The pioneer who launched a movement

Steve Loken, recognized by the Montana Sierra Club as an “Energy Efficiency Champion,” helped pioneer the green building movement and continues his efforts to reduce waste from Missoula. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Steve Loken was standing on a hill looking down over the Kootenai River in the 1970s when he had an epiphany. A new Libby Dam had risen to block the river, and Loken watched as Lake Koocanosa grew deeper, wider and longer.

“Everything in the reservoir was clear-cut up to the high-water mark,” said Loken. “I’ve never seen that much ecological destruction in my life. I saw this little silver thread-of-a-river slowly disappear below and I knew we had to do things a different way.”

Loken made good on his word.

The son of Norwegian parents went on to help launch the green building movement, one that has taught a new generation that bigger isn’t always better. Talk of reducing consumption isn’t reserved for environmental circles anymore, as businesses have grown out of repurposing old products.

Always looking for a new idea, Loken mingled with supporters at a Missoula brewery this week, where he received an “Energy Efficiency Champion” award from Montana Sierra Club. While the award serves as a token of personal pride for Loken, knowing that his message has been received comes as the real reward.

As David Merrill, the senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club put it, no one in Missoula has done more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over a lifetime than Loken.

“The one thing I knew how to do was work on housing,” Loken said. “I tried to focus on existing housing and ways to make them use less energy and materials. I also started a nonprofit center for resourceful building techniques that would allow us to use more waste material in construction.”

That was also back in the 1970s, when Loken built his first demonstration home. The movement gained momentum and its share of attention, growing like today’s tiny-house movement has taken to cable television to reach a new generation of builders and home buyers.

Loken went about affecting change the old fashioned way, and he did so before the advent of the home computer. He served as the keynote speaker in Seattle in 1991, addressing 700 inspiring green builders in a talk aimed at doing more with less. When Parade Magazine came calling in 1994, his audience grew to 134 million.

“It started a whole movement and taking a look at material consumption and construction waste,” Loken said. “Construction materials are one of the largest drivers of economic development, but the byproduct is how much is wasted. The number one thing by volume at landfills is construction and demolition waste.”

Two of Loken’s first students, Matt Hisel and Lauren Varney, went on to found Home ReSource in Missoula in 2003. It was yet another effort to reduce waste and give used products a second life. The organization has since evolved into a viable business, one that increasingly relies upon deconstruction to stock its shelves and lumber yard.

The possibilities may only be limited by one’s imagination, Loken believes. He notes how coal ash can now be used to make stronger concrete, and how plastic and wood chips are manufactured into durable outdoor decking.

“There’s a litany of materials that can be used in construction to allow us to use those materials instead of consuming virgin resources,” Loken said. “We were on the very beginning of that whole movement. We got some large grants from McDonald’s, Home Depot and environmental groups, to focus on ways of using resources more efficiently and using waste materials from landfills and manufacturing.”

Loken traces his own deconstruction skills back to his childhood. Growing up in Minnesota, his family worked ahead of the growing U.S. interstate system, taking down old farm houses and barns to use back at their place. He says something about chickens and stock pens, adding that his family didn’t have a lot of money and made use with what it managed to salvage.

Steve Loken, right, waits to speak at a Sierra Club event in Missoula while David Merrill makes the introductions. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

At his home in the Rattlesnake Neighborhood of Missoula, he now lives with four other roommates, saying nobody needs more than a few hundred square feet to live happily. He’s also made improvements to his vintage home, upping the insulation and extending the eves to improve efficiency, among other things.

His yard requires no water.

“My inspiration comes from going to developing countries and seeing how they have to live within their limits,” said Loken. “We continue to plunder resources from the rest of the world like there’s no tomorrow. Watching how elegantly people in developing countries build their shelters and live within their means is so inspiring to me.”

As for Merrill, he often wonders how future generations will look back on America at the dawn of the 21st century, and what the nation did to combat climate change. While some outliers pan climate change as little more than a political wedge, Merrill believes Loken has helped move the dial.

“Everybody knows what a green building is now, and in this part of the country, a lot of that has to do with the pioneering efforts of Steve Loken,” said Merrill. “He was involved in green building at a time when people through it was the color of the house, long before it became the mass trend that it is today.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com