Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Healthy House: Sustainable Housing in North America

As I was reading Beatley's chapter 10: Designing Buildings and Neighborhoods with Nature in Mind, I was surprised and excited to learn about the Healthy House in Toronto. This house was built to demonstrate sustainable home building principles for Northern climates. Even though I most recently lived in Toronto, I had never even heard of the Healthy House before, but it sounded like a great example of sustainable building principles being put into practice. I felt proud that one of the few true examples of sustainble housing that Beatley could point out in North America was in my home town, but I was ashamed that I didn't know about it before this. I have often wondered how practical it would be to have a self-sufficient building in a Northern climate, but The Healthy House has shown that it can be done well.

The Healthy House was designed by architect Martin Liefhebber for a sustainable housing design competition sponsored by the CMHC (The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation). The house, which was built in 1996, is actually two 3-bedroom, four-story dwelling units of 1,700 square feet that require no municipal power or water inputs, nor outside sewage treatment. The annual operating costs for the house total less than $300. The Healthy House is equipped with an impressive array of on-site water filtration, solar power generation and energy-efficient design that allows the house to operate independent of the municipal grid while feeding the excess power it generates back into the municipal power supply. (

Of course, the house was built using as many local and sustainable products as possible on a vacant lot in a Toronto neighborhood that is close to public transit. The landscape features low-input gardens with edible plants, and all the home's appliances were chosen for their energy-efficiency. The heating and cooling system for the Healthy House uses passive and active solar systems, radiant solar floors, cogeneration, photovoltaic panels, super-efficient windows, air-tight super insulation, geothermal water circulation for cooling, and trellises of deciduous plants to provide summer shade and winter sun exposure.

One of the most impressive feats of the Healthy House in Toronto is its ability to treat and recycle waste water on-site. All the water used in the house is collected from natural precipitation and stored in a limestone cistern. Thanks to a basement composter and water filtration unit, household water is recycled as much as five times before it is slowly released back into the soil in the garden. ( Even toilet waste is effectively composted in the basement and grey water purified through a mix of microoganism digestion (including worms), oxygenation, ultraviolent radiation and charcoal filtration - anyone looking for more information on how this system works should check out According to the Healthy House website, the system "can reduce water consumption by up to 90% while allowing users to maintain modern consumption patterns." The house's composting and water systems attempt to mimic natural composting and water filtration systems. This is yet another example of how, by paying closer attention to natural ecological systems, we can increase the efficiency of our urban built ecosystems. Not only do the natural systems work well, they also require little to no power inputs in order to function.

How much would a house like this cost in the real world? According to the designers and builders, any home could be built to function like The Healthy House at a cost of around $120/square foot. This figure is apparently equal to the low end price for a custom-built home in Toronto.( The Healthy House isn't that expensive to build, it can start to pay you back right away in surplus power and energy-efficiency, and it can serve the inhabitants in the same way as a regular home, but why aren't more of these types of homes being built? Some of the other blogs discuss what many European countries are doing to encourage this type of building, but Canada and the U.S. still have a lot of catching up to do.

Energy Retrofits:

When I was a senior in high school, I was able to visit an architectural firm. This was no regular firm; they specialized in sustainable architecture and worked out of a retrofitted post office. The building had been salvaged after a minor fire and the post office had moved onto another building. The architects redesigned the building to satisfy the highest level of LEED certification.

There were solar panels, grey water treatment, rain water catchments and a green roofs featured on top of their building that was is the process of being built when I got to visit. Inside, the floors were made out of fast-growing bamboo. The walls and office dividers were made out of those compressed hay panels that Beatley talked about in his chapter. The architect’s desks were recycled doors from the original post office. All of the appliances were EnergyStar and the bathrooms featured low flow toilets and sinks. The paints used were all ecologically friendly and as I remember their furniture was made out of recycled materials.

With so many recycled products in the office, it would seem like a pretty shabby place. However, that was not the case at all. If the architects hadn’t explained the energy efficient assets in their office I would have thought that everything was brand new. What’s more is that they used their office as an example for their clients—so that they could see that sustainable building practices were attractive and cutting edge. They also encouraged their clients to choose local or recycled building materials in the designs for new buildings. In this way, they were not only able to put their principles into practice, but also influence other major community stakeholders to incorporate sustainable practices into their business.

Affordable Housing and Sustainable Building

As the chapter in Towards Sustainable Communities states, “improving livability and fostering community is imperative for the survival of humanity.” Indeed, if we are to avoid potentially disastrous consequences of our negative impacts on the planet, we will need to learn how to be more effective as communities that synergize rather than separate. The chapter on housing and community development shows many examples of and tools for affordable housing and community development. In Ithaca, a city surrounded by many communities, can benefit from the intensification of development in existing areas. With urban sprawl on the rise, this must include imposing barriers (such as higher taxes) to new developments in undeveloped areas and providing tax breaks for new developments in the city.

In order to meet housing needs for lower-income people, Ithaca can fund the development of new affordable housing units near the city center. Making such developments accessible to the city center is important in ensuring a good quality of life for city members. In addition to tax breaks, Ithaca can further encourage affordable housing development by providing low-interest loans, assistance in forming housing associations, and resources to develop community land trusts. Ithaca can also work with volunteer organizations and examples like Eco-Village to promote replication of such housing units. Finally, to promote community, cooperative housing, urban cooperative blocks, and programs that bring residents together can be enticed.

The chapter on building designs in Green Urbanism looks at the great examples that exist in Europe of sustainable building. In northern European countries, building complexes are designed to reduce energy use, increase density, and maximize resource use and availability. From Ecolonia to Morra Park, examples of ecological building abound in Europe. Most of them make very wide use of solar energy for both electricity, lighting, and hot water. In the Netherlands, especially, the government itself sets national targets for achieving bold reductions in energy use and sharp improvements in resource efficiencies and high density. The government funds several programs that involve the public and private sectors, encouraging collaboration and incentivizing higher sustainable building standards. While there are many examples in the United States, few are as impressive as the examples in Europe, where high density and full utility of solar energy, energy efficiency, and open space are very common. The challenge for the United States is to build the capacity for radically different building standards and to create policies that will discourage energy and resource waste in buildings and encourage density, green design, and efficiency.

10/28 assignment: Writing about LEED-ND

As I was reading Beatley and the New Energy for Cities booklet, I was reminded of the U.S. Green Building Council’s various LEED programs, and especially their Neighborhood Development pilot program, which is being tested now and will probably be adopted in 2009. LEED-ND, as it’s called, was informed by green buildings practices in general and the past successes of the LEED programs for individual buildings, but was also guided by the Congress for the New Urbanism and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Quoting from the program overview: “Unlike other LEED products that focus primarily on green building practices, with relatively few credits regarding site selection and design, LEED for Neighborhood Development places emphasis on the design and construction elements that bring buildings together into a neighborhood, and relate the neighborhood to its larger region and landscape.” Like other LEED programs, LEED-ND has some baseline prerequisites for certification, but then offers a menu of other options that can be incorporated for extra points, earning the building a silver, gold, or platinum rating. Rather than reflect on a program which few people may know about, I’ll summarize the program below.

The categories for which credits are awarded are:

Smart Location & Linkages
Wetland and water conservation (required)
Ag land conservation (required)
Brownfield redevelopment
Reduced automobile dependence
Bicycle network
Housing and jobs proximity
Restoration of habitat

Neighborhood Pattern and Design
Compact Development (required)
Affordable rental and for-sale housing
Reduced parking footprint
Access to public facilities, transit, and open (recreational) space
Community outreach
Walkable streets
Local food production

Green Construction & Technology
Construction activity pollution prevention (required)
LEED certified buildings
Reuse of historic buildings
Energy efficiency
Reduced water use
Minimal site disturbance
Solar orientation
On-site renewable energy sources and energy generation
Wastewater and stormwater management

Innovation and Design Process
Innovation and exemplary performance
LEED accredited professional

Projects get no points for the required criteria, but can earn up to 106 points for meeting combinations of the optional criteria. To be certified, a project must garner at least 40 points; projects earning more can qualify for silver, gold, or platinum certification. The standards themselves are fairly objective, for instance, many of the transit-related criteria rely on Vehicular Miles Traveled calculations. Brownfield redevelopment, ecological and wetland conservation, and ag land conservation all hinge on existing government standards and classifications.

The LEED-ND Core Committee commissioned a study last year about the public health implications of the program. While not an appraisal of LEED-ND per se, the committee used the findings of the report to shape the ND criteria to reap the greatest public health impact. The report had a strong EJ component to it, addressing the impacts of neighborhood location on special populations such as women, the elderly, children, and low-income households and also discussing how social capital is accrued and leveraged within a community. For reasons to support smart growth, this report is excellent, giving substantive reasons for reduced vehicular travel ranging from fewer incidences of asthma and car-related injuries, to improved physical fitness and mental health.

In one way or another, almost every aspect of green cities that we have discussed in this course is encompassed by the rating system. It would be interesting to rate some of the projects described by Beatley in Chapter 10 and see how they fare with the LEED-ND certification process. Perhaps they could serve as benchmarks for some of the projects that are currently part of the pilot program in the US and Canada. 120 projects were admitted into the pilot program, but there are currently more than 220 projects across North America that will be seeking certification when complete. I had the chance to meet the developer of one of the projects this past week at the Urban Land Institute fall meeting in Las Vegas. Dockside Green, located in Victoria, British Columbia, is aiming for Platinum certification. The website touts the project’s sustainability as follows: “A model for holistic, closed-loop design, Dockside Green will function as a total environmental system in which form, structure, materials, mechanical and electrical systems will be interrelated and interdependent - a largely self-sufficient, sustainable community where waste from one area will provide fuel for another. Here you will find a dynamic environment where residents, employees, neighbouring businesses and the broader community will interact in a healthy and safe environment, reclaimed from disuse and contamination."

USGBC LEED-ND (find the program document, scoring rubric, and public health report here.)
Dockside Green

10/28 Housing and Community Development

As we have said numerous times throughout the semester, holistic approaches are the key to sustainable development. In order for a city (or any community) to stand the test of time and live lightly upon the Earth, it must understand the complex processes that govern its life. We must continually return to this truth as we consider the future of Ithaca and any possible changes that we would like to make in the city—especially changes that deal with Housing and Community Development.
Unlike some of the more idealistic readings that we have analyzed, Roseland’s chapter entitled “Housing and Community Development” provides a lot of concrete examples and ideas for improving contemporary American communities—many of which emphasize the importance of community involvement and connectedness. Below are several ideas (some mine, others Roseland’s) that we could use in Ithaca:

1) Although we cannot force residents to interact with one another or build community, we can certainly build upon existing infrastructure to encourage interaction. One useful strength might be the extensive network of programs within Ithaca that target children and their families (sports leagues, after school programs, community centers, schools, etc.). Perhaps if Ithaca’s children get involved in the community, then parents will have no choice but to follow their example. In practice, we might intensively promote existing youth programs within Ithaca and then follow up by targeting the parents of the participating children. Not only could we generate a lot of rhetoric about community development, but we could also branch out from the youth programs and start offering comparable programs for adults. These programs could serve both recreational and practical purposes. For example, parents with extra time might get involved with an adult sports league while those with less time might benefit from cooperative childcare and carpooling networks.
2) The creation of public space is also a crucial element of building community. Although I know very little about zoning ordinances, land use regulation, or actual land usage within Ithaca, I imagine that a lot of residents within the community have built fences around their property. I do not suggest that we eliminate private property rights, but perhaps we can find a creative way to encourage residents to take down their fences and eliminate the physical barriers that separate neighbors. Perhaps we could even find some creative uses for the open spaces that result (community gardens, common space, etc.)
3) Looking more at affordable housing, Roseland provides many ideas for generating long-term (and even permanent) affordable housing. I particularly like the idea of sponsoring community land trusts within Ithaca. Such trusts purchase land at market value, remove the land from the market, and then use the land for affordable housing, public facilities, or some other meaningful cause. After construction is complete, the trust takes care of the land and monitors upkeep.

10/28 Green Building

Beatley points out some practical programs that seems to be working in cities such as Boulder (Greenpoints) and Austin (Green Star Builders) as well as the Green House Number program in Germany and could fairly easily translate to other cities around the US. These programs seem similar to the more rigorous LEED Certification, which seems to have become somewhat of a badge of honor in the design/build community. Many of Beatley's points about America's increased housing size are still valid, however even since the book's publication in 2000, I think there has been a pretty dramatic shift towards green building here in America.

One point Beatley made was that in some cases material that is thought to be energy efficient or environmentally friendly is made less so when taking into account the concept of "embodied energy." Beatley brings up the shipment of western red cedar from Canada to the Netherlands to construct new homes with wood that can remain untreated. Beatley doesn't address embodied energy in his book but basically it is the idea that when you use a product or material you should factor in the costs (both monetary and environmental) with its construction and transportation. If you are interested in architecture and building it is important to know about because embodied energy is also used as an arguement for capturing the existing resources in and on our already developed land. So when you rehab an old building you are capturing the resources that went into all the materials, as well as the energy embodied by the workers that constructed it. Often times buildings older than 75 years old contain more green features than buildings built in the last 50 years because they were constructed with natural materials and constructed to have natural heating and cooling systems before everyone went HVAC crazy. I believe the USGBC still has not released their LEED rating system for existing buildings but I know it is in development and will rate existing buildings for the inherently green features if they exist, as well as for green features which are retrofitted. Combined with the substantial state and federal funds available for the rehabilitation of old buildings, a LEED rating system for existing buildings would create a powerful tool for restoring areas that were built basically applying smart growth principles before there was smart growth. So, enough of my preservation rant.

I appreciated the Roseland piece on Housing and Community Development very much. Roseland addresses realistic issues such as affordable housing, infill housing, brownfield development, the greening of urban areas and then offers examples of these issues being addressed in the US. In trying to keep with the assignment, I thought about, as I usually do, Pittsburgh. Reading Roseland's list of ways to address affordable housing I thought a lot about how many of the tools, such as Affordable Housing Programs like Habitat for Humanity already exist in Pittsburgh and unfortunately still aren't able to adequately address the issue. So I tried to focus on what we were missing that might help to close the gap. The first thing that jumped out was linkage payments. Roseland mentions them in Boston, and I just hears a talk by the Boston URA on their effectiveness. Great! Linkage payments in Pittsburgh! Actually, this would not be something that a smaller rust belt city can afford. The city struggles to attract developers as it is, and a linkage payment would deter not entice. Perhaps other municipal funds, or portions of other developer fees could be set towards affordable housing but I don't believe a linkage payment would be appropriate in Pittsburgh. What I did come up with was that when affordable housing is built it should be more service oriented, to empower residents. Additionally, a more large-scale tool might be the establishment of a land trust just to promote and protect affordable housing. With the highest number of foundation dollars avaiable per capita of any US city, Pittsburgh's foundations could support the land trust initially if it received donations of land from the city. Certainly something to be further explored ... unfortunately probably not by our 27 year-old mayor.
Beatley Chapter 10 gave many great examples of how European cities are building and renovating their residential and institutional properties using eco-technologies. One really important concept from this chapter was how eco-building can spread to new cities once it is implemented and tested by another city. For example, Ecocolonia, Netherlands built a new development using eco-technologies such as green roofs, passive solar technology, recycled building materials, and solar hot water heating units. This development served as a testing ground for many other cities that begin using the technologies that Ecoclonia found successful. I believe that if a few US cities really started to adopt these new technologies they could educate and show other cities that it is possible. Another idea for the US would be to build new government and public buildings using green methods. This would show the people that the US really supports and feels building ecologically is important. The Apollo Alliance chapter on High Performance Buildings talks about implementing green building standards for public buildings. An American city that uses a green buildings standard for public buildings is Seattle Washington. Seattle Washington requires that all city projects over 5000 square feet must meet LEED standards. The Apollo alliance also give some ideas on how to make green building more attractive to the private sector. Using property taxes, grant programs and other incentives all make green building more enticing. In Arlington, Virginia the government said that if a company builds LEED certified building they will modify some of the zoning regulations and allow height increases. Incentives programs like these could really change the way America builds, because it encourages green buildings.

Week 10/28: Green Building

My interest in green building is what initially drew me to take this course. In my upcoming career path of architecture and interior design, the topic of green building is one that can not be avoided and for good reason. I am a member of the USGBC so many of the facts that i will be discussing in this blog come from them. It has been reported that worldwide buildings account for 17% of fresh water withdrawl, 25% of wood harvest, 33% of the CO2 emissions and 45% of the material and energy use. With these kind of numbers it is no wonder that people are getting more excited and more interested at the prospect of green building. As with all areas of sustainability green building involves many peoples interest not just that of the architect or designer. A successful green building involves the building owners, financial representatives, building tenants, utility manager, architect, planners, property manager, all levels of government, product manufacturers, contractors, engineers, interior designers, landscape architects, code officials, and more.

The LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) was a great way of getting people involved and excited about green building. By having a building accreditation system people have a strong incentive for getting a project certified the main reason is for publicity and recognition. The LEED system assesses design in site planning, water management, energy management, material use, indoor and environmental air quality, and innovation in the design process. Obviously this is not all that goes into sustainable design, but it seems to be a very comprehensive and yet approachable system for green buildings. The USGBC reports that if implemented correctly their LEED system will provide a 9% decrease in operating costs, a 8% increase in building value, a 7% improvement in ROI, a 4% increase in occupancy, and a 3% available rent increase. From an building owner and operator's perspective sustainable building has been proven to raise performance tests in schools by 20%, decrease the average length of stay in hospitals by three days, increase the sales per square foot in retail spaces, increase overall productivity in factories, and lead to an average 2-16% productivity increase in offices.

I wanted to find one of my favorite LEED projects to talk about but instead i decided to find if any buildings in Ithaca were LEED and to my surprise the tompkins county SPCA is a LEED certified building.
This project consists of a new 9,900 ft2 (920 m2) animal adoption center for the Tompkins County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), a minimally renovated 4,000 ft2 (370 m2) building as an animal intake and evaluation area, and a bridge connecting the two spaces. Dogs and cats (the primary center occupants) have separate wings in the building, while the central area houses staff and community rooms, a treatment and surgery suite, and other support spaces, including the laundry and grooming rooms. The project was landscaped exclusively with native trees and grasses, and no permanent irrigation system was installed. Runoff from the parking and roof surfaces is channeled through a series of swales into a filtration trench and detention pond designed to allow stormwater infiltration. Efficient fixtures reduce water use indoors. Energy-saving features include a geothermal heat pump, a narrow building footprint conducive to natural lighting and ventilation, efficient light fixtures, and heat-recovery ventilation. The indoor environment is enhanced through operable windows and 100% fresh air in animal spaces. All paints and finishes used in the project contain low or no emissions of VOCs, engineered wood products contain no added urea-formaldehyde, and carpets meet Green Seal standards. FSC-certified poplar was used for exterior siding and interior ceilings, and recycled-content materials were used when feasible.

Week 10/28 Seattle Green Building Case Study

Seattle Washington, Taking a BiG first step.

I am personally very interested in Green, LEED certified buildings so after reading the Apollo Alliance and saw what Seattle Washington has been doing with their current development I’ve decided to do a mini Case Study on it.

In the past couple of decades, Seattle has been able to involve both community, residential and government buildings in programs promoting Green, Sustainable living. This has evolved into an integrated system of justice, renewable energy and sustainability.

The Seattle Justice Center is a true model of sustainable development. This is a civic center for the community that has been designed to comply with LEED Silver standards. This is a result of Seattle requiring “all city-funded projects over 5000 square feet to meet LEED Silver standards.” This is facilitated by the Green Building Team of Seattle compiled of city employees who “act as resident experts on elements of green building”.

The building has the following features:

  • Glazed Thermal Buffer Wall
  • Garden Roof
  • Water Harvesting

These three elements are all interconnected as they assist in reducing heating costs through various methods. The glazed thermal buffer wall is a double glass plane that has air buffering the inside of it from heat gain or loss. It also allows for natural light penetration. While the glass sides help decrease heat gain on the side of the building, the roof garden prevents heat gain at the top. The roof garden is watered by the water harvesting units which helps decrease water expenses.

The city believed that it would be a good idea to make the community center sustainable so that the entire community is touched by an environmentally friendly atmosphere. This hopefully spreads to the rest of the community and people will begin enacting these sustainable measures in their own homes.

Seattle also has adopted the “Washington State Energy Code” which is considered to be one of the best energy building codes across the country. It is considered better and even stricter than the IECC (international energy conservation code).

Often it is a problem getting the public involved which is why Seattle brought green building technology to the civic center. Recycling bins are everywhere in the building to enforce this environmentally friendly practice.

Seattle Washington has done many impressive green projects over the past several years and I will expect to see much more of them in the face of Sustainability in years to come.

Week of 10.28-Energy-Efficient Building

This week I read the Beatley pages (Chapter 10) and the Apollo Alliance pages (13-27). I found these interesting and informative, with some great ideas. There are also some issues I think need further discussion. Below I'll first list the most exciting ideas from a planner's perspective, and then talk a little about the implications and issues I see coming up.

1) I think it's exciting to know that by putting computer monitors on sleep mode if they're unattended for more than ten minutes can save a city approximately $13,000 a year. (Apollo report, p 14) This is an incredibly simple action that anyone who owns a computer can do. It's something that is easy, and you can even just set the computer to do it, so people won't even have to pay more attention to what they're doing. So here's one simple step we can take, even for ourselves.

2) I like the idea of a Green Building Team like they've developed in Seattle, WA. I think it's great to have an interdepartmental team work on assessing green building in the city. A lot of the time, we are missing an interdisciplinary, holistic approach to many of these issues, and by addressing them in a one sided fashion, we open the possibility for everything to fall apart on the other sides. A holistic approach is a protection against this happening, and also makes the new plans more integrative and exciting.

3) It's amazing to me that in Chicago they dropped the roof surface temperature 70 degrees by creating green roofs. Wow! That is a lot of degrees, and I think green roofs are great because they can be quite simply constructed, they are clearly very useful in terms of energy efficiency, and they can be aesthetically pleasing--something we might consider more in our designs.

-along with that, I like that the city offered $5,000 grants for the construction of the roofs. It shows honest and practical support on the part of the government, and show they aren't wind-bags.

4) Expediting permit review for greener buildings also seems like a good idea. It makes the process easier for those already committed to that type of construction, and at the same time encourages others to consider the idea, if only by poking them a bit.

5) This one is similar to the idea of putting computers on sleep mode. If UB spends an extra $100,000 if the heating or cooling is off by 1 degree, this is also a small step to saving loads of money and energy, and it makes you realize how much difference one degree more or less can make. It makes me feel like I want to be more considerate about heating my own home too.

6) The idea of De-coupling is cool. It's maybe a bit socialist for the US, but maybe it can be presented in a better way. It's great though to disassociate profit from providing basic needs to people. This seems like an important philosophy that can be applied in other areas as well.

(From Beatley now)

7) I like the idea of an ecological demonstration project. People want to see it to believe it. They need a concrete experience of what some of these semi-strange ideas are all about. For lots of people this is so far from their everyday experience; I think in the US this, coupled with respectful marketing, would make a big difference.

8) I like the emphasis on education in the Scandinavian countries. It's different from brainwashing and might get people's minds working, so that we could develop even better and way more relevant ideas for people.

9) The Green House Numbers is a neat idea. It's a little childish, but kind of sweet just the same.

I'm uncomfortable talking about the "powerful roll government can play" in the context of the United States. I think our political process is (fatally?) flawed, and dangerous. I think there is very little actual representation of what the public choice includes, and I don't think it's healthy to think that a few environmentalists lobbying like hell would be an OK thing. It might make some changes, but I am still absolutely convinced that unless there is a consciousness shift, MUCH better education system, a MUCH better (hell, existent) health care system, a lot of attention to equity and justice issues that go unexamined most of our lives, unless we have to face them everyday, etc etc, you get the idea. Well, none of this will ultimately make any difference.

Also I'm not sure about the idea of legislating an zoning, not only because there is serious under-representation in the government, but also because it's not very inventive or revolutionary, and certainly not relevant to the people to simply legislate that they live in an ecological manner.

There is certainly an element of urgency that comes with issues of the environment, but if we are truly thinking in a seven generation, systems type of way, we better consider more than telling people what to do.