In the June issue of the Urban Land Institute (ULI) magazine, Urban Land, an article examined and compared green building standards from around the world. The take-away message was that despite most developers and real estate markets still preferring traditional building practices, green building standards are on a path to becoming the only building standards in many parts of the world.
This was an uplifting note to end on, but my experiences with green building in San Francisco have left me a little skeptical of the progress the green movement is making on municipal codes. Very unsustainable development is still taking place and the outskirts of the Bay Area and open lands are being gobbled up by subdivisions at an alarming rate.
Many developers are only concerned about the price of a house at sale – they have no interest in the value of a property over time – whereas green buildings demonstrate their worth in the long-run. To short-sighted developers, unless they can recoup the additional costs that green products and technologies typically add immediately at sale, green buildings are not cost effective. Since the relatively low prices of houses in these subdivisions is their main allure, it’s an uphill battle.
So far, the market on the outskirts of the Bay Area hasn’t demanded radical change towards more sustainable planning or more efficient resource consumption. The Bay Area needs housing, and municipalities are happy to make a buck off the new Target while residents snatch up the only American Dream they can afford.
In the city of San Francisco, I was on the phone with the City Plumbing Department a few months ago. A plumbing inspector actually told me that HDPE, generally considered the green piping material, was not allowed to be installed in the city without special variance. He was sure that the only acceptable pipe for the use I needed was cast iron. I later spoke with the inspector’s supervisor who corrected him: HDPE would be fine. It struck me as odd that this inspector would be so negative towards a product he obviously wasn’t informed about. Maybe there’s cast iron installer union conspiracy???
I believe the future of the building industry is green, but right now local codes and their interpretations are the main obstacle to sustainable development. It’s still legally difficult to disconnect your rainwater downspout from the City sewer system or install a green roof. What stands in the way of this progress, or rather the speed of it, is knowledge. Many people don’t know that green building standards, or the global environmental crisis that spurred their creation, exist. And without pressure from the public, most municipalities won’t change policies developed 50 to 100 years ago.
This fall, at the Greenbuild conference in Chicago, SPUR will present a San Francisco vision of how this knowledge can be spread and how the urban landscape can be transformed. Currently, the SF green design community is working to redefine the form of urban watersheds and streetscapes, together. Municipal codes and plans are being re-written with communication between departments and input from residents. The speakers’ message will tell the tale of how a city with some of the worst stormwater management in the state is turning the tides to become the best.
Image of Daly City, California taken by Thomas Hawk on Flickr