Green Buildings Are Bipartisan

During the opening general session of GreenBuild 2010 in Chicago, former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell gave a speech supporting the green building movement, perhaps to illustrate that green buildings aren’t just part of a liberal agenda, but cut across partisan lines. Rick Fedrizzi, head of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), made the point clear: “it’s not about red or blue states, but green states.” Additional speeches by the political campaign manager duo Mary Matalin and James Carville built on this idea.

Colin Powell pointed to an apartment complex built in the South Bronx that bears his name as an example of what green buildings can accomplish if designed for communities. With support from Habitat for Humanity and the NYC government, the Colin Powell Apartments are LEED Platinum and feature green roofs and a rooftop deck, recycled materials including ground-up concrete, and energy efficiency systems. 

To the broader green building and landscape movement, Powell said “your work is very important not only for improving energy efficiency, but also for creating growth for people in need.” Green buildings “can protect the environment, reduce demand for energy, create jobs, and strengthen national security, both for us and the world.” He said “you need to see yourself as part of a broader movement with global impact.”

On China, Powell said “this country is not our new enemy; they want to sell us things, sell things to Walmart.” China is investing in wind, solar, and nuclear energy on a massive scale, and the U.S. needs to continue to innovate to remain competitive.

Fedrizzi concluded that the green building movement must be bipartisan to succeed. “It used to be just capitalist vs. environmentalist, but we found a way to bridge that.” His goal is to “make green jobs as respected as the law or medicine.” He also wants GreenBuild-like dialogue to occur “in every boardroom and every city council.”

Christopher Gielen’s Aerial Photos of Sprawl

In one session at the TED Mid Atlantic conference, German photographer Christoper Gielen showed his startling aerial images of American sprawl, but asked viewers to consider them as an “aesthetic experience.” Shot while hanging out of a helicopter, Gielen’s photos demonstrate that very similar sprawl shapes appear across the country.

To find his sites, Gielen first examined statistical databases and honed in on areas with the highest foreclosure rates, which he said indicate where the most unsustainable development is. In Houston, he found perfect web-like networks of prefabricated houses with trees exactly in the same place. One community in Nevada (see image above) is “so perfect” incoming aircraft use it as a marker on their way to the airport. As for the community, “it’s sold as active living, but it’s isolated in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s a prison of our own making. People are really inside their cars or homes watching TV.”  

The high foreclosure rates among communities in Florida and Arizona demonstrate that many of these sites are economically unviable, but Geilen says they are also environmentally destructive. In one Florida sprawl community (see image below), the wetland was drained then water was reintroduced into managed channels. “The flow of the Everglades is being slowly cut off by development.”

While land-use policymakers want to “reconnect the severed arteries of the Everglades” and create “archipelagos of development” in a sea of of untouched landscapes, many sprawl communities continue to be built.

On a more existential note, Gielen also asked why he was seeing the same forms over and over again in different parts of the country. “There must be some geometric sociology. Why do these shapes — circles, stars, or webs — come into form? Is there something deep in the human psyche?”

See Gielen’s photographs, which he will publish in a book next year.

Image credit: (1,2,3) Untitled / Christopher Gielen

Growing the Restoration Economy

At the TED Mid Atlantic conference, Storm Cunningham, head of Revitaliz, argued that the world needs to move past sustainable development, which is “200 years too late,” and towards “restorative development.” The new “restoration economy” focuses on reuse, restoration, redevelopment, replenishment, and revitalization — creating new value. The primary idea is to “invest in natural resources so we leave future generations with increased value.” At the same time, current generations can benefit from “healthier, wealthier, more beautiful surroundings.”

To date, economic development has been driven by “dewealthing,” or the depletion of finite natural resources like coal, oil, and natural gas. “Rewealthing” involves investing in restoring those depleted resources and turning them into something productive. These projects can involve restoring nature to earlier, less damaged states. In Maryland, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation is replanting oyster beds by hand. On a larger scale, there is a massive reforestation project in the 4,000-acre Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, which has led to the planting of 750,000 native trees, and will help bring back this important river valley ecosystem.  

Projects can also focus on recreating nature from scratch. The ecological restoration and landscape architecture firm, Biohabitats, completed the Spring Branch stream restoration project that restored the Maryland stream’s fluvial dynamics, added in natural vegetation, and then “rewilded” the entire site. “They are restoring the world for a living.” On a larger scale, he pointed to a former mining site on Vancouver Island that has been used to recreate nature and is now open as a public park. There are other examples of mines that have been used as platforms for restoring nature in Germany and the U.S. (see earlier post).

Cunningham says communities must use their “restorable assets” to rebuild their economies. “These are the ingredients, not the barriers, to revitalization.” So far, many local governments have approached their environmental and economic issues in separate silos, but instead “communities need to be treated as a living system, and issues need to be addressed as a whole.” He pointed to Bilbao, Spain, with its new Gehry-designed Guggenheim museum, as the “birthplace of the second global restoration movement.” Unfortunately, though, only a few cities have achieved Bilbao’s success. Many communities try to restore their assets but fail to hit “critical renewal.” 

Cunningham thinks the worldwide restoration economy, which involves all those restoration and rehabilitation projects, has the potential to reach two trillion a year. In addition, there are “some 100 trillion in restorable assets.”

Check out “ReWealth,” Cunningham’s book, which has grabbed the attention of a number of local policymakers.  

Image credit: Mississippi Alluvial Valley / Ducks Unlimited.

Despommier: “Vertical Farms Are Key to Eco-Urbanization”

Dickson Despommier, an advocate for vertical farming, asked “What if cities could function like an ecosystem?”, at the TED Mid Atlantic conference. Right now, cities are like a “black box, all these inputs go in and then out come wastes, which have to be removed.” In addition, current agriculture practices, which require the use of pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides and consume 70 percent of available freshwater and 20 percent of available fossil fuels, are unsustainable. Instead, Despommier argues, people must learn from nature and apply nature’s “grandest design” to cities: the ecosystem, embedding food production and waste reuse in the city’s systems.

Twelve thousand years ago, the earth had intact ecosystems. Among the earliest communities around the world, farming was taken up in many places around the same time. However, the environmental impact was minimal — there were only a million people. Now, a global population of 6.8 billion uses farm land the size of South America. This enormous growth is biologically-driven, argues Despommier. “Life is resilient. We are resilient. We have resisted ice ages, droughts, continental drift, sea level rise, diseases, and asteroids.”

Ecosystems live within their means. “The sun creates energy and everyone gets their share of that energy. That’s our only paycheck.” Using biomimcry, communities can harness solar power to create an urban ecosystem that could recycle and reuse all wastes. Vertical farms are a key component of this new eco-city model.

Within urban vertical farming structures, hydroponics, aeroponics and drip irrigation system can be used to create produce for urban populations at a rate “ten times more efficient that an outdoor acre of farmland.” Despommier thinks these vertical farms would have many benefits. There would be no runoff, no crop loss from extreme weather, and no cessation of farming due to weather. The systems would use 70 percent less water and no chemicals or fossil fuels. They would enable further urban densification and the repair of damaged ecosystems surrounding cities. Lastly, they could improve the health of inner-city communities and create new jobs.

Despommier wants to try out a prototype designed by architects Weber Thompson in Newark, New Jersey. He has presented the ideas to local leadership and is asking for $40 million to get the first project off the ground (see earlier post). He calls for a few doable actions in the near term: More urban apartment owners should add greenhouses and rooftop farms. Also, the USDA department should create a dedicated department focused on urban farming to ensure produce remains under tight quality control procedures. This would make sense given many cities like Detroit are moving fast into urban (but not vertical) farming production.

Read an interview with Despommier and check out his new book.

Also, read a piece in Places on the history of “agrarian urbanism” from Charles Waldheim, Chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. 

Image credit: Weber Thompson / Vertical Farming Blog

Can Green Duplexes Build Sustainable Communities?

In a talk at the TED Mid Atlantic conference, architect Tim McDonald, co-owner of Onion Flats in Philadelphia, explained how he is a green building developer, architect, and builder rolled into one. Beginning in the 1990’s, McDonald took decrepit, vacant brownstones in downtown Philadelphia and turned them into LEED Platinum duplexes that he argues build sustainable communities.

Apartments in his “Rag Flats” complex feature all the latest green features including solar power systems; energy-efficient and naturally-lit apartments; a green infrastructure system, including roofs, pavers, and underground waterstorage cisterns; and electric vehicles outlets and parking spaces. Importantly, within the housing community, lines between private and public green space are purposefully blurred, which he said helps break down barriers between residents and create an actual community. McDonald provided little beyond anecdotal evidence of this though.

The buildings’ thermal envelope was designed to reduce heat leakages by 70 percent, dramatically reducing energy usage. “To keep buildings’ heat inside, we had to create a coat.” McDonald showed an image of eskimos packed up in furs to demonstrate that body heat can provide much of the needed heat within living spaces. He also pointed to the PassivHaus movement in Germany, which uses house and window placement and insultation to maximize heat retention, as an inspiration.

For water, McDonald brought in his plumber brother who took charge of creating a green infrastructure system on site. The team went to the Philadelphia Water department multiple times to ask if their plans for retaining water on site met code. “We got pushed back and forth between multiple departments and couldn’t get an answer. Eventually one guy told us, ‘just go ahead and do it.'” McDonald said these sustainable approaches need to become common practice because buildings suck up 40 percent of global energy usage and 70 of its electricty, and create 40 percent of the world’s C02 emissions.

Stable Flats, a project recently started, aims to “shift, grow, and flip” row houses, and “make them talk to each other.” First, the number of row houses on site were reduced and a dedicated green space was created for community and public use. To make up for the expanded green space, rowhouses were made taller and designed to cantilever out over car parking. Cars are stacked under apartments and “made subordinate.” He said the parking areas were designed to force residents to “bump into each other and interact, whether they like it or not.”

Wastewater is funneled into an underground tank, a “geothermal heat sink,” where it’s used to provide heat for the apartments. “This reduces the cost of digging deep to create geothermal wells.” 

Perhaps Stable Flats, with its dedicated community green space and design that can force residents to interact with each other, has the better chance of supporting a community that has no environmental impact and is also socially and economically sustainable. That is as long as the community has some input in the design and the apartments are near to public transit systems and remain affordable.

Learn more about McDonald’s projects and explore the US and UK Passive House Institute Web sites. Also, check out resources on the social and economic components of sustainability.

Image credits: (1) Rag Flats, Tim McDonald / Onion Flats, (3) Stable Flats Interior Concept, Tim McDonald / Onion Flats

Transforming the Way Oil Spills Are Cleaned up

At the TED Mid Atlantic conference, scientists, designers, and organizations called for a complete rethink of how oil spills are contained and cleaned-up. Susan Shaw, Director of the Marine Environment Research Institute, said the fragile Gulf coastal and marine ecosystems will take years to recover given the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil. Shaw argued that the application of Corexit, a potent oil dispersant, “saved BP billions of dollars in fines,” but resulted in a “reservoir of toxicity” that will last for years. As a result, a new corporate culture is needed to ensure health and the environment are linked with profitability. In addition, to spur the develop of new oil spill clean-up technologies that won’t further damage the environment, the X Prize foundation has launched a one million dollar competition that aims to come up with cutting-edge solutions. Two MIT researchers proposed innovation concepts.

Shaw is now engaged in a Department of Interior external “strategic sciences working group,” which is set-up to “dissect the event” and determine the sources of human and ecosystem stress. The group of 14 experts has found that the human health impacts may be severe for the 11,000 who have been working on the spill clean-up without protective equipment. They found that “there is no safe level of exposure to carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic chemicals in oil; there may be chronic human health impacts; additional sensitive populations like women and the elderly will be harder hit; and oil dispersants actually increase the toxic reactions of dealing with the oil.” To understand that the oil and dispersants are toxic, Shaw said you only need to listen to the complaints of the clean up workers, which include palpitations, severe headaches, skin rashes, and bleeding.

The total effects on wildlife can’t easily calculated but so far thousands of fish and birds, hundreds of sea turtles and around a hundred whales and dolphins have perished. Shaw said the area contains some 15,000 species and 33 key wildlife refuges. The long-term impact on the Gulf’s varied ecosystems are still being studied (see earlier post).

Shaw concluded that the “litigious corporate culture” that may have driven BP to use Corexit needs to change. Instead, the culture of oil companies needs to “integrate health and environment into profitability,” an approach that can lead to more preventive measures, better preparation in the case of a spill, and less damaging clean-up solutions.

Given that current oil spill clean-up solutions are now 40 years old and lag far behind drilling technologies, the X prize foundation has launched a new competition aimed at spurring innovation in oil spill clean up technologies and revolutionizing the way spills are dealt with in the future (see earlier post). Some 350 interdisciplinary teams have already registered to win the one million dollar prize. Groups can still sign-up until January 2011.

Two registrants outlined their innovative early concepts:

Cesar Harada, a TED Fellow, and former project leader at MIT SENSEable City Lab, put together the “Open_Sailing” project, which is developing “Protei,” an “open hardware oil spill cleaning device.” Harada explained that only three percent of the oil was skimmed from the surface using booms, which “work quite well — they absorb 20 times their weight in oil.” However, boats have been pulling booms in straight lines through streams of oil, resulting in inefficient “intercept flow” as well as entanglements.

Boats instead need to drag “long-tail” booms in an “S” formation, but to do this the boat needs to be re-engineered for stability and the rudder needs to be moved up front. After testing multiple materials, Harada found that inflatable boats made out of reused plastic materials with heavy embedded sand weights and deep central rudders can navigate with long-tail booms the best. “These ocean-going Zeppelins go slow but stay up” and can skim more oil. The design concepts is “open source” and the materials are common so Harada hopes the design can be easily replicated. Watch a video.

Adam Pruden, a research fellow at MIT’s SENSEable City lab, calls for the launch of “Sea Swarm,” a network of ocean-faring roomba-like robots that can “mimic ants and think on their own as a colony,” while finding and absorbing 20 times their weight in oil. Enabled with WiFi, the solar-powered robots could communicate with each other about the locations of oil spills and weather conditions. “The robots would be autonomous, scalable, and adaptable.” They could also be used to gather trash from the great ocean garbage patches (see earlier post). The clean-up bots could reside on the sea indefinitely and be deployed wherever there was a clean-up job. “There would be a fleet of autonomous vehicles.” Watch a video.

Image credit: Sea Swarm / MIT

A Tower Made for Bats

In Griffis Sculpture Park near Buffalo, New York, Joyce Hwang’s “Bat Tower” stands 12 feet tall and includes a set of triangular, stacked segments held together with steel bolts. Walls are made of stained plywood panels arranged to leave spaces small enough for bats to enter. But Hwang’s unique bat tower was not only created to provide a new habitat for bats, it’s also designed to raise awareness about a plague called “white-nose syndrome,” which has killed more than one million bats over recent years, says the University of Buffalo

White nose syndrome, which was first documented in 2006,  got its name because of the white substance that forms on the bat’s muzzles when a bat is infected. Since it was discovered, “biologists and adventurers have found sick, dead and dying bats in and around caves and mines as far south as Tennessee and as far west as Oklahoma. More than 90 percent of bats in some hibernacula have died.” Some researchers think the syndrome may be similar to the colony collapse disorder facing bees and could be caused by pesticides.

While many just see bats as pests, they actually play a role in ecosystems: they are pollinators and control bug populations. Hwang, an assistant professor in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, said: “White-nose syndrome is a major ecological crisis. Bats are animals that people practically consider to be pests, so there is a lack of desire to see them in the environment around us. But bats are a critical part of the ecosystem.”

To create a home bats would like, Hwang looked to the long tunnels inside caves for inspiration, writes the University of Buffalo. The inside of the tower includes many cave-like nooks and crannies. Interestingly, Hwang and her students planted “chives, oregano, and other herbs” bats love to eat at the base of the tower. The tower’s design and the plants seem to have worked. Since the structure went up during the summer, bats have moved in.

Hwang told Azure magazine she’s still tweaking the design based on how it reacts to the weather and the feedback she gets from the bats. “Now that it is installed, we are studying how it works: what creatures does it attract (bats or otherwise)? What is its internal temperature during different weather conditions? We’re also looking at how the structure will survive the extreme climate weather of Western New York. We will be making observations and finding ways to refine the design.” While the structure is beautiful, perhaps a standardized low-cost version will be in the works so more people can set up their own bat towers. 

Hwang also has two additional models in development: “Pest Wall” will be a wall construction that would house bats and other unwanted creatures like spiders, and “Pest Pavilion,” will be a building with a pavilion designed for bats.

Read an interview, see a slideshow and watch a video

Also, habitat can be created by hand for other species and at larger scales, too. Learn more in a discussion of the restoration of Young Nick’s Head sheep farm’s ecosystem in New Zealand, which involved using nesting boxes, decoy birds, and looped tapes of bird calls to bring sea birds back to the restored area.
Image credit: University of Buffalo

Apple Gets into Mass Transit

Apple recently spent nearly $4 million to restore North/Clybourn, a run-down subway station near its newest store in downtown Chicago. The Chicago Tribune said the station used to be so crappy riders would get off one stop earlier or later to avoid it. Now, climbing the stairs out of the revamped station, potential buyers of iPods and iPads get out into a new plaza only to see a “giant, glowing box of glass, stone and polished steel”: the new Peter Bohlin-designed Apple store.

The new station features “new brick, big new windows, and a sleek new look;” the landscape architecture created by Chicago-based Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects includes a new plaza with a “zero-depth” fountain that drowns out the noise of passing cars. One potential customer interviewed by The Chicago Tribune said: “It made me want to sit down on a nice day with a cup of tea and a book. OK, in gratitude to Apple, it should be an iPad, but whatever. I say thank you to Apple.”

The inside of the station has been cleaned, repainted and degrimed, perhaps so it will befit the new Apple name and logos that are now branded everywhere. “From the moment you push through the turnstile, Apple ads beam at you, as bright as searchlights. Down in the tunnel, all the other ads are gone.”

To raise additional funds, the CTA may start selling naming rights for stations. For North/Clybourn, Apple has first dibs on the name. The Chicago Tribune says this may not be a bad thing given people will call it the “Apple station” anyway, and many of the city’s other older stations are likely also in a state of disrepair and could use some private investment. “The CTA may as well profit from the inevitable. Sell Apple the naming rights, for a big chunk of change. People are going to call it the Apple stop anyway.”

Also, the end result of the work of collaborating landscape architecture firm Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects was deemed positive: “Apple has created a unique space in Chicago: handsome, communal, connected to the city, a space that makes public transportation attractive.” The Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin adds that the space “carves out a much-needed refuge for pedestrians in the traffic-choked Clybourn corridor. It also offers sleekly modern tables and movable chairs. Let’s hope they are not quickly stolen.”

Read the article and a review of the new building and station.

Image credit: Station before and after photos / Good magazine

California’s Climate Change Law Survives

Even in these dark economic times, Proposition 23, a proposal that would have rejected California’s ambitious 2006 AB 32 global warming law, was overwhelmingly voted down by state voters, reports Reuters. California’s climate change law calls for limiting emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, the creation of a new market for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a move that will put a price on carbon, and a higher percentage of state energy to come from renewable sources. The rejected referendum is seen as a win for Silicon Valley investors who have invested much in new clean energy technologies and applications like electric vehicles.

The Los Angeles Times reports that national environmental groups are lauding the win, saying it could help spur the development of a nation-wide carbon trading system. Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said: “Almost 10 million Californians got a chance to vote and sent a clear message that they want a clean energy future. And this was in an economic downturn. There has never been anything this big. It is going to send a signal to other parts of the country and beyond.” Michael Eckhart, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy told Reuters: “This is reaffirmation that we are a country of some enlightenment. A majority of Californians, even in great stress of unemployment and economic demise, will still accept this responsibility. Rejecting an attempt to destroy the environment is a good thing.”

If voters had supported the measure, it would have put a hold on AB 32 until unemployment fell to 5.5 percent or less for four straight quarters. Supporters thought the measure would add to California’s economic woes. Stopping the law would “halt a dangerous rise in energy costs at a time when California – hard hit by the recession, financial crisis and housing meltdown – can least afford it.” Renewable energy and technology companies argue instead that AB 32 encourages investment in new industries that can create jobs in California.

Jerry Brown, former Governor, also beat out former Ebay President Meg Whitman, to become governor once again. According to Reuters, this will help in the implementation of AB 32: Brown has committed to getting 33 percent of California’s energy from renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

Read the article and learn more about the details of the law.

In other news, The Guardian (UK) reports that action on climate and energy legislation may be less likely with the Republican sweep of the House of Representatives, arguing that there has been “a decisive power shift in Congress towards those who deny the existence of man-made climate change or who oppose government action on global warming.” Think Progress, a Web site run by the Center for American Progress, says “50% of the more than 100 Republican newcomers deny the existence of man-made climate change. An overwhelming majority, 86%, oppose legislation that would raise taxes on polluting industries.”

Image credit: BrightSource Solar thermal plant / Consumer Energy Report

Holdren: “Climate Adaptation Brings Benefits”

John Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, told a group organized by Atlantic magazine that climate adaptation measures bring benefits “even if there wasn’t climate change.” On investing in adaptation measures, Holdren pointed to the need to be prudent, citing the Department of Interior’s landscape conservation cooperatives as a system of natural carbon sinks and a positive response to climate change (see earlier post). He also called the Partnership for Sustainable Communities an important initiative (see earlier post). On the failure to pass energy and climate change legislation, Holdren added: “We’ll be back.” 

Holdren argued that human wellbeing rests on foundations: economic processes (markets); social and political processes (law, justice, education); and environmental conditions (air, water, soils — the biota). To date, development has focused on the first two, but the “environment is usually just an addendum.” Instead, the U.S. needs to make improvements across all dimensions on a sustainable basis.

Sustainable development is hampered by a set of major, interconnected challenges:

1) Eradicating poverty
2) Defeating diseases
3) Managing competitive resources
4) Protecting oceans
5) The energy economy / environment dilemma
6) Adaptating to climate change

The problems are all interconnected. For example, economic progress tends to intensify competition for resources and depletion of natural resources. However, there are also positive interconnections: Restoration and resilience programs, innovative technologies, and energy efficient buildings can create mutually reinforcing systems. To create these positive systems, interdisciplinary scientific teams made up of social scientists, engineers, designers, psychologists and all other disciplines are needed. Holdren added: “Science is central to these challenges, but it’s also beyond applying science, it’s about building capacity and strengthening the role of science and technology in society.”

While this year the U.S. put $100 billion into federal research (the largest amount in history), the U.S. still needs a more supportive policy and regulatory environment for science and technology. “The R&D tax credit needs to be made permanent.” Holdren also said the U.S. needs to maintain R&D expenditure at 3 percent of GDP, where it is now, a level the U.S. hasn’t achieved since the 1960’s space race. “The new American research and investment strategy needs to be high risk, high return with a new emphasis on international partnerships. We also need to streamline the visa application process.”

Image credit: Artic Landscape Conservation Cooperative, Alaska / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service