Building Safe Communities with the Environment in Mind

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Photo courtesy ILSR
A deconstruction retail yard in Burlington, Vermont

The desire to build and maintain environmentally safe communities with neighborhood resources prompted Neil Seldman and two partners to create the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) in 1974. Today the Washington, D.C.-based ILSR has a national reach and acts as a consultant for communities interested in smart, environmentally sound development.

With the goal of insulating local communities from national market vagaries,  the ILSR helps start-up companies tap local sources of energy, labor, building materials, food, and real estate to build self-sustaining neighborhoods. “We believe in the international trade of ideas, not materials,” says Seldman, ILSR president.

Two ILSR projects include Deconstruction–the business of reusing building materials–and the Healthy Building Network–a coalition of building professionals and environmentalists who identify hazardous building materials and suggest cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternatives. Bill Walsh, national coordinator of the program, switched from pushing for bans on pesticides to approaching the same issues from a building materials perspective when he founded the network two years ago. “It changed everything,” he says.

The Healthy Building Network successfully campaigned in 2001 to ban the use of arsenic-treated wood on playgrounds. Educating government agencies about the risks of arsenic, which comes off on kids’ hands, resulted in agreements from pressed wood manufacturers to switch to arsenic-free wood by 2003. “Most customers had no idea they were using arsenic in children’s playgrounds,” explains Walsh.

On the other end of the building ­spectrum, Deconstruction diverts used materials from overflowing landfills and provides local jobs as well as a lucrative trade for workers of all skill levels. “We are trying to extend the embodied energy of all materials,” says Jim Primdahl, program manager. Primdahl teaches entrepreneurs to submit competitive bids, identify reusable materials, and find buyers. “It’s a convergence of the recycling and construction industries,” explains Primdahl.

Primdahl is currently involved in the deconstruction of the Stanton Dwelling Project, 348 townhouses whose materials will be used for local residential sites by Washington, D.C.-based architectural firm istudiodesign. “Deconstruction gives jobs to local city residents so the dollars stay in the community,” says Rick Schneider, an istudiodesign partner. “It’s like the cycle we see in nature. Nothing goes to waste. We’re closing the loop.”

In addition to creating jobs and recycling, Deconstruction yields quality materials. “I reused 150,000 square feet of oak flooring from the 1950s,” says Schneider. “You can’t buy that now.”

The ILSR, with twenty employees, also runs community-based programs that make green building and career options possible for local residents. For a detailed list of the companies affiliated with the ILSR, visit

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