A Sustainable Proposal

Since sustainability is the flavor of the year and perhaps the century, it is time we started applying it to HOW we do things and not just those THINGS we buy and sell. Essentially, sustainability is about HOW things are made, HOW they operate over time, HOW they are recycled into other things or just left as junk in the earth. But we tend to ignore the inconvenient aspects. I am sitting here typing on a computer and I might feel all high and mighty about saving trees but the fact of the matter is this computer was assembled thousands of miles from here with parts from thousands of miles further and it is being operated thanks to the combustion of coal and fission of uranium. I can plant trees and make more. Can I make more coal and uranium? No.

Similarly, we are justifiably excited about the new “net zero energy” house in Chicago, ably covered in the Tribune today by Blair Kamin. Here is the link via Blair: http://tr.im/tAxN. My good friends Doug Farr and Jonathan Boyer are the designers, and the house is good looking as well as uber-performing. They expect it will actually give power back over time. This is an excellent thing. And it is a THING, although Doug and Jonathan are smart enough to think about the impacts of sourcing materials, assembly and waste. Indeed, Doug is the AUTHOR of Sustainable Urbanism, which really looks at the SYSTEM and not the thing. We had him speak to our students this spring and it was great.

Unfortunately, the marketers and MBAs slapping green slogans on every new development in city and suburbia are not as careful as Doug and Jonathan. In fact, many don’t get the big picture at all. We need to conserve resources, and buildings and cities and sewers and streets and train lines are resources. They need to be conserved, not turned into landfill. It will waste less energy to do so.

Plus, the good thing is that most cities and streets and sewers and buildings from before 1930 were made well enough that there is NO SUSTAINABLE REASON for disposing of them like diapers. But we are subject to a strange weirdness in our legal disposition of real estate, one that came up in a lunchtime discussion yesterday with Tom Mayes, Deputy Counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Preservation laws were added late, and as a reaction to urban renewal. They were promoted by people who had spent years studying architecture and saving the homes of famous people, so they came up with historical and architectural criteria to use to define which sites and districts should be saved. But if we REALLY care about sustainability, isn’t that system backwards? Shouldn’t the default option be re-use of our communities, not their demolition? Same goes for the buildings within. For years developers asked for lists of buildings worth saving and preservationists provided them: we picked the best 17,000 building in Chicago through a survey that took 20 years and only asked to save 3% of the city. The result? TONS of those selected buildings are willfully destroyed each year – about one per day when we last counted a few years back. We give a list to save, and everything else becomes a target – even (perhaps especially?) the buildings on the list. The City of Chicago tried to redress this six years ago with the Demolition Delay ordinance, which has helped a little, but the fact of the matter is that the deck is stacked against old buildings and for demolition. Which is NOT sustainable on the face of it.

Shouldn’t it be up to others to come up with criteria for why a building should be added to a landfill, why it should be converted into metric tonnes of dust blanketing its neighborhood and materials hauled in from China and Brazil to construct, with more dust and debris, its replacement? Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the destroyer to show why their decision is best, why the replacement will be a NET GAIN for the community? The idea of the net zero house is just that – it CONTRIBUTES to the community. Certainly there are many situations where demolition and replacement would meet the criteria and contribute to the community. How come I have to PROVE my case but they don’t?

The single greatest technological advance is right in front of you and me right now, and it is not the words or the ads or the sales pitches or even the endless apps. It is the unparalleled assembly and organization of infinitely more data than was available to the entire Enlightenment world. We have the metrics right here. It is no longer rocket science for you to calculate what your building costs in energy, what it represents in embodied energy, what it will cost in dust and debris to demolish and how many gallons of gas will be burnt hauling it away and bringing in the new stuff. This also applies to gut rehabs, to be sure.

The point is, this is all measurable today in a way it never was before, and just as our laws have to cope with the internet and data mining and knowledge clouds, our laws need to incorporate sustainable PRACTICES not just sustainable PRODUCTS. In a world where data is infinite but space and stuff is finite, it only makes sense that we develop a system that requires people to assemble the metrics on their projects, so the community can know the real, global costs of actions involving the physical resources of that community. We demand it of public projects all the time.

Such a system would answer the critics of landmarks laws who find architecture and history difficult to understand. Those critics seem to understand the more quantitative basis of zoning laws, although historically zoning and historic preservation were born at the same time of the same selfish economic impulses. (Ironically, the same selfish economic impulses that have led some to challenge those laws.) Zoning and preservation laws were born of a desire to secure community against the uncertainty of real estate development in the era of automobiles and trucks. Conservative Supreme Court justices upheld these laws because they protected wealth, pure and simple.

Now I have written before about the beauty of landmarks preservation in that it treats buildings and districts and communities like individuals; that its criteria and specificity give it a humanistic, qualitative approach that cannot be reduced to metrics or driven by data. That sentiment has not changed. The power of a story can always sway a legislative body despite data – it can sway an election, too. But I think the metrics are on our side – and I’m not so sure that we can’t use the cloud to quantify some of these formerly unquantifiable qualities. What does a landmark contribute to a community – how much does it enhance – say compared to a flower bed or billboard – the lives of those who walk by it each day, as well as those who live in it?

Our current system based on simple economics and ownership has led us to think that only an owner benefits from things like zoning and landmark laws designed to protect their investments. My own research in New York City suggests otherwise: renters also mobilize to preserve community assets. Why? Because they GET something out of those assets as long as they live in a community. Equity is an abstract concept, much more abstract than the path you take to work or the grocery; much more abstract than where you like to sit with friends over a cool glass of caipirinha. The fact of the matter is there are lots of measurable things out there that aren’t being measured by the cavemen seeking to control our complex environments.

The sustainable proposal requires those who would alter our communities to assemble the accurate metrics of their actions. They would love this – it would be like the zoning mavens of old, churning numbers and influencing legislative bodies. Preservation could remain the defender of quality, but we could also give the community baselines in terms of embodied energy and materials and transportation costs – stacking up a rehabilitation proposal and its effects on the local and global environment against a demolition and rebuilding proposal. And people could make decisions, such as it is better to demolish and replace even though it will take 33.4 years to recoup the environmental costs of that action because the existing building will only last 82.3 years and only with an infusion of 5 million BTUS every year. My hunch is that preservation – the sustainable approach – will measure up.

What do you think?

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2 Responses to “A Sustainable Proposal”

  1. theloosh Says:

    I definitely agree. This is one of the major arguments we are making in support of saving all 28 buildings of Michael Reese, rather than just the 8 Gropius buildings. Sadly, though, mostly people don’t get it yet, Chicago 2016 included.

    The NetZero house looks great, but I definitely side with the argument that Kamin mentions that the house is too big for one person. It IS a McMansion in its own way. That is extremely wasteful in its own way.

  2. Great Article on Sustainable Design - Tampa Preservation, Inc. Says:

    [...] Article on Sustainable Design July 23rd, 2009 I read an article called A Sustainable Proposal today that stands out in its request to place the burden of proof for demolition on the requester, [...]

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