efficiency.

For heating and cooling Will starts by designing radiant systems into the floors—efficient and money-saving—and recommends putting in a closed-system geo-thermal. A series of narrow wells are dug into the ground, down to around 300 feet deep, and pipes are installed. The earth’s basic temperature—@55°F at around 300 ft. down—is used to warm or cool water piped through the wells in a closed system. In winter, this gives whatever heating system is used in the house a head start: it’s easier to warm a house starting from 55°F than from say, 20°F. (In the summer, it works the opposite way, when 55°F is cooler than outdoor temperature.) Geo-thermal heating/cooling does have minimal energy needs to pump the water, but those can often be easily met by the use of photovoltaic solar cells on the roof. Solar powered hot-water systems have become more available and affordable. (For more about PV and onsite sustainable energy generation, see this month’s interview with Hudson Valley Clean Energy’s John Wright.)

Then it’s often open collaboration with the client on the design, sometimes with the help of an architect, but Will is highly skilled with drawing and the CAD design program. “I have a lot of fun with the design, but I’m not technically an ‘architect.’ I call myself a builder. Anyway, the word ‘architect’ means ‘chief builder,’ and that’s what I am.” Modern clients—especially in the Hudson Valley—have become much more sophisticated in their understanding on sustainability factors. One client wanted a system that diverted rainwater from the roof to the garden. “Those are the calls were getting now, that’s what people are talking about. It’s refreshing because you feel like you’re doing something.”

When building or restoring, Will seeks harmony between interior and exterior. “We have a lot of interfacing with agricultural buildings and use of barns, and how they function as tools of the environment, not just as houses. Studying a lot of great Japanese architecture, they had that same philosophy of bringing your outside surroundings inside to your home. For a long time, people had the attitude that Mother Nature was an enemy. Our grandparents felt that way, often as a necessity. They grew up in different conditions from us. A lot of our buildings were built that way (back then to reflect that).”

When it comes to the exterior of the building, Will cites Eric Sloane’s book Reverence For Wood as a major influence. “I started from a very organic place, making my own finishes, reading about how things were done 200 years ago. They were building ‘green’. If you’re building with a sense of history, you’re kind of building green to begin with. The further you get from vinyl, the better!” Needless to say: no vinyl or T-111 siding is used, metal roofs are preferable to asphalt shingles.

Thanks to last years Green Fair in Rhinebeck—at the Dutchess County Fairgrounds—Will has had fairly steady business since, with one potential upcoming project of particular interest. A gentleman who owns some land near where Rte. 32 enters Kingston is interested in partnering with Will on a “green development,” building a series of eco-friendly buildings aimed at middle-income families. “They’re like the Prius of houses. And it’s a great location for them, right in the middle of the hospitals and schools,” the idea being that most residents needs could be met with little or no driving needed. Still very much in the planning stage, Will hopes to get the ball rolling for the “Habitat” project financially and politically in the coming year.

Meanwhile the projects are coming in, they’re booked well into 2010. Will’s girlfriend Lillian Heard commutes to the city to do high-end wall finish work—often using materials like Shikkui plaster, a natural substance that absorbs CO2, VOC gasses and bad odors, and kills harmful bacteria, fungi, and molds. And Will is busy building places that will hopefully “last forever. Using materials that you know are not going to rot, that are beautiful, designing a house in a way that you know will be efficient. It’s not that much of a stretch to make a building ‘green’, if you build it well.”

Read more about Will III at

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