Is there more to sustainability than green building?

First of all, happy new year and welcome back! All of us here at SGA are excited about the prospects for 2008, including the transition to a new President and CEO, which you can read here in case you missed it. We’ll be posting Geoff Anderson’s full bio shortly, with perhaps a short Q&A on the blog so you can get to know him a little better.

We may look back on 2007 as the year when the issues of sustainability, energy independence, and climate change became mainstream in the national sphere. All the big newsmagazines had “green” cover stories, and NBC even had a week of programming devoted to spreading the message that we’ve gotta “go green!” A handful of cities enacted legislation to ensure that all new buildings meet basic standards of efficiency. Green homes became en vogue, with people who five years ago couldn’t tell you what a carbon footprint was looking into installing windmills or buying more energy efficient appliances.

But anyone on the ground looking at the bulk of what is gets built will tell you that in 2008 and beyond, we’ve got a long way to go.

Part of the problem is that energy-efficient building is still perceived as significantly more costly, with little in the way of payoff. This story in the Boston Globe from last week was a shot of encouragement, though, as two successful builders/developers explained that “ecologically sensitive subdivisions” don’t have to be losing bets financially.

The owner of a company called Transformations succeeded with a small subdivision that introduced a number of energy saving measures — including managing the drainage in such a way that allowed a fifth house instead of the previously approved four.

Transformations introduced a number of environmental features in the five-home subdivision in Tyngsborough. Included in each house are solar panels for electricity, a system that extracts heat from the ground in winter, and rain gardens that naturally recharge water into the soil. The development garnered the company the 2005 Energy Star Custom Builder of the Year Award from the US Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization that supports sustainable building practices.

Efforts to green the buiding stock are certainly important, but its really only one (very important) part of a much bigger equation. Location has to be a factor when evaluating just how green a new house really is. Savings on water, electricity, and natural gas can be quickly overcome by the extra energy required for the many car trips required in a conventional subdivision where daily needs are far away and accessible only by car.

The other successful developer mentioned in the story knows that we will incrementalize ourself to death if all we do is make greener subdivisions, rather than rethinking our development patterns to reward housing and other development that is more locationally efficient:

But Sienkiewicz said he does not support ecologically sensitive housing as a long-term sustainable policy for dealing with the nation’s energy problems. The form of housing still takes up a lot of property and can require numerous daily car trips for its residents because of its location, he said. Instead, he is touting a European model for residential development, which clusters industry, retail establishments, and housing at a common location, minimizing the need for automobile travel.

“Ecological subdivisions are a little like putting lipstick on a pig,” he said. “They consume way too much land and way too much energy.”

It’s worth noting that this pattern of development is no more patently European than fries are French. While they have been building cities and places for more years, these sorts of neighborhoods where housing, jobs, schools, and retails are close together, linked by sidewalks, a street grid, and other transportation choices, represented the status quo in America for most of our history until the middle of this century.

Many of our best-loved (and most valuable) places fit this description: Boston’s Back Bay, Capitol Hill here in D.C., Chicago’s North Side, Atlanta’s Virginia Highlands — and thousands of our small towns and cities all over the country — were built in this manner.

And as we’ve shown in the past, when given a true choice, Americans really want to live in these kinds of places. Which is why, until the market (hopefully) catches up with the unmet demand for walkable, accessible neighborhoods, those neighborhoods will continue to demand a premium.

h/t to Richard Layman at Rebuilding Space for the article.