Thursday, September 17, 2009

Sustainability and the Status Quo

The U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 declared as its goal a national policy to "create and maintain conditions under which [humans] and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans." Forty years later the word "sustainability" is an ever present fixture of a global environmental culture. Individuals and organizations have embraced sustainability as a new way to think about the age-old concern ensuring that our children and grandchildren inherit a tomorrow that is at least as good as today, preferably better. Sustainability is presented as multifaceted - economic prosperity, environmental progress, and community concerns are all aspects of sustainability. Most observers recognize that global climate change and land development are significant environmental issues that demonstrate the need to think about sustainability.

A narrow sense of sustainability is a focus on residential and commercial buildings. Clearly buildings of all types and functions are an issue - the construction and operation of buildings consumes as much as 40 percent of the energy used in the United States today. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has become the sustainability standard in the U.S. - some 6,000 projects have been certified in the United States in the last 10-years. LEED is fundamentally a weighted-point system that provides a calculations of a building's total environmental impact - factoring in everything from annual energy consumption to how and where building materials are manufactured.

Both a suburban office in Southlake, Texas and an urban high-rise office building in Dallas can receive a high score. This raises a broader issue of sustainability - which project or building is better? What defines better? The office complex where employees work in sprawling buildings and drive between them or the compact high-rise with the inherently energy efficient elevator and a walk to lunch?

The narrowness of the sustainability discussions and ratings flow down to the individual level. Does "greening" my residence in the suburbs coupled with a 60-mile commute at 18-mph fundamentally impact my carbon footprint? Do my "little ideas" of energy efficiency have an impact on the big problems? Does the addition of "green accessories" (Innovation by addition) change the fact that my single family house has more external walls and roof - and hence more heating loads in the winter and cooling loads in the summer - than a comparable apartment in a multi-family building located in an urban environment. Nifty things like bamboo flooring, solar arrays, and rainwater-collection systems don't change the basic equation.

Witold Rybczynski, Meyerson Professor of Urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania addresses this same issue with the following comments:

"Putting solar panels on the roof doesn't change the essential fact that by any sensible measure, spread-out, low-rise buildings with more foundations, walls, and roofs, have a larger carbon-footprint than a high-rise office tower - even when the high-rise has no green features at all. The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you're doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it's hardly green."

An important axiom for consideration in the Sustainability Age might be "Density is Green." Elevators are green, public transit is green, walkability is green, urban amenities are green. Historically the professions of engineering and architecture have been about protecting and promoting the cultural and development status quo of suburban America. This needs to change - the status quo is not green.

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