Saturday, December 6, 2008

On Systems Efficiency

The discussion of sustainability in buildings and urban places in this country is much too basic. As we keep building more sprawl, the gains in energy efficiency in buildings as well as transportation energy expenditures get worse because of increases in VMT and increases in energy use due to total buildings. This is another issue that is totally missing from discussions higher up (The Livable Community Blogosphere has been talking about this for ever). Here is what Obama mentioned in the stimulus package talk this morning:
First, we will launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient. Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world. We need to change that. We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs. That won’t just save you, the American taxpayer, billions of dollars each year. It will put people back to work.
Yes it will put people to work and is needed, but long term we need to think bigger. My point is one made by Beyond DC very eloquently when talking about the LEED architecture program which designates green buildings:
LEED architecture without good urban design is like cutting down the rainforest using hybrid-powered bulldozers - it just sort of misses the point.
But there is a whole other level to what we talk about. I think the more holistic approach to sustainability pushed by firms like Mithun is a way to go and when coupled the themes of urbanism and sustainable transport. This would lead to wholesale change in terms of energy efficiency which is a major part of sustainability. Here's a bit from Mithun's sustainable urban design plan for the Lloyd District in Portland.
The Sustainable Design Plan, in contrast, rests on a functional concept of “Pre-development Metrics” developed by the team. These measures embody a theoretical baseline representing the ecological profile of the site before there was a human presence on it. This framework was then used to create a plan that would be even more ambitious than the “beyond-platinum” goals specified in the RFP.

In effect, the remarkable notion at the heart of the plan is that intense urban redevelopment can be used to reverse existing environmental impacts, and return many of the ecological qualities of the site to those of a 54-acre, mature, mixed-conifer forest. Wildlife habitat, water and usage quality, and energy consumption are three areas where the plan establishes specific performance goals.

In terms of habitat, the pre-development metric was 90 percent tree cover, supporting a diverse range of species. In comparison, the plan attempts to reestablish 25-30 percent tree cover—an “abstraction” of a mixed-conifer forest, involving native “forest patches,” green streets, rooftop gardens, and habitat corridors. Meanwhile, provisions are also proposed for off-site habitat restoration.

Update 10:00 pm PT: continued quote left out earlier...

In terms of water, the plan estimates the study area receives 64 million gallons of rainwater a year, and it proposes treating much of this runoff on-site. It also proposes reducing potable water consumption by 62 percent, and providing on-site sources for 100 percent of nonpotable water demand through rainwater harvesting and wastewater reuse. Energy metrics involve a number of concerns. According to the plan, the neighborhood receives 161 million kilowatt hours per year of solar energy. The plan aims to exceed the level of utilization of this energy that would be typical of a mature forest.

Among the plan’s other goals are to reduce on-site carbon dioxide emissions to predevelopment levels and create an overall carbon-neutral strategy. Since the construction industry consumes 40 percent of the global economy’s raw materials, the latter would involve giving preference to materials that employ renewable resources, that are from within 300 to 500 miles of the site, have low embodied energy, and that receive a positive Life Cycle Assessment.
Now I know this is a bit too heady for basic stimulus issues and needs to be developed further, but this is the type of thing that will lead to true sustainability. If we put our brightest minds to work to figure out how to implement strategies like those mentioned by Mithun above, we'll be a whole lot better off. We need to stop looking at things in silos and start looking more at systems in transportation, land use, habitat, and water systems.


arcady said...

To me this just seems like a variant on the good old towers in the park paradigm, though a bit more pedestrian-friendly. What the environmentalists need to realize is that the true harm of the suburbs is fragmentation. You can have your city in 10 square miles, or you can spread those 10 square miles of city over 100 square miles of landscape, and while you'll still have 90 square miles of forest, it will be in patches too small and too close to roads and buildings to actually be useful as wildlife habitat.

Pantograph Trolleypole said...

I would argue that this has nothing to do Le Corbusier's towers in the park. This is the reconstitution of districts that already exist, pushing them to live within their resource limits. The Lloyd is on the other side of the river from downtown Portland and what this program does is push it to account for its usage of energy, carbon, and space versus what was there before the area developed over 200 years ago. It's already urbanized and supports your thoughts Arcady about having the city on a small footprint, while also supporting the goals of sustainability.

This is a wholesale re-thinking of how systems work based on a pre-development paradigm. The idea that the baseline is what the space was before development and adapting it back to some of those bases I believe is very powerful.

jon said...

The New Urbanists have been pushing to make sustainability and green building address urbanism especially with LEED-ND.

I cant stand this dominant thinking in the 'green' world that if you incorporate a windmill on your building it somehow makes it automatically ultra-green (nevermind that it powers 1% of the building's power needs). Green is so much more that little techno gadgets and gizmos plopped on a building and its urbanism is one of the most key elements.

Gotta love thisproposed office building in Portland's Pearl District (which is extremely transit and pedestrian oriented to begin with). The site is located next to Union Station and a few blocks from the new MAX Green Line, the bus mall and the streetcar.

Its three selling points are 1) urban location 2) LEED Platinum and 3) "offers more parking for your company than anywhere else in the downtown core" with "suburban parking ratios".

Its not that I think it shouldnt have any parking, obviously any new major office building should have parking. But its this massive above ground multi-level parking garage in a very urban location with an over-abundance of parking and yet it gets the highest LEED rating. And then theres some hollow gesture of placing solar panels on the roof of the garage that are more about shading the top level of cars and branding the building than power supply.

I've even seen a Hummer wrapped in signage for a Green Building contractor.

Rhywun said...

I too don't quite get it. It just seems gimmicky. Why not build denser here and decrease sprawl elsewhere? All those open spaces mean longer trips, too.

Rhywun said...

I have to disagree that "any new major office building should have parking", especially downtown!

Morgan Wick said...

This post is a stronger argument against "electric cars are good enough" thinking than I saw the last time we talked about it. Now this post is something worth distributing far and wide.

arcady said...

I would argue that this has little to do with Le Corbusier, but it's still towers, and their emphasis of "25% tree cover" sounds an awful lot like a park to me. I'm sure they have other good ideas, but this "tree cover" business just isn't one of them. If they want forest, why not buy the equivalent area of land in the actual forest and permanently protect it from development, rather than wasting space in a city on some "abstraction" of a forest that won't be useful for anyone. It's like planting some trees scattered around a parking lot and calling it green space.

jon said...

rhywun, ideally there would be no parking but i dont think it is reasonable, instead i think the best option is a minimal amount of parking.

Rhywun said...


It's absurd. They have no claim to being "green" by building a suburban style office park in that location. What a fraud. I saw the same thing when I lived in SF. Every new commercial and residential development is placed on top of a parking garage at street level. Rarely they toss in a shop or two to bring a little life to the street but otherwise walking around some streets with lots of new development is like walking around a ghost town.

Maybe I've been living in NYC too long but if the supposedly "greenest" city in the country can't build something downtown without catering to the suburbs what hope is there?

> i think the best option is a
> minimal amount of parking

Well, I suppose upper management needs somewhere to park. No way in hell are they taking transit.

Alon Levy said...

In New York, upper-level managers do take transit - in fact, they generally have to stand on crush-loaded 4 and 5 trains, where commuters from the Bronx have taken all available seats.

rhywun said...

> In New York, upper-level managers
> do take transit

Yes, they do, which probably makes NYC unique in the US.

Fun story: the president of my company introduced a casual dress code after suffering through a particularly sweaty packed ride on the Lexington line one summer.