Green Building: LEEDing Us Where?

The New York Times

March 19, 2010, 11:30 am
Green Building: LEEDing Us Where?
By JAMES MCWILLIAMS

Photo: Andreas Kollegger

The Philip Merrill Environmental CenterThe Philip Merrill Environmental Center is a 32,000-square-foot building in Annapolis, Md. It has the distinct honor of being the first structure to earn a “platinum” rating from a program called Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). When the complex was completed in 2001, it earned special accolades for its southern wall, which is shielded by slotted wood (partially made from recycled pickle barrels) to reduce the building’s interior temperature. However, as David Owen notes in his cogently argued book Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, the wooden barrier also prevents the sun from directly hitting the building’s photovoltaic panels, thus rendering a potentially energy-efficient feature effectively useless.

This irony captures a problem endemic to modern environmentalism. Concerned consumers are flush with noble intentions, but too often these intentions succumb to external realities. A closer look at LEED—and green building in general—illustrates the nature of this conflict. Progressive cities across the U.S. offer tax incentives for builders to incorporate energy-efficient designs into their structures. A quick review of my own environmentally conscientious enclave in Austin reveals rainwater collection tanks, native landscaping (“xeriscaping”), gravel driveways, solar panels, compost heaps, massive recycling bins, cork floors, self-composting toilets, compact fluorescent bulbs, and bamboo cabinets. These features are all vivid testimonies to an enduring environmental ethic. Truth be told, my own home has a “five star” green rating from the Austin Energy Green Building Program. I’m rather proud of it.

“After all, step beyond the privileged confines of our ever-greening abodes, and you’ll discover that most American cities are, by design, ecological train wrecks.”

But a book as insightful as Owen’s forces me to wonder: do such efforts matter all that much? After all, step beyond the privileged confines of our ever-greening abodes, and you’ll discover that most American cities are, by design, ecological train wrecks. Don’t get me wrong, Austin is a wonderful place to live. But the fact remains: its overall blueprint runs counter to a truly sustainable lifestyle. Homes are large, if not steroidal, by the standards of densely packed urban centers like New York or San Francisco. Cars are a necessity. Sidewalks are maddeningly intermittent. Bicycle lanes and bus routes are haphazard. Sprawling “house farms” and strip malls ring the city. Air conditioners run full blast for seven months. Traffic snarls. We have no light rail or subway.

Of course, these are structural inefficiencies. Generally they’re beyond individual control (although Austin voted down light rail twice!). Nevertheless, they place our personal environmental decisions—such as the choice to build a LEED-certified home—in a troubling context. Take the long view. From the moment of European settlement onward, American faith in Manifest Destiny has inspired aggressive development driven by land acquisition and individual choice. Sprawl started to become ingrained in the American character over two centuries ago and, as a result, middle America has inherited cities that value expansion over intensification. To an extent, this vexed inheritance turns our cork floors and compost bins into empty expressions akin to the sun-starved solar panels adorning the Merritt Center.

“We have built our country as we have built it,” writes Owen, “and we’re obviously not going to tear it down and start over.” True enough. What we can do, though, is expand the notion of what it means to be an environmentalist. Tree huggers, organic farmers, and green builders will always play necessary roles in raising environmental awareness. But if Owen is right—if our only real hope is to live smaller, live closer, and drive less—future environmentalists will include inner city pioneers who make the urban core a more desirable place to live. Police officers, school teachers, pastry shop owners, landscape architects, urban planners, coffee freaks and policy geeks—these people will be the real heroes of twenty-first century environmentalism.

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