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How “Green” is Hurting Sustainable Development

by Nic Darling on October 10, 2008 · 10 comments

in Philosophy

Sustainable development is about more than just the materials and systems used in the production of homes. To develop sustainably requires us to rethink the way we build and the way we live. Current habits of consumption and excess need to be addressed in the design and planning of sustainable projects. Simply adding green elements to our traditional methodologies will not lead us to a more sustainable future.

Unfortunately, “green” has become a marketing term, often divorced from the sustainable ideals from which it was conceived. “Green” homes are popping up sporting three car garages and 5 bathrooms. “Green” communities are being created dozens of miles from the nearest public transportation. Some bamboo floors and a few Energy Star appliances are converting 6,000 square foot behemoths into “green” places to live.

Green McMansion?

Now, I am in full support of using sustainable materials and techniques in even the least sustainable applications. I believe that every little bit helps and understand that I’m not going to be able to convince everyone to live in smaller, more responsible spaces. But, I wonder if this use of “green” is damaging the movement toward sustainable development. I mean, if I can be “green” and have 14 extra rooms, why would I make a change?

Much of the current use of green is simply putting a necktie on a donkey (“lipstick on a pig” is a bit overused right now), and this leads us to the second dangerous effect “green” is having on sustainable development. To carry on my ill-conceived metaphor, the donkey doesn’t change in price just because we have decided to dress it up, but we do have to pay for the necktie and the labor associated with affixing it to the stubborn animal. In building terms, this means that our “green” houses end up costing a premium. They are simply the same old houses, built in the same old ways with green features added on. “Green” is thus automatically more expensive.

Ask the average home buyer if they would like a “green” house. The majority of them will say yes but they can’t afford it, and sadly, they are right. “Green” is a premium upgrade. It is, by the evolving popular definition, a high-end add-on. Contractor’s automatically tack on a percentage to build “green”, and banks assume a “green” project will over-spend. Generalizations? Perhaps, but we have found them true more often than not.

Sustainable building is an effort to change building methodology. It is not necessarily more expensive or harder or more time consuming. It is, in the end, simply a better way to build. However, it does take work and risk to get there, and as long as “green” is easy and popular, it will be difficult to build a significant movement around it.

What do you think? Is “green” (as the marketing term it has become) having a negative effect on an effort to move toward sustainable development? If so, what can be done? How do third-party verified certifications (like LEED) come into play?

Tell me what you think in the comments.

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So Many Square Feet, So Few People | 100khouse.com
October 20, 2008 at 11:07 am

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Mark Schoneveld October 10, 2008 at 6:25 pm

Ah greenwashing. Gotta love it. Not.

2 Ryan October 10, 2008 at 6:26 pm

I agree 100% with the context of this post.

Most people tend to understand the surface value of sustainability, or what you define as “green”. What they have yet to grasp is that sustainability goes well beyond the “eco-bling” products that are at the forefront of marketing this movement (i.e. green roofs, solar panels, etc…).

Living sustainably effects more than just your home, it also effects your lifestyle. The benefits of living in a more urban setting, and in a more modestly sized home are physcial, mental and social. It all comes down to a change in values, and to change the values of those who happily own their 4000ft2 home and their beautifully manicured lawn for which they have no use will require more than marketing. Infact, these are the people that the “green” product companies want to capitalize on because they can convice them to change their flooring and then the customer feels like they deserve a pat on the back for being more “green”.

Unfortunately, it will require a crisis point to burst their bubble at which point they will make the realization of how unsustainable their lifestyle is. Until then they don’t see the value in giving up everything that represents their perceived “social status”. They’ve lived this way for too long. Luckily a larger majority of the younger generation is recognizing this and are beginning to re-inhabit our urban cores. Meanwhile, I guess all you can do is keep spreading the message and slowly people will begin to realize what it all means instead of just understanding the product end of it all.

3 Tracy October 10, 2008 at 8:07 pm

Responsibility is what we’re talking about here. Acting with grace and being responsible. I think a positive byproduct of our economic crisis may be all of us reassessing our footprint…that means our homes and what we buy. Hopefully going to Wal-mart and buying 5 shirts made in China gets weighed against buying 1 US made, eco-friendly shirt, even if that one shirt is more expensive. There’s just an ideology that needs to evolve across our entire way of living.

4 Grant October 11, 2008 at 3:30 am

I’m going to be the contrarian and undoubtedly the target of many here. But I think the “other side” of this debate needs to be heard as well.

I don’t want to see the decline of rural communities like I live in. Urban living is not for everyone and not “truly” that sustainable. But, yes, public transportation is not practical in rural America. But town centers do exist, and the need to drive long distances from the town center can be limited with smart rural development.

While we can argue the merits or problems associated with large families, the fact is they exist. I married into 5 step-kids and took responsibility for their support; but we did somewhat selflessly make the decision not to have any more children together. I now have my 8th grandchild on the way and have taken on the responsibility to raise one of those grandchildren as well.

We have a BIG family. My sister has 3 kids of her own and has helped to raise around 10 foster kids. When we have family gatherings it requires a BIG house designed to comfortably accommodate a crowd, and getting bigger every year. We are out-growing my parent’s 4,000 sf house, which is our traditional gathering place.

But considering how we came about having such a big family, how many of you would really feel right about judging us for “having so many children” knowing the exceptional circumstances? We’ve substantially reduced the social impact of pre-existing kids and reared them to be productive participants in society.

Along with that different perspective on family size, not everyone can live comfortably (“sanely”) in a small house. I am attempting to off-set the impact of the large house that I am going to build by “greening” the GIANT home I am going to build (eventually much bigger than the 4,000 to 5,000 sq ft you are bemoaning ). But I’m not just looking at “cosmetic greening.” I am intending to build a PassivHaus design, with a passive solar orientation a super energy efficient envelope, all energy efficient appliances and fixtures, solar hot water, and solar radiant heat, and an energy recovery ventillator. Once I add PV panels in the future, it will likely be a zero energy home.

I am going to Owner-Build. Whereas a General Contractor would probably charge me $175 a foot to build the 5,000 finished sq ft (with ~4,000 unfinished sq ft) house I intend to build, I believe I can build it for less than $100 per “finished” sq ft. By the time I gradually “sweat equity and cash-flow” “finish” the 4,000 sq ft of “unfinished” space and make it a 9,000 sq ft “finished” home, my cost per “finished” sq ft will likely be down to $50 to $60 for a mostly “high-end” VERY energy-efficient home.

I’m also likely to allow my daughter and son-in-law to sweat-equity build the “earth ship” they want to build into the ravine on my 3 acre property, adding another 2,000 sq ft “guest house,” but also another family to share the “amenities” of our home as well. All told, we expect 4 of our children along with their children to settle in our rural town and to help us properly utilize the “extra space” of our home (like the home theater, the game room, the grandkids play room, the CL Free swimming pool, and the solar heated sauna). With at least 19 people relatively regularly using the “extra space” in our home, I don’t fell guilty about building it at all. Think of all of the 40 mile roundtrips to the closest public theater we will save.

Because of the equity and sweat equity I will be contributing, I won’t even require a “jumbo mortgage,” but will be within Fannie/Freddie limits. Of course, my appraisal will be much higher than my cost to build, and I will be sitting on A LOT of equity. Financially it is a smart move.

Yes, it’s BIG. Yes, it consumes a lot of resources to build a house this size, even if it is built to be energy-efficient and incorporates xeriscape landscaping principles. But I am off-setting that impact by drastically reducing the life-cycle impact of the home by building it to be not only energy efficient, but to last 500 years and to be effectively tornado and storm proof. It will be passively livable even under long power outages. This house will be a multi-generational asset, and certainly in no way comparable to a single-generation disposable McMansion.

This home is also intended to provide security for my large family in these turbulent economic times. If worst comes to worst, we can have our family members move in with us without necessarily tripping all over each other. We also have 3 acres with some ideal vegetable garden sites to grow our own food and we will be composting and re-using gray water.

If the economy collapses, do you want to live in an urban environment where “masses” of people can’t feed themselves? In my county, food and water won’t be nearly as big of a problem. In some respects, sustainable urbanism is an oxy-moron… Keep in mind, it was the rural communities that comfortably helped provide for the fleeing urban masses during the Great Depression.

While I essentially cannot get LEED certification on a home this size, I will follow all other principles pertaining to a LEED home. And as I’ve described, the space won’t merely be wasted.

Furthermore, the people like myself who are going to build houses “with 14 extra rooms” are incentivized to do so by the economics (its the securist investment with significant tax shelter advantages) in addition to the “comfort.” Most compelling, there is no other way that I could build so much net worth so fast, at least not legally, as building this house will create for me.

I, for one, will remain unapologetic for it. But for those who “can” and “will” live in a smaller home and have access to public transportation, I applaud it. But it is not “right” for everyone.

Likewise, I think educating the wealthy to build their BIG houses “green” is a good thing, because their willingness to invest in technologies before they are truly affordable and mainstream is what enables the economies of scale to develop that eventually brings these technologies to the masses. Residential PV would not exist without the kind of early adoption by the wealthy that is being bemoaned here. Likewise, it was the purchases of the wealthy that has made bamboo flooring a viable “green” option for the masses. Like it or not, “sustainable development” as we know it, probably wouldn’t be viable without the past “green washing” of Green McMansions with their inflated prices and questionable “eco”-nomics.

So, while I empathise with your sentiments and respect where they are coming from, I do see another side… I’m therefore not quite so condemnatory in my judgements. Heck, I can’t be. I “AM” the other side…

On a related tangent, I consider buildings like Biltmore to be a national asset. Unlike the typical McMansion, good architecture stands the test of time. Likewise, some of the “truly” green giant houses of today may be viewed just as fondly 100 years in the future when they are still standing and continuing to have zero impact on the environment. Of course, the house in your picture probably won’t fair so well. .

5 Grant October 11, 2008 at 2:58 pm

I just stumbled onto a very appropriate quote from Malcolm Wells and thought I’d come back and share it…

————————————————-
http://www.evekushner.com/writing/?p=229

“If the proper motive is not there, then I think the architecture will not be as good. It will look forced or out of place.”

It seems that society still isn’t ready for the vision of a man who’s clearly ahead of his time. This doesn’t discourage Wells in the least. In Gentle Architecture (1981), he wrote, “Gentle architecture is so close to becoming an accepted part of the mainstream it won’t be ‘exceptional’ much longer.” Some 25 years later, I asked how he currently views that statement. To my surprise, he called himself “very optimistic,” explaining, “We’re not going as fast as I’d hoped. But people like to brag about having added solar panels—little environmental things that make them feel they are environmentalists. And that’s good, I believe.”

He says he likes to plant seeds and sow dreams, letting the future take care of itself. His optimistic vision of that future gives him persistence.
——————————

Cheers… [And keep planting seeds!]

6 Tim October 11, 2008 at 7:43 pm

Your post is timely for me, personally. I have recently purchased a lot and begun plans to build a new home.

I live in an area that is awash in what we call ‘garagemahals’ or ‘starter castles’… fields of 5,000 square foot houses laden with crown molding and marble, usually occupied by couples with no kids or with only one or two children.

I believe one of the first and most important things to consider is the truly appropriate size of house for my family. I found out pretty quickly, though, that building a new house that’s 1,800 to 2,000 square feet in our market was going to be a challenge. In spite of my really good credit rating and having hired a renowned architect, my loan officer looked at me as if I were crazy. “A new house, that small? You won’t get it to appraise for enough”. Unfortunately, he’s right, it will be a challenge here.

The banking and real estate system are not geared to support sustainability thinking. No matter how many measures I discussed with them — my plans for geothermal heating and cooling, SIPS panels or expanding foam insulation, correct orientation on the site, etc. — they were completely hung up on the size issue.

Your point that the average person wants a greener home but says they can’t afford it is absolutely true. It is definitely going to cost me more to build my home, but only when you look at it in the short term.

We need a fundamental shift in how affordability is considered. We need a system that understands and rewards homeowners for long-term cost saving measures over short-term. This includes a shift toward more appropriately sized homes, their proximity to public transportation, their walkability factor, and so many other considerations. If everyone wants their unnecessarily large house because they want to impress their neighbors, tacking on some solar panels or Energy Star appliances will not move us an inch.

I really admire and applaud what you’re doing by demonstrating what’s possible within a reasonable budget. Green becoming a marketing term can be good if it moves the concepts forward at all, but we need a truth campaign about the real costs within the big picture perspective, and a banking and real estate industry that value it properly.

Please keep up your good fight.

7 Bob October 12, 2008 at 4:14 pm

As a builder, renovator and HERS rater I see the “Green Monsters!” I see the EarthCraft House certified Habitat houses. I see the Redevelopment and Housing Authorities moving in the right direction. That is my target, affordable housing and the messege that building tight is building right and doesn’t add one dime to the cost of a house.
The big McMansions utilizing “Green” items, I relate to the exploratory satelite. The people who can afford this monsters are going to experiment with the cost prohibitive features pushing the envelope of energy efficiency and sustainable building. They are the Mercury program of this generation–albeit 30 years late.
I don’t believe anyone should be have to make a choice between country living and suburban living. Country living is entirely different than surburban living which is driven by cost, people willing to drive to afford the home they want.
I do believe no matter the location there should be no house or building built in the United States that doesn’t adhere to a “sustainable” standard based on life cycle costs including the costs of energy and maintenance.
I believe until you get rid of the term “Green” most Americans are going to think it is an “Expensive, Tree Hugger” concept. Affordable housing advocates see it as expensive, when it isn’t.
Finally I believe everyone should read Friedman’s “Hot, Flat and Crowded,” to see where this is all headed. The crisis is here even with the temporary drop in oil prices, which is election driven and a temporary dangerous financial crisis. Oil isn’t going to stay below $100 a barrel long.

8 Stanford Gable October 12, 2008 at 11:08 pm

New construction isn’t exactly “green” in a neighborhood full of similar sized properties in need of rehab. It’s slightly hypocritical to poke fun at other attempts to go green. I’d rather see a 6,000 sq/ft McMansion with solar water heating than one without. People are going to buy them either way.

9 Nic Darling October 13, 2008 at 2:09 pm

This post was not intended to deride those who live in rural communities or even those who build big houses with “green” features. I agree with a couple of the commenters that McMansions with green features are better than those without.

Nor was the intent to say that everyone needs to live in a 1300 square foot house. Obviously multi-generational families will need a bit more space. However, I will say that we have many, many small families living in excessive homes and a part of developing sustainably will definitely involve rethinking the amount of space we think we need.

The idea of this conversation was meant to simply question the way a marketing term like “green” can negatively impact a positive change in housing development. As Bob mentioned, green is seen as expensive (and tree-huggerish) and this limits the adoption of sustainable building practices.

I think, thanks to all of the comments, we have also reached a discussion about development itself and have seen that it is about more than building a house. Any change in development needs to involve the banks (as Tim illustrated nicely), local municipalities, the community and those in a position to be heard. Sustainable development will have to address the way we live as it attempts to build that in which we live.

On a last note I will say that in some respects Stanford is correct. Rehab can be a “greener” approach. However, in our case we aren’t simply trying to build a green home or two. We are, however foolishly, attempting to create a new model for urban development. This means that our experiment needs to be predictably repeatable. Philly, with its enormous supply of vacant land and dearth of housing in the 150k-300k range, is the perfect city for this kind of work.

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