This week, as Portland sees its first 90-degree temperatures of the year, recent media stories testify to how the way out of the Great Recession is through sustainability, alternative energy and planning.
Nathalie Weinstein reports in Tuesday’s Daily Journal of Commerce on a report released by Earth Advantage showing new homes in the Portland metro area with third-party sustainability certification were sold for more money.
Homes built between May 1, 2009 and April 30, 2010 that were certified with either Earth Advantage, Energy Star or LEED for Homes sold for 18 percent more (on average) than homes without a certification. Existing homes that received a certification sold for 23 percent more.
I’ll bet most of those green homes did not have central air conditioning. Granted, with Portland’s moderate climate it’s easier to accomplish that here and maintain comfort for all but about 11 months of the year. But could America really ever wean itself off air conditioning?
Numerous national outlets have also taken note of a new book by Stan Cox called Losing Our Cool: Uncomfortable Truths About Our Air-Conditioned World (and Finding New Ways to Get Through the Summer). In a Q&A with the National Post of Canada, Cox says air conditioning has shaped U.S. presidential politics, shifted populations, altered our sex lives and thickened our waistlines.
Cox is on to something. Between 1993 and 2005 our use of electricity [in the U.S.] for cooling residences and retail space doubled over that period and that, over that same period, more or less, we doubled our use of petroleum energy used in cooling automobiles. The mass migration that has occurred in America to Sun Belt states has been part of that phenomenon. One needs air conditioning in Las Vegas, I’d approximate, about 25 hours a day, 375 days a year. Phoenix slightly more still.
Cox isn’t suggesting we get rid of air conditioning altogether. “Focus on people cooling rather than building cooling,” he tells the Post. “An example would be going back to the single room air conditioner. Have it in one room of the house and if things get too bad, turn it on and cool the room. Rather than, imagine our current scenario, say, in the American Sunbelt, where a husband and wife get up in a 3,000 square foot air-conditioned house, get into two air-conditioned cars and commute to an office block that has been sitting there, getting cooled all night in preparation for the workday. Meanwhile, back home, that 24,000 cubic feet is being cooled with nobody in the house.”
If air conditioning isn’t as necessary or ubiquitous here, designing buildings that can survive in hot climates is still an expertise we need. Portland is a leader in sustainable design, and as much promise as their may be in solar, wind and other alternative energy, it’s through buildings that better heat and cool themselves efficiently and passively that America will wean itself from fossil fuels.
As best I can tell, it would take an extraordinary green building to keep one cool on a 95-degree day without air conditioning. It would require top-notch insulation, the help of external shading from trees or human-made devices. And even then, it’s difficult to imagine just walking away from such an effective technology. Even so, the days are gone when one can expect to simply blast refrigerated air into poorly insulated, sieve-like architecture.
In an economic climate that is shaky at best, and with the threat of a second recessionary dip seemingly growing, green design and construction projects represent a lone bright spot amidst an industry with skyscraper-high unemployment rates.
The government has acted accordingly, with the Obama administration embracing sustainability and alternative energy endeavors. On Saturday, for example, President Obama announced that the Department of Energy will award $2 billion to two solar energy companies, Abengoa Solar and Solar Manufacturing, to build solar plants that will collectively create about 1,600 new American jobs with over 70 percent of the construction components and products manufactured in the United States.
Now more needs to be done on the single-family home front. While there are some tax incentives for items like solar hot water heaters, high-efficiency boilers, and energy-efficient windows, I can’t help but believe more could be done to encourage market transformation, such as rebates for the kind of third-party verified green homes that are already proven to hold better sale value. Or a gas tax that could be used to fund other weatherization projects at residential, commercial and institutional levels.
Make no mistake, though: There seems to be not just an economic transformation happening today but a cultural one. Take for example another article, in last Wednesday's New York Times, about how auto dealerships around the country, particularly those of domestic auto brands, are being converted into a range of other uses.
The Times article cited a report by CoStar, a DC-area commercial real estate research firm, that since early 2009 about 2,300 auto dealerships have closed around the country as new car sales plunged more than 40 percent and the government forced General Motors and Chrysler, to end longstanding franchise contracts. The closings put 70 million square feet of buildings and land on the market. Some of the former dealerships are becoming other auto dealerships, but others are becoming schools, retail centers, even lumber yards.
I wonder if there’s a bit of a vacuum happening here, though. Ultimately we can’t just design sustainable individual buildings; we need neighborhoods that are interconnected, where a mix of housing, retail, offices, parks and other spaces mean most anything one needs is only minutes away—and preferably by some means other than car. If all these auto dealerships are becoming available, and if the economy is transforming all kinds of other industries right now, shouldn’t there be some kind of concerted, collective effort to make sure we are planning sustainable cities as well as sustainable buildings? Sustainability-focused architects often compare an efficient building design to a living, organic organism. If that’s true for a building with scores or a few hundred people, it’s even truer for a city of millions.