Saturday, May 14, 2011

Green buildings and the bubble economy - the Chinese Connection.

Remember our housing bubble? Urban sprawls and cheaply made homes - a scatter of disconnected developments joined only by highways and carpool lanes if you are lucky. We are not so fortunate here in the Midwest and out by where my parents live, you can’t even find sidewalks. Cars seem to have taken over our landscape; belching tailpipes linking our McMansions and placing a heavy toll on our resources and pollute our air and waters.

Putting aside the CO2 emissions debate, at the very least you have to care about rising oil prices and falling supply. We all have to face the consequences of our choices in the past, no one is an exception to that rule. We took quite a risk against sustainability when we began our Industrialization and now we seem to be approaching a economic and ecological breaking point in our ever expansion for suburban utopia. There is also a hidden equity crisis in our housing problem, but rarely is that discussed in the media because they are about the poor, poor people don't make good news items.

What is done is done.

Building these highways and urban sprawls was necessary I guess. It was certainly natural for the industrialization of American cities post WWII and we had a good run. The bankers and CEOs got careless and consumers became complacent. After all, we were prospering, having just won a world war and landed on the moon, we had every right to want bigger cars, bigger houses, more things to plug into our walls. Our mistake was believing there is always one more tree to cut or one more oil well to drill. The tragedy of our commons is hidden and even glorified at times. We were told by billions of dollars worth in advertising campaigns that these are what happiness is all about. When someone does challenge the status quo, they are labeled and are assured there is always new creative ways to poison our earth and drain its core for more resources. “Drill baby, drill!” (See: EPA Seeks More Information from Natural Gas Drilling Operations to Ensure Safety of Wastewater Disposal)

Then the bankers got greedy and began to use different tricks to keep up their profit growth. Empty collateral is put on top of empty collateral. The ill-informed were placed at the bottom to carry the heavy burden forward.

Half a decade later, and a few market crashes in progress, we now know more about corporate interests, environmental impacts, and possible catastrophic results. The public began to ask how we can make better choices and restore the healthy balance to our economy and our planet. But we have built our communities around the kind of economy that destroys our ecology and our equity; and we feed a media machine with more and more incentives to deceive ourselves. The rich are getting richer at the expense of the poor and it is the poor who has to live in the worst polluted areas and food deserts. The middle class is not much better off, being fooled and conditioned to live off fast food, processed food, CAFO meats, medications, and all of it intricately tied to fossil energy to top off the caveat. We are like the poor Betsy who never sees a grass-field and lives her entire life in a warehouse with thousands of other Besties, fed something we are not meant to eat and die a young death for our pounds of profits. We have marched out of feudalism right into the grips of capitalist greed, and we enjoyed every minute of it between burgers and fries. Drug companies and fast food moguls laugh at our expense all the way to the bank along side of real estate trolls and mortgage flippers.

I am glad to see food trending our popular topics because that means people want a closer relationship with what they eat, but I worry a bit about this Green being the “new Black.” I fear we are not making real changes, only putting our lives in the hand of other careless capitalists. I won’t complaint because I want to believe there are better capitalists out there, and at least there is enough profit to drive the popularity of farmer’s markets and reduce industrialization and diversify our food base. Social entrepreneurship is taking off and these capitalists are keenly focused on locality and sustainability. Heck, I aspire to be one of them.

Green construction, on the other hand, is out of reach of the mainstream consumers for now. I recall a conversation with a developer at a business event. His professional life involves real estate and he flat out told me it’s just too expensive and too long of an investment return period for Green construction to take off in the private home sector. But he was happy to note there are at least some focus on sustainability design and construction for large scale office buildings and we are focusing more and more on wind and other alternative energy. Perhaps one day, solar energy will be more cost effective on a large scale, but I am sad to see there has been an increase in coal production.

We still have millions of highly inflated homes built to consume as much as possible at the highest environmental impact possible. The upfront sticker price of these homes does not include their overall impact to the health of our ecology and economy. We set the trend for the world to follow. When we bring our environmental concerns to the world stage, developing countries like China respond with “it’s our turn to live the good life and get rich by ripping off the poor.”

This is our first China Connection. Today in China, thousands of new buildings are popping up in the new real estate crusade. China does not enjoy the luxury of US’s expanse of land and low population density. China’s development cannot expand out so there is a smaller urban sprawl problem, but it is going up as much as it can. These buildings are huge energy suckers. They are also being developed at an alarming rate. Borrowing our “build it cheap and build it fast to flip, and let someone else worry about the problems down the road” mentality, China is now making the same mistake we have made at the dawn of our industrial revolution. In parts of China’s high development areas, condos are soaring to match and excel our housing bubble. Most of the office buildings in major Chinese cities are empty. Many buildings are constructed of low quality that is a risk to even young children’s lives. 

My once fond memories of Si He Yuan and Hutongs are replaced by ugly sites of massive energy suckers. 

But that is China, it has nothing to do with us right?

I fear for our deep financial connection with China will expose us to the danger of a Chinese housing bubble bust. We are also in danger of the huge environmental impacts of China’s irresponsible building and development frenzy.

All of this construction is demanding more raw material imports from all over the world. That means more fuels are spent and more CO2 and other pollutants emissions. If China is giving the chance to “live the good life and get rich” as the western world has done, I am afraid we may be on a fast track to the point of no return.

I cannot deny China must develop, but I hope China change its human sustainability practices and address the problems of inequity as well. I also hope for quick developments in sustainable construction technology to help mitigate the problems we may face.

There is hope. Sustainable construction is becoming more and more popular worldwide. LEED is taking roots in many countries. There are also innovative architects looking to bring Green construction to the poor and private homeowners, bringing equity to the equation for a truly sustainability project. New Orleans aims to remake its cityscape and bring low cost green homes to the lower 9th.

Within the still-recovering Lower Ninth Ward, a reconstructed "camelback"-style storefront at 5200 Dauphine Street will serve as the new home of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association and the Lower 9 Center for Sustainable Engagement and Development. The deteriorated condition of the building called for crews to completely dismantle all structural and interior components including doors and windows. Those salvaged materials are being reused, along with new thermal insulation, photovoltaics, solar water heating, onsite water collection and other environmentally-responsible systems to recreate this historic property as a LEED Platinum building.

Some architects also started to focus on how to build for the local environment to maximize its energy use and construction impact. Using local material lessens transportation cost and CO2 emission and often these local materials are best suited to deal with the local climate.

This is our Chinese Connection number 2:

China tends to look to the west for its sense of direction. Because the Chinese State censors everything, the Chinese people look to what we are doing in to achieve their own dreams; but what gets through the Chinese censorship are business practices and lifestyle matters. If we are eating McDonalds and driving SUVs, you better be sure they hope to do the same. But if we are building innovative sustainable homes and office buildings designed for the local ecology, then you better be certain that the Chinese people will want the same.

When I was growing up, I remember houses carved into the side of clay-mountains in the Gobi desert. I remember they were cooler in the summer and warm in the winter. I also remember parts of the Great Wall, made of blocks of dried mud and grass straws, lasting thousands of years. I think if the new sustainable design and construction trend reaches China in a popular way, then we may see some really creative ways of adopting the old way of building things with new sustainable technologies. I couldn't help myself but marvel at that kind of synergy and progress.

the 7 bubbles of LEED home
I should be an optimist; but I know we will have to change the way we do things here in the US first. We will have to somehow bring sustainable thinking into our homes and think how we can rebuild our landscape to meet a balance between ecology, economy, and equity.

There should be a LEED knowledge manual for your average consumers. 

1 comment:

  1. I really like how you described the housing bubble and green buildings in that place. It's important to know how these factors affects the economy.

    office space