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Beyond green buildings: Sustainable communities

February 15th, 2010

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

If you had the money and connections, you could build a snappy green house these days. Sink a geothermal heat pump to tap Mother Earth’s energy, slap up some solar panels, finish it out with non-toxic drywall, cork floors, denim insulation, recycled glass countertops and floors made from sunken ship decking.

Green house (Image: Axepin/dreamstime.com)

Green house (Image: Axepin/dreamstime.com)

But does a green house a green home make? The answer to that is….of course not. Green builders, and those who live in green houses, soon bump up against what some land planners have known all along: It takes a village to bring green to its fullest expression.

Sure it’s cool that net zero houses can push the meter backward. But it is far better to have that household ticking away in a neighborhood where the kids walk to school, mom and pop hop a train to work, and gramps shops for pickles down the street – when the community garden’s cukes have been exhausted. The whole works would be powered by clean energy, connected to local food sources and friendly to local wildlife.

This is not a vision that most of us live, or even recognize, especially those of us in sprawling suburbs, where the tomatoes come from diesel trucks, work is over the horizon and our ‘hood was built to the unwritten specs of tract housing — build first, ponder later.  We are stranded us in spots that fail to take advantage of solar or wind power, in subdivisions isolated from basic services; where getting to the “corner store” can require a two-mile drive and you couldn’t get there greenly anyway because no one saw the need to install a bike lane, trolley or bus system.

But new, more sustainable living arrangements needn’t be unattainable. We can’t roll up the suburbs. But with the right community leadership, open-minded homeowners and creative developers, they can be reshaped to be more green, and we’re not talking about the lawns. All these engines of change are engaged in hundreds of projects across America that will — if circumstances favor their development — create new paradigms for the 21st Century of community sustainability.

The very best designed green neighborhoods may still be on the drawing board, evolving, but striving projects are on the ground right now.

Suburban green, bringing it home in St. Charles Maryland

Head south of the nation’s capital into Maryland and you see a rolling mix of  rural communities and tract housing  interspersed with McMansions encased by private turf fiefdoms.

About 22 miles south of the capital off U.S. Highway 301, an aging middle-class development of traditional houses appears. This master planned community launched in the 1960s and known as the St. Charles community has neither the glitz of the mansions nor the quaint appeal of surrounding towns, but its density, once something shunned as suburbanites spread their wings, has made it prime for new life as a green town.

The St. Charles plan calls for large work zones and schools close to housing

The St. Charles plan calls for large work zones and schools close to housing

Developer ACPT is building an adjacent community of 11,000 new homes that will be green from the ground up, while also offering the existing 13,000 homeowners energy retrofitting assistance.

This grand vision byACPT calls for new housing units to be connected to centralized solar and geothermal power stations and form the center of one huge affordable, regenerating oasis of sustainability.

Make that salable sustainability, too. CEO Steve Griessel wants to provide something average Americans can afford, and he’s nearly certain that customers won’t be able to resist the triple appeal of reasonable upfront costs combined with ongoing energy-savings, enhanced by nearby schools and work centers.

“Until now, everyone looks at this stuff, anything green — the first assumption is that it’s interesting but expensive and people are not willing to pay the premium,’’ Griessel says. “Our entire thesis here is to say that’s just not true.”

Actually, St. Charles is joining a list of green building enclaves, some more green than others, that are finding that eco-friendly can be wallet-friendly, from the spare but elegant homes replacing lost houses in parts of New Orleans to the prairie versions popping up in Greensburg, Kansas.

Griessel’s determined to prove the economics can work. He’s worked out a plan that will save the development money by recycling natural resources at every turn and employing the latest technology. Dirt from prepping house sites will be folded into road beds instead of being trucked out. Felled trees will be chipped and reused on site. Software for the entire project will streamline the building process, helping contractors avoid costly mistakes and duplication. Just the new software alone will save 22 percent on what builders call the “horizontal infrastructure” costs – the initial phase of putting in the houses’ foundations and setting plumbing access, Griessel says.

Sketch of a home planned for the St. Charles community

Sketch of a home planned for the St. Charles community

Homes will be built by known builders in the area, such as Ryan Homes and Richmond American Homes and frankly, won’t look much different from other suburban dwellings. Some green building experts would say that ACPT is missing a beat by not orienting the houses to passive solar building standards that can absorb and retain the sun’s heat.

Michael Kinsley, a development expert with the Rocky Mountain Institute says that every municipality and developer should be looking at orientation today, or risk muffing an opportunity to conserve energy. When sustainable siting is not considered “that’s a deficiency on the part of the developer and the local authority” that is “committing the residents to much higher energy costs for generations, when a very simple regulatory change could have avoided that.”

Kinsley, however, speaks highly of communities that pursue retrofitting of homes and businesses. Greening the community is win-win, he says, because it “plugs a leak” in the local economy by putting the building trades to work and keeping more dollars in the pockets of homeowners. “Any community where the building trades are out of work, they should be emphasizing energy efficiency…the markets are right there. You have a low risk, high return opportunity and it’s largely ignored by economic authorities.”

From that perspective, St. Charles’ above-average energy aspirations will help provide. The community will need just about every trade and building expert imaginable to finish the gargantuan neighborhood which will be powered by a 75 acre, 10 MegaWatt solar farm, an underground geothermal plant, and a nearby natural gas plant (which Griessel endorses because it burns cleaner than other fossil fuels). The houses will have Smart Meters and Energy Star appliances. They will be LEED-certified and right-sized for families (starting at 1,650 square feet), enabling residents to save money on electricity, commuting and mortgages.

The community will incorporate several schools (up to nine), within walking distance of homes, and a job center where businesses will be offered incentives to congregate. All of this will cut down on the St. Charles community’s carbon footprint, improve the quality of life and reduce commute times and energy costs. Wild lands will be preserved on the community perimeter, adding another livability element, and keeping to the spirit of St. Charles 1.0, it is expected to house 40 percent of the county’s population on two percent of its land.

Master planned communities of the past took some of these matters into account, earmarking spots for gas stations and grocery stores, but rarely, if ever, did they seriously, let alone simultaneously, address energy efficiency, restrain sprawl and pursue work major work centers.

St. Charles will be different. “Ten years from now people will be living in homes they can afford. Their children will be going to school down the road,” Griessel said. “They’ll be closer to work and there will be less need for a second motor car… And this will also come with 50 percent smaller utility bills.”

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