Build two rooms.

One, the old way: standard building techniques, modeled on outdated codes from a decade ago, before Lebron had even left Cleveland.

Sure, the room may keep out the rain. But it leaks air. The insulation is poor. The framing is short-sighted.

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David Cook

So, build a new, second room. Based on the most forward-thinking and advanced building and insulating techniques, this room is different. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer, the room also uses less fossil fuel energy. And it's more affordable.

Then, take these two freestanding rooms — old room, new room — and put them on display in a public place.

On a hot day, dump 1 ton of ice in each.

Close the doors.

And wait.

Come back in a week or so and take stock: how much ice is left in old room versus new room? (Hint: the new room will hold a lot more ice. It won't melt as fast. The room's envelope is tight.)

It's called the IceBox Challenge: a compelling and public way to prove the efficiency of modern, clean building.

They did it in Vancouver — the old room lost roughly 40% more ice — and Melbourne.

This week, it's coming to Chattanooga.

But today's story isn't really about the Icebox Challenge.

It's about the men behind it.

They're active fathers, community leaders, artists, amateur football players, factory workers.

They're also African American and Latino men from the streets.

"Not all black people from the 'hood are bad," Terrance Williams said.

Williams and eight other men are members of a group called Build It Green, which marries environmental justice, workforce development and soul-craft.

Three mornings a week for three months, they work on building two things.

The Icebox Challenge rooms.

And their own hearts and minds.

They meet up at a nearly-century-old brick Methodist church on Dodds Avenue. Some carry to-go breakfast. They're laughing, giving dap, catching up.

They have histories, scars, records. They come from neighborhoods where trauma is common and violence normalized.

"But that is the past," said Williams, 31. "We focus on the present and future."

In the back room of the old church, there is no $100 Keurig in the corner. No soft lighting. It is a raw room of raw men doing raw work.

They circle up their chairs. When doing work like this — soul work — men have always sat in circles, like Arthurian knights or AA.


Build It Green’s spring graduation will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday at the Camphouse. The Icebox Challenge demonstration can be seen at Architectural Surfaces on 405 E. Main St.

Their mornings begin with a question.

If you could bring somebody back to this world, who would it be?

What's the lowest point in your life?

When was the first time you held a gun?

"I was 9," said Bryan Williamson, 29. "I felt like I had power."

One by one, the men respond. The questions do their work. Strong men turn inward and vulnerable. There may be tears or an anger that seems ancient and generational in its depth.

The Build It Green vision is part Gospel, part Malcolm X, part Socrates.

"They have opened my mind," Williamson said. "This way of thinking has shown me a new way of life."

The men study ingrained habits. How our minds can imprison us. They talk about anger and how to release it.

"Alive and free is their goal," Chris Woodhull said. "Not dead. Not incarcerated."

Woodhull co-directs Build It Green partially based on his work in Knoxville, where he was once a city councilman. There, he'd circle up with gang-bangers; he recalls police mockingly called it Hug-a-Thug. Woodhull, who is white and runs Build Me a World, shakes his head.

"These men you would see as suspects are actually fathers and leaders," he said. "The ones you want to lock up are actually the ones with the clues. The cure is in the poison."

Build It Green co-director Christian Shackelford agrees. For 12 weeks, he's taught these men job-site ready construction skills.

"Advanced framing methods, insulation types and install techniques, the understanding of air movement in a home and how to test air leakage and some basics about heating and air conditioning," said Shackelford, who works for Greenspaces.

The men finished the Icebox rooms last week.

This week, they're going on display at Architectural Surfaces on East Main Street.

It is the most promising of architecture: rooms that will save money, reduce greenhouse gases, built by men framed up under the worst conditions who are now trying to transform their own lives.

This Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. at The Camp House, these men, along with Williams and Williamson, graduate from Build It Green's spring class:

Timothy Moorer. Ryan Lawrence. Dae'Qwon Wilkerson. Colby Clark. Jarrett Watson. LeVonte Allen. Jovany Garcia.

Applaud them. Understand them. Hire them.

"I'm chasing freedom," Williams said.

He wants to be the first in his family to own a home. He's got one job and applied for another.

"I am a strong black individual," he said. "No matter what situation occurs, I will always keep that in the back of my mind. I will always be a strong black man."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329.