My father owned a local hardware store for almost thirty years, and I have fond memories of hanging out and working there, with the locally owned stationery story, movie theater, pharmacy, and grocery on the same block. Each successive block was also populated primarily with independently owned businesses, usually operated by their owners, most of whom lived nearby. Most businesses were local; when you went to a different town, the stores were noticeably different.
During the last few decades, locally owned businesses have steadily given way to chain retail stores and restaurants consistently providing us with the same, usually bland, experience no matter where or when we stop to make a purchase. Now, it appears, the recent “golden age” of retail seems to be coming to an end.
Are empty stores the canary in the coal mine?
Lately I’ve noticed just how much empty retail space is out there, waiting, mostly likely in vain, for someone to rent it and help the landlord pay the bills. Just today I passed a strip shopping center with a recently vacated Borders and a former Circuit City that has been empty for years.
Even before the 2008 financial meltdown, I heard reports that the country had in the range of twice the retail space that our combined purchasing power could support. Who knows what that figure is now?
I am both delighted and saddened by the demise of many of these large retail chains. I usually do my best to shop at local businesses; however, it is becoming increasingly difficult since most of them are limited to boutiques and restaurants. In all but the densest cities (and now even in some of those), big box discount stores crush any potential local competition in terms of price, selection, and hours of operation. With few, if any, owner-operators working in stores, there is little pride in the quality of service left. Customers often end up with poor service as a result.
The big leap
So, what does this have to do with green building? Well, I’m not exactly sure, but I’ll do my best to make a connection. It seems to me that the prevalence of big box stores is directly related to what I refer to as the recent era of “wretched excess” that our country experienced. As did most of us, I benefited from this behavior, fueled by easy credit and a desire for more, bigger, and (theoretically) better stuff, homes, vacations, and the like.
Until recently, homes increased in size every year while generally going down in cost due to improvements in material production, low labor costs, and generally poor quality control in the field. These bigger houses required more stuff to fit in them, a need very adequately filled by big box stores selling lots of stuff pretty cheap.
To me, one of the saddest things that has happened to society is that we have become addicted to having lots of shiny, mostly cheap, stuff. I get incredibly frustrated when something breaks and repairing it is almost impossible, because replacing it is cheaper. To a certain extent, this was the case with houses, at least until recently. Most homes built in the last few decades have been of relatively poor quality, purchased by people who expected to flip them in a few years for a profit and move on to the next, bigger, and “better” one.
Now that this particular paradigm is gone, we need to decide what to do with all the poorly built homes people are stuck in and also figure out how to start building high-value homes that people want to buy and can afford to live in for the long term.
Can we turn these lemons into lemonade?
Sarah Susanka has been pushing her Not So Big House concept for about a decade or so, with great success in terms of book sales. But as a movement, changes have been modest.
Green building and renovation have been around for a little longer, making steady progress until recently. In a depressed industry, though, green certifications are one of the first things to go to save money and remain competitive.
Smaller, better built, greener homes are the right way to go, but most of us seem to be pathologically incapable of making the best long-term decisions for ourselves. We typically opt for a home that is larger than we need, in a location that requires more driving than necessary, and one that is not necessarily green, typically meaning higher lifetime operating costs. Many people are being forced into smaller homes and apartments, often unwillingly, and many of them are finding that they are as happy as or even happier than they were in their former starter castles.
Now if we can get them to buy or renovate to green standards, we might begin to see some systemic changes in our housing industry.