Green in Greensboro

by YES! Weekly staff

Proximity Hotel by Brian Clarey / Photography By lindsay Emeigh

The Proximity Hotel; 704 Green Valley Road, Greensboro; 336.379.8200;

If you understand the engineering principles behind the elevator at Greensboro’s Proximity Hotel, it would be understandable if you were a bit skittish your first time going down on it.

It’s an Otis Gen2, the cutting edge from that venerable line of vertical human transport, and when it drops from the eighth floor to the lobby, it uses gravity as opposed to mechanical power. But the ride is smooth; passengers usually have no idea that the elevator brakes are actually harnessing the friction they generate and transferring the power back into the hotel grid.

“A good deal of our guests have absolutely no idea these things are going on,” says Guest Services Coordinator Tony Villier.

For the Proximity Hotel is a luxury boutique inn, with elegant design resulting in sleek lines and geometric shapes, with subtle drapery softening the hard corners. Rooms and suites bespeak elegance and tasteful minimalism, with high ceilings and original artwork hanging from the concrete walls. There is a four-star restaurant, the PrintWorks Bistro, an outdoor pool and fitness center, a garden, living rooms for the guests and plenty

But it is also certified platinum under the US Green Building Council’s LEED system, the first of its kind on the entire continent. It uses 41 percent less energy than comparable facilities, significantly less water too. The gypsum and of lounge space.steel that comprise the buildings are recycled; the concrete is 4 percent fly ash that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill. And it has a low impact on the environment — in fact, during construction a creek running through the property was brought back to life instead of paved over.

“It smelled bad,” Viller says. “It was completely overgrown with weeds. We came in and totally transformed it. We turned it into an amenity.”

Now the waters whisper across flat rocks and pool in scenic eddies near the patio of the PrintWorks Bistro, the refrigerators of which are cooled by geothermal energy accessed through six 450-foot wells dug on the property. The ventilation hood over the restaurant’s stoves and grills kicks on only when a laser system senses smoke to avoid sucking cold or hot air out of the system.

On a low roof painted white to reflect the sun’s heat, trays of earth and fledgling ground cover soak up the falling rain, creating a barrier to the water’s inevitable journey to the ground. The trays also act as natural insulation, helping the structure maintain its internal climate. And unlike a lot of hotels — even luxury ones — the Proximity’s hallways, sitting areas and guest rooms are filled with fresh air.

On the roof, a network of 100 solar panels heats water; abut 60 percent of the hotel and restaurant’s hot water comes through this web of pipes and tanks — enough for perhaps 100 homes. The rest is heated with natural gas.

On the eighth floor, Villier raps on the door to an unoccupied suite. “Guest services,” he announces before entering and flicking a master switch, activating the power in the room. It’s got high ceilings and exposed ductwork and pipe, in line with one of the core design principles.

“If it’s not ugly,” Villier says, “don’t cover it up.” Here in the City Suite, natural light washes over the sitting area through four giant windows cased with the circled X, the hotel’s stylized logo. The master bedroom is similarly adorned with stylized windows.

Even on this cloudy and rain-soaked afternoon the rooms inside the Proximity are aglow with natural light. Outside the rain-streaked windows, we can see the features of the city’s skyline — the UNCG water tower, the Lincoln Financial Building — emerging from the lush tree canopy.

It’s peaceful. “As a guest, you really don’t notice a lot of these green aspects,” Villier says. “As a guest you don’t notice that you’re using a showerhead that uses less water.”

Patriot Biodiesel by Keith T. Barber

If you’re a big fan of thinking globally and acting locally, Gabe Neeriemer offers a simple suggestion.

“Go to the restaurants you eat at and ask them to recycle their oil for biodiesel,” Neeriemer, founder and president of Patriot Biodiesel, said. “Go to the places you buy your diesel from, and ask them to carry biodiesel. Even if they don’t use my biodiesel, they’ll expand the market in the area.”

Neeriemer began producing his biodiesel four years ago with his business partner, Brian Talbert, at their company, Oak Biodiesel in High Point. Neeriemer founded the operation after being laid off from his job as a nuclear medicine technologist for High Point Regional Medical Center. While working at the High Point Regional, Neeriemer experienced a moment of pure insight while watching an episode of “Oprah.”

“She had Darryl Hannah on her show and [she] was talking about biodiesel,” Neeriemer recalled. “I said, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’” Neeriemer and Talbert successfully converted their 1999 Ford

E-350 van to run on pure vegetable oil. That experience led to the formation of Oak Biodiesel. Neeriemer and Talbert’s science experiment points out a little known fact about biodiesel: Diesel engines produced between 1996 and 2006 can run on 100 percent biodiesel or B100, but newer engines don’t handle biodiesel as well.

“Biodiesel would take care of all the emission problems they’re having but they can’t engineer an engine for biodiesel,” he said. “They have to engineer it for the dirtiest fuel allowed to run through it.”

Newer engines are mostly rated for 5 percent biodiesel or B5, and it is Neeriemer’s dream to see every diesel engine in the Piedmont Triad running on B5 within five years.

“If I keep my efforts up to bring in local feedstocks and the consumers request more biodiesel, we could have the entire Triad on B5,” he said. “I could make enough to keep the Triad on B5. That really has been a realistic goal. We have the ability; we have the capacity. It only takes community support.”

Even as a startup operation, Neeriemer and Talbert enjoyed strong community support, which laid the groundwork for Patriot’s future success. After forming Oak Biodiesel, Neeriemer and Talbert had difficulty meeting Guilford County fire code requirements and were on the verge of dismantling the business before their loyal customers stepped in.

“My customers were like, ‘Whoa, what are you doing? This is too big of a deal just to sell and get out of it,’” Neeriemer said.

With the help of two investors, Neeriemer and Talbert relocated their operation to the tank farm area off Chimney Rock Road in Greensboro, renamed the company and increased their production capacity by a factor of 12.

With nine 5,000 gallon holding tanks at his Greensboro facility, Neeriemer said Patriot can easily process up to 2,000 gallons of biodiesel a day, but he must increase the feedstock supply of vegetable oil first.

Neeriemer estimates that only 10 percent of restaurants in the Piedmont Triad are currently recycling their waste vegetable oil for biodiesel production. Most restaurants allow rendering companies to collect their waste vegetable oil and convert it into feed for dogs and pigs. Patriot Biodiesel offers a better price for the oil, but the difference is nominal to restaurant owners, Neeriemer said. That’s why he says Patriot’s partnership with the Libby Hill seafood restaurant chain has been so vital to the company’s survival.

Neeriemer praised Libby Hill’s ownership for restructuring its operation to ensure all of the oil used to fry fish at its restaurants ends up at Patriot’s production facility. In exchange for its waste oil, Patriot supplies Libby Hill’s fleet of trucks with biodiesel. The Libby Hill model is one Neeriemer hopes to see other area restaurants follow.

On Sept. 18, John Hepburn, a Patriot volunteer, poured a new arrival of Libby Hill waste vegetable oil into Patriot’s filtration system, which pumped the oil into a large clarifying tank.

“We’re processing it by bringing it up to temperature, getting all the water out and all the garbage out,” Hepburn explained. “Then [we’re] forcing it through a filter into our holding tank so it’s ready to process into biodiesel.”

Neeriemer said there is absolutely no waste in the biodiesel production process. The sludge that ends up on the top filter of the clarifying tank is sold to rendering companies that convert it into feedstock. During the refining process, the purified vegetable oil is mixed with sodium hydroxide and methanol to make biodiesel. The machine that extracts the impurities makes glycerin, which is stored and sold. Methanol used in the chain reaction process is recycled over and over again, Neeriemer said.

Lambert has been successful in his efforts to bring new restaurants on board each week, while Neeriemer has been focused on getting bulk shipments of waste vegetable oil from Georgia and Virginia. Even though Neeriemer has become the “go-to guy” for biodiesel in the Triad, he still has to be creative to find new sources of waste vegetable oil.

“That’s our limiting factor on production every day,” he said.

Patriot is currently in talks with NC A&T State University to start a pilot program in biodiesel production that would bring students to his Greensboro facility to study the biodiesel production process. Neeriemer said the A&T deal is just one example of how Patriot is making inroads with local universities and nonprofits to secure additional supply for its operation.

“Universities seem to just give it to us because it helps their sustainability rating with the Princeton Review,” Neeriemer said. “Sustainability rating right now is extremely big business. If they can get [their rating] up, students look for that, and students push the universities to recycle their oil. At Radford University, the student body voted that all waste oil go to a biodiesel refinery.”

Neeriemer said officials at Radford contacted him and he gladly accepted their offer to take all the waste vegetable oil generated by the school’s cafeteria. Currently, Patriot Biodiesel has no competition in the Piedmont Triad, Neeriemer said. That distinction carries with it a great deal of responsibility, and a sense of urgency.

Neeriemer said his role is to create new markets for his biodiesel while simultaneously finding alternate sources of vegetable oil. Through his distributor, Clinard Oil, Neeriemer is working on developing contracts with local school systems to supply biodiesel for school buses in Guilford and Forsyth counties. Currently, the city of Greensboro and the city of Winston-Salem are two of Patriot’s biggest clients.

Researchers at NC State and Wake Forest University are working on catalysts that would convert restaurant trap grease and free fatty acids into biodiesel. And the next frontier of biofuels could be algae grown in a lab. Neeriemer is hopeful that some of these great ideas

Green Subdivision by Jordan Green

Mandy Nelson had not yet moved into their new house in the Sanford’s Creek subdivision near Colfax in northwestern Guilford County, but after dropping her husband off at work she was taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood on a recent drizzly Friday morning.

“I’ve been ready to move in since the framing began,” Nelson said. “It feels like home.”

The couple’s house is scheduled for completion in the next couple weeks. Mandy Nelson said she and her husband were attracted to the neighborhood for a number of reasons. Her husband likes the subdivision’s green features. Mandy Nelson appreciates the house’s healthy aspects, among them its sealed crawl spaces and air filtration system, which circulates clean air throughout the structure. But mainly, it’s the sense of community that closed the deal.

“It has a real neighborhood feel,” Mandy Nelson said. “Kids play together. It’s tucked back out of the way…. People are really friendly. We haven’t even moved in yet, and people have said, ‘Hey, want to come look at the house? ‘ People really care. People are planning to be here 15 to 20 years, to raise their kids here.”

Sanford’s Creek holds the distinction of being the first subdivision in North Carolina to be certified green by the National Association of Home Builders, and only one of seven green certified subdivisions across the nation.

The subdivision was designed by builder Gary Silverstein and Bill Greco of Land Solutions. Silverstein has been in the construction business in Guilford County for 27 years, and has been a licensed general contractor since the late 1980s. From the start, Silverstein has challenged himself to raise his standards, and build houses, as he puts it, “to blend both functionally aesthetically the homes I build with the environment that surrounds them.” Rather than aiming to meeting the new green standards set by the homebuilders association, Silverstein’s building practices happened to converge with them.

“He took what used to be farmland,” Yost & Little realtor Gil Vaughan said during a recent tour of the subdivision. “Instead of taking out trees and putting in 70 houses, he left 20 acres for buffer. He left the natural stream bed and put in a walking trail around the periphery.”

Preserving about 50 percent of the subdivision as open space and keeping the natural contour of the land was only part of the effort of minimizing environmental impact.

“It’s important in the construction phase to do things quickly and efficiently, with as much interaction between the different subcontractors as possible so you minimize the amount of time the project is underway and minimize the disturbance to the land and soil erosion,” Silverstein said. “It’s all about having synergy among the subcontractors.”

The purpose is to minimize storm-water runoff, Silverstein explained. Vaughan noted that the construction impact was so minimal as to not require a retention pond.

Silverstein the builder and Vaughan the realtor make a dynamic pair. Silverstein’s quiet demeanor and engineering mind is complemented by Vaughan’s salesman-like extroversion.

Like Silverstein, Vaughan’s interest in environmental sustainability goes beyond business: He’s a regular at Green Drinks events and a member of the Guilford County Open Space Committee.

Silverstein and Vaughan were quick to note that green subdivisions and green building are two separate certifications, but every house in the subdivision is also green certified in keeping with the principle and spirit of the enterprise.

Green building may entail higher costs on the front end Sanford s Creek homes start at about $350,000, for instance but the overall cost is significantly lowered for homeowners in the long run.

A soft spoken and thoughtful man who enjoys playing klezmer music in his free time, Silverstein likes to say, “A healthier more comfortable home that is more affordable to maintain and respectful of the environment and reflects the homeowners values are all cornerstones of a green-built home.”

The building techniques employed by Silverstein include use of Trex decking, made out of recycled plastic bottles, which saves the homeowner the trouble of re-staining as a result of its resistance to water. All the houses take advantage of natural sunlight from south-facing, amply proportioned windows. One of the houses also includes a rain barrel to capture water from gutters that can be used later for watering plants. The same house features bathroom skylights and hot water heated by rooftop solar panels.

“This solar system should last about 20 years,” Vaughan says. “And it should pay for itself in four to five years.” Silverstein adds, “We could go on for hours. As you can see, we’re very passionate about this.”