There is more than a fine line between doing less harm and doing good. Doing less harm means questioning the status quo without actually defying it. Doing good is giving more than one takes. Most home builders who aspire to achieve “sustainability” are engaging in the former, regardless of what their marketing says.
An improved model
“A new housing model is rising from the dirt” reads a 2021 CNBC article about FivePoint Valencia, the planned 21,500-home, 15,000-acre neighborhood in southern California. The developer claims it will be “the largest net-zero community in the nation [and] leave no carbon footprint,” which is a dubious claim (at best), once you factor in emissions from excavation, construction, and building materials. Nonetheless, FivePoint’s efforts should not be dismissed, nor should the State of California’s ambitions to have 7 million “climate-friendly” homes by 2035. If the alternative is 21,500 poorly insulated stick builds on previously undeveloped land, then FivePoint Valencia is unquestionably doing less harm.
Within the last few years, eco-friendly residential neighborhoods have started to pop up with greater frequency, to the point where nearly every U.S. state can lay claim to its “first net-zero community.”
In Orange County, North Carolina, just outside Chapel Hill, the 60-acre development of Array comprises 12 generously platted lots on either side of a cul-de-sac, with a pond, community garden, and walking trails close by. Array claims its homes will be certified to National Green Building Standards and subject to community-based standards (translation: covenants) to ensure energy efficiency.
In New Berlin, Wisconsin, a suburb of Milwaukee, the community of Red Fox Crossing has sold all 34 of its lots, where a mix of ranch and two-story houses will be built to Net-Zero Ready standards. The “ready” qualifier indicates the homes will be energy efficient and have rooftops equipped for easy solar panel installation. It also suggests that the distinction of becoming a bona fide net-zero community isn’t a foregone conclusion.
A better model
In a departure from realtor-led efforts like Array and Red Fox, the Utah-based home builder Redfish Builders is constructing Living Zenith at Liberty Park, the first in a series of planned net-zero communities in the Salt Lake City region. Liberty Park has just five minimalist, single-family homes on a compact 0.6-acre lot. The homes’ insulation is plant-based, their cedar siding is FSC-certified, the windows are triple-paned, and each 5.5kW rooftop solar array comes with a microinverter, which allows homeowners to track the performance of each panel.
From these examples, it’s no coincidence that the one closest to doing good happens to be the smallest. Sprawl is sprawl, whichever way you slice it. A big house on a big lot in a meadowed suburb will inevitably strain resources, which in turn places a higher burden on the homeowner to offset their energy demands with more equipment. Multiply that a few dozen times and, best case, you have a walkable neighborhood composed of some efficient homes, plus a pond. What you likely don’t have is an entire community that’s managed to offset its water and energy needs.
Ironically, sprawl might also be the solution to this problem. Kind of. In reconciling our growing need for net-zero living with our desire for more equitable communities, the answer lies in creating neighborhoods that truly function as neighborhoods, and not a gaggle of subdivisions.
Veridian at County Farm is a planned mixed-income, net zero energy community in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Its developer, THRIVE Collaborative, used the International Living Future Institute’s Living Community Challenge as the framework for its master plan. Adopting the Challenge means creating more than efficient buildings and landscapes. It means, in the case of Veridian, devoting 30% of community land for food production. It also means designing a neighborhood with single-family houses, townhomes, and apartment buildings; with market-rate and low-income housing; with food retail and centralized commercial activity; and with bicycle infrastructure and access to public transit.
In the arena of eco-friendly development, everyone has their own version of utopia, be it communal living models like Kibbutzim or Intentional Communities, or something more attuned to Levittown with its own district energy system. But building green in its truest sense, on a community scale, requires more than relying on our status quo of subdivision sprawl, plus solar panels, heat pumps, and better insulation. It will require creating—either anew or retrofitted—mixed-use neighborhoods where offsets aren’t limited to numbers on a net meter, but also measured in what community members contribute to the cause.
Justin R. Wolf is a Minnesota-based writer who covers green building trends and energy policy.
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I'm conflicted - on one hand, we should build what people seem to desire. If that's slightly denser suburban with better than average insulation and a heat pump, that'll get us to emissions reductions quickly. However, it's a shame to me that we used to build so many dense and walkable neighborhoods, like my own. It is so easy to make energy efficient housing with density.
The Ann Arbor (Veridian) development is sort of a representative of what you are saying. "Affordable" is not $400/sqft in south east Michigan. The "cheap" option they have is $190k for 340 sqft. Calling that mixed income is a big stretch. It's what people want, high end, exclusive housing. Built in a city that repeatedly denies denser, lower cost housing that it desperately needs.
I agree with you... but I'm also conflicted because I think generally people don't know what they don't know so they don't desire what we know they should desire. We have a long way to go and zoning ordinances many times don't seem to be helping us get there.
Very true, and you said it much more nicely than I would have.
I'd still amplify though. It's not just that people can't want what they don't know about, it's that even when they do know, they might not be willing to pay for it. Not just in money, but in time, convenience, cognitive load, etc. too.
While greener units do sell, there are studies showing that even people who say they want "environmental features" are more likely to spend that money on extra square footage given the option. If something they already want happens to be greener, that's a bonus because they can pat themselves on the back.
A truth that's hard for us in this community to accept is that the majority of people wouldn't give much for the things we see as so vitally important. Many don't care at all.
All too often what we want isn't good for us and it takes mighty willpower and wisdom to consistently repress reflexive and immediate desires in favor of longer term or less flashy benefits, especially if those benefits are diffuse - even when we know better. I'm carrying about 30 lbs to prove it. Ice cream and beer feel really good, and so does having extra space to play with or the next power-guzzling toy.
We and our clients can be the vanguard, and we should. But we should do so without illusions that we'd be joyfully followed by the masses if only they knew. Meaningful incentives can help a good deal IF they're easy to obtain. But usually real change comes when it's forced: continuing to raise required standards and ban the worst products and practices is the only way to change enough fast enough.
Our job is to show that it's worth doing and not as scary as others may think.
I am glad to see that at least the subject of food production made it in to the article. I so rarely see that mentioned when we talk about sustainable homes. So much more can be done with the real estate between the building envelope and the property line. Local food production, edible landscaping, and full on permaculture designs for any sized lot can be achieved. There is a huge CF difference between walking to a grocery store, and walking out to your garden for at least some of your food. A "sustainable home" surrounded by lawn is a missed opportunity.
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