Why We Must Integrate Buildings into the Natural Environment Through the Envelope

[I wrote this for the “Sustainable Design as a Way of Thinking” class at the Boston Architectural College.]


When natural systems are destroyed in the process of creating a building, it is important to replace them by incorporating them, or a reasonable replacement, as much as possible into the building’s design. This is the only way to create a fully sustainable built environment. The majority of the world’s existing buildings do not even meet “net zero” or similar energy goals, so in order to slow – and hopefully, reverse – climate change and other detrimental impacts of the built environment on the natural, new construction must go beyond carbon neutrality, and give more back into the environment than it removes. We must replace the natural systems we have to destroy in the process of construction.

A great deal of attention is paid to how buildings can be designed to be highly energy efficient, using strategies and goals like zero carbon, Passive House, and net zero, in the interest of both reducing the carbon put into the atmosphere to keep the building running, and lowering the costs of operation for the building owner. Less attention is paid to how buildings can be designed to have a net positive impact and to perform more like an integrated part of the environment. There are a variety of ways that a building’s envelope can be handled to provide benefits to the environment, including creating habitat, using materials and coatings that absorb or break down CO2 and pollution, and managing stormwater run-off. Some of these treatments, like vegetated surfaces, have additional benefits, like reducing the urban heat island effect.

It is unquestionably necessary to reduce the amount of energy used to keep buildings running. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, buildings in the United States account for 30% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Since the majority of this electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels, reducing a building’s energy use will help to lower the amount of carbon put into the atmosphere, which is required to reduce the amount of climate change we will see.

But being net zero, or even creating more energy than it consumes, is not enough to make a building an integrated part of its local environment, to make it function like a living part of the ecosystem that provides environmental services to its surroundings. That requires looking at how the building relates to the local ecosystem, including stormwater, amplification of local weather (does it contribute to the urban heat island?), air quality, and habitat for local wildlife. Incorporating these techniques provides a variety of benefits for the building, its inhabitants, and its energy needs, too.

One of the exciting recent inventions in building materials is the development of concretes and coatings that can actually break down airborne pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and benzene (Giussani). The active ingredient is titanium dioxide, which interacts with sunlight in a process called photocatalysis that speeds the decomposition of pollutants that come in contact with the surface into their component elements, which then wash away in the rain. The decomposition reduces them to less harmful chemicals, like nitrates, carbon dioxide, and water (Giussani). One test site, 8,000 square meters of treated pavement in Bergamo, Italy, showed a reduction in nitric oxides of around 45% (Giussani).

Treating surfaces with these materials has an aesthetic benefit, too: by breaking down pollutants, they are self-cleaning. Richard Meier, famous for designing predominantly white buildings, wanted the “sails” of the Dives in Misericordia Church in Rome to remain white in Rome’s smoggy environment, so they were made with a concrete that includes a photocatalytic compound (O’Reilly).

The church has three large, curved walls, each a section of a sphere, made of Styrofoam-filled precast concrete (Richard Meier & Partners). It was constructed between 1996 and 2003. The concrete used, “TX Active,” was developed by Italcementi to provide the necessary pollution-destroying qualities in addition to strength and durability (Italcementi, “Dives in Misericordia”).

Italcementi’s photocatalytic concretes have been used in at least 30 additional projects in the United States and Canada. Many projects use permeable pavers incorporating titanium dioxide, but several of them have incorporated it into the exterior cladding of the structures (TX Active, “Project Profiles”). To learn more about how the material lasts, the Cité de la Musique et des Beaux-Arts in Chambéry, France, has colorimetric monitoring in place to see how its grey photocatalytic concrete holds color over time (Italcementi, “The active photocatalytic”).

Constructing buildings with pollution-destroying concrete or coatings gives them the ability to provide an air-cleaning service, like trees and shrubs, which can remove a variety of airborne pollutants through both the leaf stomata and surface (Nowak 115).

Vegetation incorporated into a building can also help remediate some kinds of pollution. While roofs planted with sedums have little ability to remove pollutants (compared to trees and shrubs), vegetated roofs can trap a significant quantity of heavy metals, like cadmium, lead, copper, and zinc (Dunnett and Kingsbury 50). Up to 16% of zinc, and up to 90% of the other metals, can be trapped (Dunnett and Kingsbury 50). Some of these metals are used in roof construction, so the presence of a green roof over the structure can reduce contamination of water by limiting the contact that rainwater has with the metals in the roof.

Green roofs are an important part of a site’s stormwater management system. They reduce the percentage of impermeable surface on a site that leads to runoff. Both the vegetation and substrate can absorb water directly, as well as slow the release of unabsorbed water, which reduces the strain on city sewage, preventing overflow and pollution problems in the sewer system. In cities with combined sewage and stormwater drainage, this is especially important. Planted roofs have become important parts of city stormwater management plans in places like Portland, Oregon, and Toronto, Canada (Earth Pledge 121 & 127).

In 1994, Portland became the first city in the United States to pass legislation encouraging the use of green roofs, as a result of a state order to comply with the Clean Water Act (Earth Pledge 121). That year, an employee of the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, Tom Liptan, learned about vegetated roofs, and after a couple of years of further research, including experimenting with his own garage, the city began a more serious investigation into green roofs, including financial commitment (Earth Pledge 121).

Two residential projects in Portland, the Hamilton Apartments and Buckman Terrace, were the first municipally-funded green roof test sites in the United States. The first year of data collected showed that water retention is most effective during short, intense summer storms, with a 5-inch-deep roof able to absorb an average of 69% of annual rainfall. In the dry season, the roofs absorbed from 65-100% of rainfall, and 10-35% in the season (Earth Pledge 121). A report completed 5 years after the Hamilton project was completed shows that in an average year, the roof retains 53.5% of stormwater.

Green roof design can vary a great deal, from fairly shallow “extensive” roofs with shallow growth media and sedum mats to heavily planted “intensive” roofs holding shrubs and even trees. These factors, along with the number and type of layers making up the green roof, will affect the amount of water the roof is capable of holding. The water that is not immediately absorbed by the media or plants will be stored for some time in the roof system before being released, which will reduce the impact on the city drainage: instead of the roof runoff hitting the drains at the same rate as the rainfall, it will be delayed, so the system is less likely to overflow (Dunnett & Kingsbury 47). Most research shows that the yearly reduction in runoff will range between 60 and 80 percent (Dunnett & Kingsbury 48). The addition of water storage systems, like cisterns, or water features like ponds or rooftop wetlands, can simply retain what the roof doesn’t absorb, further reducing or even eliminating the runoff.

KPMG’s building in Düsseldorf, Germany, has a wetland on the roof of its parking garage that stores and uses rainwater. The wetland solved stagnation problems in an existing pond by adding a system to filter water by using wetland plants. The project includes a well that holds rainwater and then releases it into a creek, which flows into a swamp, and then into the pond. Volcanic rock lining the waterways further cleans the water and provides an anchor for the plants. This roof has improved the local microclimate, saved KPMG money through reducing stormwater fees, and provided habitat for birds and insects (Earth Pledge 28).

Stormwater management and removal of pollutants are not the only ecological services that green roofs provide. They also reduce the urban heat island effect and provide habitat that has been destroyed by the act of building.

Much like vegetation does at ground level, plants on rooftops can reduce the urban heat island effect. One of the major ways that a green roof functions in this regard is simply by not being a typical black asphalt roof. Two roofs in Chicago were compared on a day when temperatures were in the 90’s to show the difference: the surface temperature of the green roof ranged from 91-119° F, while the dark roof on the neighboring building was 169° F (EPA 3). The temperature of the air immediately above the planted roof was 7° F cooler than the air over the conventional dark roof (EPA 3). A model study in New York City, assuming 100% conversion of all roofs to green roofs, estimated that the city as a whole would be 0.4° F cooler over the day, and 0.8° F cooler at three in the afternoon (EPA 4).

In addition, since the green roof prevents heat from penetrating into the building interior, the building’s energy needs for cooling will be reduced. When wet, they can hold additional heat, and when dry, they act as an insulating layer (EPA 5). A study in Florida showed that the average rate of heat transfer into the interior was more than 40% less for the green roof than a nearby light-colored roof (EPA 6).

The term “green roof” can be misleading when talking about roofs that are designed with the intent of providing habitat for wildlife. In Portland, roofs that are designed to provide environmental services, rather than amenities for people, are referred to as “ecoroofs” (roofs for human use are more often considered rooftop gardens). Unlike a rooftop garden, which is designed to be used like a park, an ecoroof is likely to be designed in a way that isn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing, or even literally green by being heavily planted.

The wild plants that are useful for wildlife are not always considered decorative, and if the roofscape is left to develop naturally, from seeds blown in on the wind or left by birds, the arrangement of plants on the roof will not be tidy. Further, roofs that are built to provide rocky or gravel habitat will not have the same density of vegetation that even a sedum mat roof will. However, if one of the design goals is to provide habitat for invertebrates, many of them prefer landscape without heavy vegetation (Gedge, “Zurich railway”).

The Laban Dance Center was one of the first buildings designed to provide a self-planting rubble rooftop environment, replacing the landscape that the construction of the building destroyed. On this “brown roof,” the primary material is rubble from the construction site, which has been allowed to develop naturally. This was done to maintain an important foraging ground for the black redstart, an endangered bird. Since then, additional buildings in London have constructed brown roofs for the birds.

Another striking example of a low-vegetation roof is the roof of the Zurich Railway, described by Dusty Gedge, which was designed to provide habitat for the local wall lizards, which prefer a dry, stony habitat, and a rare species of wasp that needs dry glacial riverbeds. This project uses the structure of the building to help provide varying levels of habitat – deeper areas of biomass have been arranged directly over structural members, which have the strength to hold it. This provides some heavier vegetation, which increases diversity of plant and thus habitat for invertebrates. Gabion pillars at the ends of the roof allow the lizards and crawling invertebrates to travel between the rooftop and the ground.

Roofs can be designed primarily for invertebrates, too. The roof of the Wat Tyler in Essex is in the middle of a region that is home to a number of rare invertebrates that live in brownfield landscapes (Gedge, “Bee hotel”). Wooden posts and walls with holes drilled in them were placed on the roof to provide habitat and nesting sites for mining and other solitary bees, and many bees took up residence there in the roof’s second year (Gedge, “Bee hotel”). Other green roofs in Switzerland and the United Kingdom have proven their value as habitat for bees – theexperimental field station at Barking Riverside in the East of London was visited by the rare Brown Carder Bee. Considering that the landscape around this building is devoid of nectar-bearing plants, designing the roof to include a variety of wildflowers is an important part of providing supportive habitat for this rare insect species (Gedge, “First record”).

Many people put honeybee hives on rooftops, but it is also crucial, especially in dense urban areas without a lot of flowering vegetation, to provide the bees with habitat. A project on the roof of a warehouse in Baltimore, Maryland, was built to be one of the first green roofs to provide both habitat and hives for honeybees (Gedge, “Hives and Habitats”).

The green roof on the Rossetti Bau, described in Earth Pledge’s Green Roofs: Ecological Design and Construction, was created not to replace habitat destroyed by its creation, but to lower the building’s overall environmental impact. Like the Zurich railway roof, this roof has multiple levels of soil. The roof was only minimally planted, so that native species could naturally take over. Some rare spiders, and over 50 beetle species, have been found on the roof. Some of these species have been found outside of the local riverback habitat only rarely, making the roof a model for providing habitat.

While many people may find birds to be the most appealing creatures to attract into our cities, it is extremely important for the ecosystem, and for human agriculture, to ensure that all of the insect species that act as pollinators do not lose too much of their habitat. Thoughtful design of urban roofs can provide the flowering plants, sand, and wood that provide food, habitat, and nesting space for bees, increasing their presence in cities (good for urban apiaries) and aiding agriculture. Providing habitat for a diverse population of invertebrates besides the major pollinators helps to support the local bird and bat life.

In addition to foraging resources, roofs can provide nesting places for a variety of birds. A number of species have already adapted to the built environment, and have found ways to use building structures for nesting: house sparrows and starlings will nest in crevices in the eaves of houses, holes in walls, or dryer vents. Pigeons, of course, will nest on anything that provides a ledge, matching their cliffs of origin. Peregrine falcons also make their nests on cliff faces, and will nest in boxes placed on building roofs and windowsills. However, the change in roof design over the years has lead to a decrease in some species, like nighthawks.

Nighthawks like to nest on gravel roofs, but as asphalt roofs became more popular, they stopped nesting in cities including Portland, Oregon. During a discussion on KBOO radio with ecoroof experts Dusty Gedge and Tom Liptan, they mentioned that people have been discussing the possibility of trying to encourage nighthawks to come back into Portland. Other species that are attracted to a gravel or rubble roof for nesting include killdeer (“Killdeer”) and skylarks (“Skylarks”). Pointed out in the discussion is the importance of designing such a roof so it doesn’t get too hot, which could kill the birds’ eggs. Rooftop nest sites can be especially important for birds because they are safer than being at ground level, where they are vulnerable to a variety of predators.

Wetland environments on roofs can not only provide valuable water services, like the KPMG roof, but attract birds. The Possman Cider Company, in Frankfurt, Germany, uses a similar kind of system as the KPMG roof, that collects rainwater that ends up on the roof after being circulated through the factory to cool holding tanks (Earth Pledge 88). This system also uses water collected from the parking area, which is filtered by the rooftop plants. The roof attracts local birds and has become a favorite bird-watching location.

Rooftops are not the only opportunity for adding vegetation to a building. Climbing plants provide a number of benefits for both the building and the local environment. They can be trained up the sides of the building, either allowed to cling directly to the cladding, or through the use of support structures specially designed for the species being used. The use of a separate structure for the climbing plants is more common these days than allowing the plants to adhere directly to the building. In addition, while ivy and Virginia creeper can attach directly to surfaces, a number of other climbing plants require a supporting trellis, or wires, to twine themselves around (Dunnett & Kingsbury 127).

Having a separate structure just for the plants also protects the building from any damage that might be caused by the plants, makes maintenance of the building surface easier (because the trellis with the attached plants can be pulled away or removed), and helps encourage desired patterns of growth (Dunnett & Kingsbury 127-128). Climbing plants can provide many benefits to the building itself, including providing shade in the summer, hiding boring or unattractive facades, and, if evergreen species are used, adding an insulation and wind chill blocking layer in the winter (Dunnett & Kingsbury 128 &131).

In the summer, shading the walls with climbing plants can reduce their temperature fluctuation significantly. The combination of shade and insulating air layer can change the fluctuation from ranging between 14° F and 140° F to a narrower range of 41° F to 86° F (Dunnett & Kingsbury 130). Shading is significant for the building’s interior, because it prevents direct solar radiation from reaching the building; a 10° F reduction in the temperature at the building surface can lower energy needed for cooling by 50-70% (Dunnett & Kingsbury 131).

By reducing the heat of the exterior of the building, climbing plants reduce the convention currents that would otherwise be created. This reduces the urban heat island effect and lowers dust generation (Dunnett & Kingsbury 131).

Consideration of local climate is important in choosing the plants because of their impact on the building’s interior temperatures. In places with cold winters, it might make sense to choose deciduous species, so the building can absorb solar radiation in the winter (Dunnett & Kingsbury 131). The intertwined stems of the plant will reduce some amount of wind chill, too. However, evergreen species will create a better insulating and wind chill blocking effect. Wind chill has a major impact on heating requirements – air infiltration and cooling of the walls by the wind is the cause of 30% of residential heating demand. Heating demand can be reduced by 25 percent if wind chill is reduced by 75 percent. Climbing plants also protect the building physically from hail, rain, and ultraviolet light (Dunnett & Kingsbury, 132).

Climbing plants provide other environment services. They can trap dust, absorb pollutants, and improve biodiversity (Dunnet & Kingsbury, 132-133). Vines like Parthenocissus tricuspidata can remove heavy metals like lead and cadmium from the air and rain by absorbing them into their tissue; proper disposal of the dead leaves and wood that contain the metals is required to minimize the environmental impact. The amount of dust that is trapped is proportional to the amount of leaf surface to wall area. Studies show that 0.012 ounces of dust per square foot can be captured by P. tricuspidata in one growing season, and 0.018 ounces per square foot by Hedera helix. A recently published study shows that if street canyons are planted properly with climbers and other plants, street-level concentrations of pollutants in those canyons can be reduced by up to 40% for nitrogen dioxide and 60% particulate matter (Pugh). This would significantly improve the air quality at street level and improve public health, by reducing people’s risk of asthma and other respiratory problems caused or exacerbated by these pollutants. Like all plants, vines also absorb carbon dioxide, which helps with climate change (“Green Walls”).

Vines increase biodiversity by providing habitat for a variety of invertebrates, which feed birds and bats. Foliage and flowers provide food sources and hibernation sites for insects (Dunnet & Kingsbury 133). Older vines, with denser branches and leaves, also provide safe nesting and roosting places for birds; some species can offer some protection from predators even in the winter, because the density of the branches keeps cats and predatory birds away. Evergreen species provide better winter shelter, particularly those that develop thicker growth (Dunnet & Kingsbury 163). Vines that bear fruit provide food for insects and birds, and can be an especially valuable food source for birds in the winter (Dunnet & Kingsbury 163). If vines are incorporated into a building that also has a green roof, and the vines reach the roof, they will provide a route for non-flying invertebrates to travel between ground level and the roof (“Green Walls”), which can increase biodiversity on the roof.

Climbing plants are not the only way to create a green facade that protects a building, hides an unattractive facade, and creates habitat. Certain species of shrubs and even fruit trees can be pruned and trained into growing flat against a wall, though they cannot reach the same heights as vines do (Dunnet & Kingsbury 145). Due to the need for pruning, creating a green facade with these plants requires more maintenance than using climbers (Dunnet & Kingsbury 146).

More intensive living walls, that hold non-climbing plants, can also be incorporated into building facades. Like green roofs and vine-covered facades, living walls can protect the building, lower energy costs, reduce pollutants, and create habitat and biodiversity. This type of facade treatment requires creation of some sort of support structure, containing growing medium, to hold the plants and distribute water. Hydroponic systems use a layer of propagation felt or capillary matting fixed in place over a waterproof layer of PVC that protects the building wall from the water (Dunnett & Kingsbury 182). Cuts are made in the felt or matting, creating pockets into which plants are inserted. Drip irrigation provides a steady stream of water and nutrients. This system was developed by Patrick Blanc, who has several walls installed in Paris, the most famous of which may be the living wall on Jean Nouvel’s Musee du quai Branly (Lee).

Another system for creating living walls uses a vegetation mat, similar to what might be used on a green roof. According to Dunnett and Kingsbury (183-184), most of these mats use sedums, due to their tolerance for drought conditions. However, their long-term success is not guaranteed unless they have irrigation to help them through especially dry times. In addition, sedums move around and get leggy as they mature, which can turn an initially lush and attractive wall into one that is less aesthetically pleasing (Philips).

Plants are a vital part of creating a healthy habitat for human beings, too, and not just for their ability to moderate local climate and clean the air. There are numerous psychological benefits for people who have plants around them, so in especially dense urban environments, where there is not much open ground for parks, it is especially important to consider incorporating vegetated roofs and walls into buildings.

According to research reported on by Jonathan S. Kaplan, on Psychology Today’s website, spending time around plants, like going for a walk in park, or having potted plants in an interior space, has numerous benefits, including reducing stress and increasing concentration. Seeing trees creates feelings of relaxation, and can shorten recovery time in hospitals (“Benefits of Urban”).

A growing number of hospitals are creating carefully designed healing gardens for their patients and families, for both the psychological and medical benefits offered by spending time in a peaceful, natural environment. The reduction of stress and anxiety from spending time in a garden improves healing (Kreitzer) and increases people’s feelings of general wellbeing and hopefullness. Even having a view of trees from a window can help patients recover faster (Thornburgh).

Outside of hospitals, studies have found that people who live in apartments with trees nearby report “greater effectiveness and less procrastination” than people in identical housing without trees (Thornburgh). That study reported, “it seems that trees help poor inner city residents cope better with the demands of living in poverty, feel more hopeful about the future, and manage their most important problems more effectively.” Thornburgh’s article also reports that people “felt safer in areas with trees, children were twice as likely to play in such an area, and children and adults were more likely to interact together in landscaped areas.”

Research also shows that spending time in cities can damage people, mentally: spending time on crowded, busy streets reduces memory and affects self-control (Lehrer). One of the reasons for this is the lack of nature, and the overwhelming amount of stimulus on a busy city street. As described in Lehrer’s article, the kind of stimulus you get from an urban environment requires a specific kind of attention that takes significant energy and effort. By contrast, while natural setting are also full of things that capture our attention, they do so without triggering negative emotional reactions. Seeing a squirrel running up a tree is not the same as a blaring bus horn or overloud conversation.

Adding natural features to a busy, dense urban environment, whether they are street trees, a green roof visible from a higher building, or a vine covered wall, can help balance out the overwhelming aspects of the built environment by providing the right kind of natural stimulus.

Living systems and technological systems can be integrated for the good of both. Adding solar panels, either PV, for electrical needs, or solar thermal, for domestic hot water or radiant heating systems onto a green roof is an excellent way to lower the building’s need to import energy from a power plant.

Solar panels and green roofs benefit each other. Incorporating panels thoughtfully onto a green roof, to shade areas of it, can provide a more diverse habitat and provide additional shelter for wildlife. The vegetation on the roof benefits the solar panels, too: the plants reduce pollutants and dust that would settle on the surface of the panels, and evapotranspiration cools the surface temperature of the roof, both of which improve peak efficiency of solar PV (Anacostia Watershed Society; “Special constructions”). Panels are reported to produce up to 16% more energy when placed as part of a green roof (Anacostia Watershed Society).

Incorporating either kind of solar panel into a green roof also reduces load on the roof. As described by the International Green Roof Association’s “Special constructions” webpage, “Earlier the solar units were mounted on concrete bases or slabs and partially filled with gravel; however, they are now mounted on framework which is fixed to plastic boards. The profiled plastic boards are covered with substrate and allow rain water to drain through; thus, allowing plants to grow underneath the solar panels. With the solar panels mounted on the plastic boards the load distribution is spread over a large area and prevents the roof construction from being damaged by point loads.”

All of the techniques mentioned so far are what are happening right now. There are at least a couple of different ways these treatments of building envelope can be developed in the future. One is to simply develop better technologies and greater understanding of the ecology and process of growing plants on the sides and roofs of buildings. Another possibility is to design buildings, especially high-rises, to incorporate opportunities for cliff-like habitat on the sides of the buildings (Bernstein). For example, Portland is near the Columbia River Gorge, the south side of which has fairly steep, basalt cliff sides. What would it look like, to develop buildings in Portland that imitated that kind of environment? What would a similar cliff ecosystem look like in other parts of the world, where cities are built near natural cliffs?

When designing rooftop habitat, it is important to look at local ecology, and the overall changes in ecology over an entire city, when designing green roofs or other living systems (Bernstein). If the new building is going up next to a dry, scrubby area, the local wildlife will be best served by creating a dry, scrubby roof, like the Laban Dance Center did for the redstarts. But a few miles away, buildings may be adjacent to wetter or woodier environments, and their vegetated systems should fit into that. This will also likely be better for the health of the roof systems, too, since the plants growing on it will be appropriate to the local – if slightly harsher, for being at roof level – conditions. Zoning and master planning of a city could take on an entirely different level of meaning when the roofs and walls are seen as a component of the “ecological landscape.” This would be an exciting way to have our density and our connection to nature, too.

We do not have to wait on new construction to increase the connections between the built and natural environment. Existing building stock offers an abundance of opportunities to install climbing plants and increase the integration of the built environment and the natural environment on a larger scale, increasing the amount of vegetation and the resulting benefits in cities. Warehouses, big box stores, and parking garages all provide windowless or otherwise blank surfaces that could be turned into a functional component of the environment. They should be easier to add to existing building stock by virtue of not requiring the same kind of structural support that a green roofs does. Many people who live in apartments with balconies already grow plants in pots.

Given the growing, and increasingly alarming, signs of climate and ecological change, it may be a matter of some urgency to put more effort into greening our existing buildings. The energy savings alone, merely by moderating the energy needs for heating and cooling, would be substantial. Increasing the natural environment in our urban environments, where over fifty percent of the human population now lives, will be vital in providing us with the connections to the natural world that we need to be healthy. Reminding people that nature is not “out there,” separate from us, is necessary to increase interest in preserving the natural world and restoring what we have damaged.

As Richard Fuller, an ecologist at the University of Queensland said, “We worry a lot about the effects of urbanization on other species . . . But we’re also affected by it. That’s why it’s so important to invest in the spaces that provide us with some relief.” (Lehrer) We are a part of the natural world, but we have increased our disconnection from it, with many bad outcomes. It is time to reverse the trend.

Works Cited

Anacostia Watershed Society. “Green Roofs & Solar Panels: The Future of Renewable Energy.” CleanTechnica. July 11, 2012. Web. July 25, 2012.

“Benefits of Urban Trees.” South Carolina Forestry Commission. Web. July 27, 2012.

Bernstein, Barbara. “Can urban rooftops provide habitat for wildlife?” KBOO Community Radio. 2010. Web. July 17, 2012.

Dunnett, Nigel, and Noël Kingsbury. Planting Green Roofs and Living Walls. Portland: Timber Press, Inc., 2004. Print.

Earth Pledge. Green Roofs: Ecological Design and Construction. Atglen: Schiffer Books, 2005. Print.

“EPA Green Buildings.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. August 16, 2011. Web. July 19, 2012.

Gedge, Dusty. “Bee hotel and habitat walls full of bees – Wat Tyler Green Roof, Essex.” The Green Roof Consultancy. May 26, 2011. Web. July 24, 2012.

—.“First record of Brown Carder Bee on a green roof.” Roofs & Rambles. October 8, 2010. Web. July 24, 2012.

—. Hives and Habitats on roofs – Not just hives!” n.d. Web. July 24, 2012.

—. “Zurich Railway Station – a shingle green roof.” Green Roofs of the World. March 19, 2010. Web. July 20, 2012.

Giussani, Bruno. “A Concrete Step Toward Cleaner Air.” Businessweek. November 8, 2006. Web. July 17, 2012.

The Greenroof Projects Database. “Laban Dance Centre.” n.d. Web. July 17, 2012.

“Green Roofs.” Reducing Urban Heat Islands: Compendium of Strategies. Environmental Protection Agency. n.d. Print/Web.

“Green Walls.” n.d. Web. July 25, 2012.

“Hamilton West Apartments Ecoroof.” Portland Bureau of Environmental Studies. January 5, 2005. Web. July 21, 2012.

Italcementi Group. “The Dives in Misericordia Church.” Italcementi Group. Jun 25, 2010. Web. July 21, 2012.

—. “The active photocatalytic principle. Preserving aesthetics: Chambéry.” Italcementi Group. n.d. Web (PDF from TX Active site). July 19, 2012.

—. “TX Active®: Presentation of the first active solution to the problem of pollution.” Italcementi Group. February 28, 2006. Web. July 20, 2012.

Kaplan, Jonathan S. “Plants Make You Feel Better.” Psychology Today. March 11, 2009. Web. July 27, 2012.

“Killdeer.The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. n.d. Web. July 24, 2012.

Kreitzer, RN, PhD, Mary Jo. “What Are Healing Gardens?” University of Minnesota. May 25, 2012. Web. July 28, 2012.

Lee, Evelyn. “Patrick Blanc’s Vertical Gardens.” January 29, 2011. Web. July 27, 2012.

Lehrer, Jonah. “How the city hurts your brain.” Boston Globe. January 2, 2009. Web. July 28, 2012.

Monroe, Bill. “Nocturnal wildlife in your Portland-area hood: It’s all around you.” OregonLive. September 24, 2010. Web. July 24, 2012.

Nowak, David J.; Crane, Daniel E.; Stevens, Jack C. “Air pollution removal by urban trees and shrubs in the United States.” Urban Forestry and Urban Greening 4:115-123. 2006.

O’Reilly, Dan. “New technology allows concrete to come clean.” Daily Commercial News. March 12, 2010. Web. July 19, 2012.

Philips, April. “Living Walls: Confidential.” ASLA Sustainable Design and Development Blog. May 24, 2010. Web. July 25, 2012.

Project Profiles. TX Active, Essroc Italcementi Group. 2009. Web. July 20, 2012.

Pugh, Thomas A. M., et al. “Effectiveness of Green Infrastructure for Improvement of Air Quality in Urban Street Canyons.” Environmental Science & Technology, 2012.

Richard Meier & Partners LLP. “Jubilee Church.” Richard Meier & Partners LLP. Web. July 20, 2012.

“Skylarks on the Rolls-Royce roof.” 1Chauffeur. December 6, 2012. Web. July 24, 2012.

“Special constructions: Green roofs and solar panels.” International Green Roof Association. n.d. Web. July 25, 2012.

Texas A&M University. “Gardens have the potential to improve health, research shows.” November 21, 2003. Web. July 27, 2012.

Thornburgh, John. “Why We Need Trees.” Plant-a-Million. n.d. Web. July 28, 2012.

Loose ethics about Canadian oil

Earlier this week, I saw a short article about a series of posters designed to convince people that oil from Canada’s tarsands/oilsands (pick your term based on whether you are pro- or anti-oil) is “ethical.” That article has a nice slideshow that displays all of the posters.

The designer, Alykhan Velshi, who at one time worked for the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, was apparently inspired by a book titled “Ethical Oil.” The basic idea is that, instead of buying oil from countries that mistreat women and LGBT people, engage in internal conflict, repress their people, and generally behave in unpleasant ways, we should buy oil from Canada, because Canada is a nice country, and it’s better to support nice countries than abusive ones.

It’s not a terrible argument. I know I’d rather have my money go to support benevolent companies and countries than, say, Saudi Arabia. And unfortunately, we don’t quite have the choice to just not buy oil or petroleum products (oh, plastics), so we might as well buy it from the nicer people, right?

There are three immediately obvious problems with this campaign.

One: the posters. Which present things as Evil versus Good, and do pathetic things like balance the systemic mistreatment of women in “conflict oil” countries against the election of one woman in Canada to the position of Mayor. (It turns out the woman shown is the mayor of Fort McMurray, an oil boomtown in Alberta.)

I see what you're doing.

Two: the positioning of this as the only choice there is – either we buy oil from mean countries, or from nice countries. The posters and associated blog do not address putting our resources into developing alternatives to oil. (I have not read the book; perhaps the author devotes some time to this. Though I am skeptical, given his conservative background, and statement that the “chief criticism of the Alberta oilsands is esthetic.“)

I -wish- it were only a matter of aesthetics.

Further, the posters – and the blog posts on the website – are focused only on the behavior of the governments, not on the behavior of the oil companies. Some of the companies working in Canada work only in Canada, but many of them are large companies that work in many places around the world. Some of them have ceased work in conflict-torn regions, but many of them have not.

Data came from Wikipedia and the companies' websites.

Three: defining use of any fossil fuel as “ethical,” just because the people producing it are less evil than other producers. Can something that causes environmental degradation, kills wildlife, sickens and kills people exposed to polluted air and water, and contributes to climate change, be considered ethical? I would argue that no, it cannot, not unless we find really, really good ways to prevent the problems associated with current oil extraction and consumption. And those solutions seem as far away as an all-renewables world. Some oil companies are working hard to reduce the pollution caused by extracting and refining the stuff, but they’ve got a long way to go before they can call their processes environmentally friendly.

If only we had decades of data about the impact in other places, we might be able to make some reasonable assumptions.

Going back to the posters, in additional to the offensively simplistic presentation of the argument, there’s a blatant attempt to link this “ethical” oil from Canada to sustainability, by the use of green backgrounds on the “ethical” posters, and a logo shaped like a drop of  . . . oil? water?, colored in blue and green.

It's a good idea, from a marketing perspective. If you assume your audience won't think about it.

Maybe the companies operating in Canada are being exceptionally careful to keep pollutants out of the air and water, but the ethical oil campaign isn’t going into much detail about that. And even if they are, petroleum is still not a renewable resource.

Via Twitter, I learned that, not only did the poster’s creator not ask the Mayor whether she was okay with her photo being used in this campaign (she is not, despite being the mayor of the town currently benefiting most from oil extraction), it is unclear whether he got permission to use some of the other images, too.

A feminist scholar would probably have interesting things to say about the use of a woman's photo without her permission, and how that relates to conservative, pro-business views in general.

Canada, much like the US, has experienced an erosion in women’s rights since a more conservative, pro-big business, government got control of things.

I haven’t read very deeply about the business practice of all the companies, or how corrupt the “conflict oil” countries are, but equating Canada’s treatment of its citizens with oil companies’ behavior is ridiculous. Canada may allow same-sex marriage, but ExxonMobil is not LGBT-friendly at all. And Murphy Oil only scored a 15 on the Corporate Equality Index.

Something I have not researched is the impact of Canadian law on companies' anti-equality policies.

It is certainly true that there are places in the world, like Sudan, where certain ethnic groups have been viciously attacked so that one group can gain control of their land in order to control the oil there (note: things don’t get much better when a company leaves, because that company just sells its lease or whatever to . . . another company). In Canada, things aren’t happening quite so violently, but the Alberta and Canadian governments are being sued over developments that would violate treaties regarding First Nations’ rights.

I'm sure the oil companies will quickly deal with any oil spills on First Nations lands. Right? Right??

Compared to other countries, Canada may have better regulations in place related to environmental protection, but the government is not immune to being influenced by big businesses (more). It makes sense: develop the oilsands more, that creates more jobs, brings in more money, etc.

It's not just who votes, but who has the money to influence behavior after the election.

This is highly relevant to the creation of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will run from Alberta down to Texas, and which has not yet been approved. (Map of existing and projected pipelines, out to 2019.) Already in 2011, there have been pipeline spills in places including the Yellowstone River. I for one can hardly wait until even MORE wild land, farm land, aquifers, etc., etc., can be threatened by leaky pipes!

Nothing improves nature like the sweet smell of hydrocarbons.

For another good reaction to the points raised by the “ethical” oil people, check out “Ethical Oil? Climate Change Is Unethical and Prejudice Is Too”, which covers several things much better than I have.

I don’t have a problem with discussing the merits of buying oil from Canada versus other countries, but that should be done by considering the whole story, not a shallow, simplistic presentation of a tiny handful of facts.

Valuing where we live

Two items.

First, the concept of natural capital, which seems to finally be getting some serious attention. Putting a price tag on nature. Not because of how much you can earn from harvesting and selling parts of it (extracting oil, cutting down trees, whatever), but how much economic value there is to be gained by leaving it alone.

Historically, this has not been done. The only value in a forest is how much money can be made from logging it. The only value of a wetlands is how much you can sell the land for to build a tract of suburban houses and big box stores.

But this limited view ignores what it costs to lose the natural systems. Remove forests, ruin wetlands, and you lose really great flood control and carbon sequestration. How expensive is it to recover from a flood? How much would it cost to build a flood control system to replace the natural one that is gone? And will the engineered system work as well?

Maybe you’ll come out ahead, economically, by leaving the forest alone – or by managing it in such a way that you replace the trees as you log them.

It seems sometimes like the only way to encourage large corporations and government entities to leave natural systems alone is to focus only on the economic side.

Many hotels put out little cards in the rooms encouraging people to “be green!” by using their towels more than once. Of course, the fewer towels the hotel has to launder, the more money it saves in laundry fees. Maybe the management is doing this purely out of their respect for Mother Nature, but more cynical people see the “be green!” cards as an attempt to guilt trip the guests into doing something for nothing other than the hotel’s financial gain.

And it’s hard to put a numeric value on other aspects of the environment. How much is the beauty of nature worth? Shouldn’t we value it just for itself?

I think the answer to the latter is yes, but I also know that if you can find a way to easily compare two things, it’s easier to make choices about them. And it’s easier to put a dollar sign next to “flood control services” than “it’s nice to look at.” And if the only thing that will force large organizations to do the right thing is to give them an economic incentive, well, so be it. In 100 years, they’ll be speaking glowingly of the forethought of their predecessors, not to mention the love their predecessors have for the earth, and yes of course it was a nice side effect to make a few bucks.

Having said that, here are some striking numbers from a U.N.-sponsored study called TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (source: Cash for corals (or why a piece of pristine coral is like a $20 bill):

  • $2 trillion – the minimum amount of natural capital removed from the global budget every year, without recourse, just by the world’s 3,000 largest corporations
  • $3.7 trillion – the total value in carbon sequestration that would be provided by the unfelled trees left standing if we merely reduced the global rate of deforestation by 50 percent over the next 20 years
  • $45 billion – the estimated investment in preserving biodiversity that would be required to generate $5 trillion every year in “ecosystem services”

Here is another article, from the Boston Globe, with the irritating tagline “A bold new idea for protecting nature: Put a price tag on it.” This is only a “new” idea if you think anything that happened in the last 30 years is new.


Bolivia is poised to pass a law that gives nature the same rights as humans. Ecuador did a similar thing in 2008, in their new constitution.

Bolivia is establishing the Law of Mother Earth during a process of re-shuffling the government following revisions to the constitution in 2009.  The Law of Mother Earth will grant the natural environment eleven legally defendable rights.  According to the UK Guardian these include the right of other life forms to exist, to continue natural cycles, to be free of pollution, to maintain the integrity of their genetic makeup, and not to be damaged by giant infrastructure projects.  The intent of the Law of Mother Earth is to re-define the relationship between humans and nature, and ensure development does not proceed at the expense of natural ecosystems. (source: Bolivia Grants Rights to Nature)

And it is urging the United Nations to adopt a similar convention. Bolivia’s received some angry responses from the United States and the Unites Kingdom during climate talks at the UN, for having the nerve to demand steep carbon emission cuts, so who knows how this will go (Guardian).

Maybe they should put a price tag on it.

A more awesome type of habitable green roof

The type that is habitable for wildlife, soon to come (I hope) in Portland, Oregon.

Dusty Gedge, president of the European Federation of Green-roof Associations, took a tour of some of Portland’s green roof-tops.  Gedge says Portland is internationally known for its traditional eco-roofs which help reduce annual storm runoff by about 70 percent.  But he says, with a few modifications, the green roofs also provide a home to wildlife like insects and birds.

“Roofs are a really good place to put these dry riverbed habitats.  In summer it’s really dry. In winter its quite wet and there’s an ecology and nature that likes that, and roofs are the perfect place to do that,” said Gedge.

Found via Green ArchiTEXT.

Black redstart

A black redstart on its preferred type of ground. Photo by Flickr user Arthur Chapman, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Another really neat take on the idea of the green roof as wildlife habitat are projects like the Laban Dance Centre in the UK – actually called a brown roof, because it creates the habitat lost when brownfields are developed – where a roof covered with rubble provides habitat for a bird called the black redstart.

Here are some lovely photos and diagrams showing how a brown roof should be constructed.

I am very enthusiastic about green roofs that are human habitable, instead of being just a layer of sedums or something put up there to deal with storm water (and heat and etc.), but designing them to replace habitat lost by construction is better than that. Architecture meant to improve things, not just have a neutral impact on the world, is a Good Thing; even if, at this point, replacing habitat falls more under “trying to approach neutrality, and a long way from net positive,” it’s moving in the right direction.

Wind power moves ahead in the East; stalls in the West

Front page news yesterday – the hotly-disputed Cape Wind project has been approved. It will be our first offshore wind farm.

On the other side of the country, an enormous wind project – planned to be the largest in the country – was supposed to break ground in Oregon tomorrow, but the Air Force is holding it up, because there are some antique radar systems that have fits when there are wind turbines in their way.

The project will have over 330 turbines, provide 845 megawatts, and provide over 700 jobs, as well as pay millions of dollars in royalties to farmers and ranchers in the counties that the turbines are built in.

From the Air Force Times (AF: Ore. wind farm would cause radar clutter):

The tall turbines can reflect radar signals, creating a blind spot that can erase airplanes on radar screens. The turbine’s rotating blades can also clutter the screens, creating a radar signature that constantly changes as the blades slow down or speed up in the wind.

Industry officials say they’re working on radar-friendly turbine technologies. And upgrades to radar stations might also help.

From the Oregonian (Air Force concerns about radar stall huge Oregon wind farm):

. . . the Federal Aviation Administration, with backing from the Air Force, issued a “notice of presumed hazard” in March, barring construction of any towers above “0 feet.” The company hasn’t been able to resolve the issue, even with Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley trying to run interference.

The Air Force is doing studies to figure out if there is a way to get their radar needs met without completely blocking the project, but Sen. Wyden is concerned that if the project ends up stalled too long, the investors will walk away. And this could have implications for other proposed wind farms, too; this project is not the only one within range of military radar, not just in Oregon, but across the country.

The company in charge of the project says they notified the Air Force several years ago about the project, but until earlier this year, heard nothing. Now, suddenly, things are on hold while they complete a study. Other wind farm projects proposed in nearby areas are also being looked at askance for their potential to interfere with the radar system, which dates from the 1950s.

Of all the objections the Cape Wind project ran into, I don’t recall military radar being one of the issues.

Life- Cycle Studies from Worldwatch Institute

Every Friday for several weeks, the Worldwatch Insitute has been posting a quick life-cycle study on some common item – topics have included antibiotics, beer, dry cleaning, and toothpaste. They’re entertaining to read, and provide some nice historical background as well as a few paragraphs about the environmental impacts of the production/use/disposal/etc. of the product in question, and what people are doing to improve things.

From Life-Cycle Studies: Concrete (something I already know to have rather large environmental impacts):

Stepped on for more than 2,300 years, concrete rarely gets the respect it deserves. . . Analysts expect greenhouse gas emissions from global concrete production to become a larger contributor to climate change than the European Union in the next 20 years.

. . .

Heating and grinding the cement materials consumes an average of 4-5 gigajoules of energy per cement ton. The industry as a whole uses at least 8 billion gigajoules each year. Cement production. . . accounts for about 6 percent of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recent WWF report.

In addition to its contribution to climate change, concrete production generates substantial amounts of waste. In China, it is responsible for more than 40 percent of industrial dust emissions.

I periodically see articles talking about ways to improve the production of concrete – reduce energy inputs, reduce greenhouse gases, use fly ash instead of cement, or change the recipe in some way so that the finished concrete can absorb lots of CO2, perhaps even more than was emitted during its production.

I not-so-secretly thought all of the studies were fun to read, because I am a nerd like that, but I will only excerpt from one more, the Life-Cycle Study on Palm Oil, because I’ve read on and off for years about how bad palm oil production has been; it got popular in part due to people thinking it would make a great biodiesel.

Once planted, oil palms can produce fruit for more than 30 years, yielding more oil per hectare than any major oilseed crop. . .

Yet plantations often replace tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting indigenous communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. Due mostly to oil palm production, Indonesia emits more greenhouse gases than any country besides China and the United States.

Palm oil agriculture has also lead to violence between farmers and local residents, and may lead to the extinction of orangutans in some regions of Borneo in a very short time. And as far as the biodiesel goes –

Palm-oil biodiesel, once supported as a low-carbon alternative to gasoline, often contributes far more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than it helps to avoid. When each hectare of carbon-rich tropical peatland is drained for oil palm production, an estimated 3,750-5,400 tons of carbon dioxide are released over 25 years, according to peatland ecologist Jack Rieley.

And this is without considering that it’s kind of a lousy idea from the get go to turn a food crop into a fuel crop.

Due to environmental concerns and (probably the bigger impact) European Union biofuel laws, the palm oil industry created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil in 2004. They’re planning to create standards for emissions, and will certify palm oil as sustainably produced if it meets certain criteria; this sounds like a bit of an improvement, but I’m a little dubious about how trustworthy a certification is when it is done by the same industry that is creating the product. How about some certification where there isn’t an obvious conflict on interest?

I also really liked reading the study on Post-its, which are much less horrifying than palm oil; you can find the complete list of life-cycle studies here under Trade and Consumption.

Cities: what 'world class' means; what US Federal policy for cities could do

The first a deliciously cranky short piece about why cities striving to be “world class” is a rotten idea: “World class” just means banal:

The joy of great cities lies in their differences. What’s special about Stockholm is different from what makes London or Vienna attractive. The “world class city”, and its gormless sibling, the “world class place”, is a political slogan, conjured by globally minded, air-travel addicted wonks, that has been adopted, sadly and dimly, by politicians, quangos and planners around the world. I’ve even heard, much to my disbelief, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson talking of London’s need to become a “world class city”.

London isn’t already “world class?” I don’t think I understand what that phrase means, in that case.

The author’s best criticism is that “world class” seems to mean “looks like every other major city,” which I agree would be a sad thing, but then when I travel it’s to see and try new things, not go to the same franchise I can find locally.

Helsinki. . .  is about to get the “world class” treatment.

This means historic buildings being vandalised to ensure they suit the needs of wilfully vulgar global “brand” shops, the rerouting of trams from the historic centre because these, apparently, aren’t best suited to tourist-oriented “pedestrianisation” schemes . . .

“World class” is sounding more and more like “let’s turn everything into the same mall I mean ‘lifestyle center‘ no wait ‘village center,’ or maybe ‘town square’ those sound nice!” (Here’s more on the lifestyle center phenomena, including a problem with it: it makes you think you’re in a public place, but it’s all private property.)

Moving on to US cities, here is an interesting (and longer) article from the Urbanophile, Thoughts on a Federal Policy for American Cities.

America is a metropolitan nation, as has been tirelessly documented by the Brookings Institution and many others. Two-thirds of Americans live in the top 100 metro areas, which generate 68% of employment and 75% of GDP. You’ve heard the stats before I’m sure.

Yet the federal government has often given cities short shrift, preferring to think instead of the federal-state partnership through our system of federalism. The Obama administration has brought a new focus on cities, creating the first ever White House Office of Urban Affairs, but we are still a long way from having a real 21st century federal policy for America’s cities.

He writes that, because of the great diversity in our cities (whoops I guess we’ll have to pass up on having “world class” cities, then!), such a policy must allow flexibility, rather than a “one size fits all” approach, because in order for a city to do well, it needs to find its niche, its specialty, whatever it is that makes it a distinctive place*.

There are several areas that the policy needs to address: transportation, housing, environmental policy, and immigration reform. As an example of how flexibility in Federal funding could work, take housing:

…[F]or a city like Chicago, the main issue might be affordable housing. That’s less of an issue in smaller cities where housing is virtually free given the levels of abandonment. A city like Cleveland might want to emphasize spending money on demolition of vacant structures. Other cities might want to look at middle class neighborhoods that are declining and try to stabilize them through public investment before they become the next basket case.

Regarding environmental policy, he points out that sometimes, federal policy can have rather bad (unintended?) consequences. The Clean Water Act, which requires the elimination of combined sewer overflows, may have increased  sprawl, because it is cheaper to build new developments, including the infrastructure, than to retrofit existing sewer and stormwater systems. Rather than rebuild the entire system, what happens is something called a “deep tunnel”, which means a big hole drilled into bedrock where excess sewage is stored (or, as we saw recently in Boston during  an episode of H2OMG, dumping raw sewage into the ocean during unusually heavy rain because your choice is either do that, or let your treatment facility flood with sewage, causing terrible damage, which sewage backs up into homes).

Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to deal with storm water than to build a completely separate sewer-type system of pipes and culverts, like rain gardens, green roofs, and larger systems like Chicago’s green alleys and Seattle’s SEA Streets, which are slowly starting to become more popular.

But the EPA hasn’t been with the program on this. Cincinnati wanted to do this and got shot down. Philadelphia is trying now and we’ll see where they get. This should be encouraged. We need to stop pursuing 1970’s solutions.

There are two big things the federal government could do here. First, the President could tell the EPA to get serious about green stormwater management and do everything possible to put a halt to any more deep tunnels. Second, the federal government ought to pick up tab for Clean Water Act Compliance.

Now some people say that the federal government is spending too much money. I agree. So let’s stop the endless stream of bailouts for what Reihan Salam called the “McMansion-and-Hummer economy” and start focusing what we do spend on investment in the upgrades of basic urban infrastructure that will actually power our future economy. And in this case the money is being spent one way or the other. The question is whether or not we’ll do it in a way that promotes sprawl or not.

*He points to this interview with Joe Cortright, an economist in Portland, OR, which talks about the need for cities to be distinctive, and also has some commentary on what politicians can do to help cities: “Think about things like Social Security, the way we pay for health insurance and how we fund public transportation.”

Speaking of plastics

One of my favorite sources for news from the sciences is EurekAlert!, which today posted “Perils of plastics: Risks to human health and the environment,” describing the results of a survey of existing literature done by Rolf Halden (an associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University and assistant director of Environmental Biotechnology at the Biodesign Institute) on the impact of plastics on human health and the environment.

I’m assuming everyone knows by now that BPA is bad for you (something that was actually known for decades before the FDA officially acknowledged it this year). And phthalates are bad news, too (most of the recent coverage of this was focused on how it is used a lot on soft plastic items given to babies). Who knows how safe all the rest of that stuff is? It turns out that studying the impact of plastics on human health is difficult because it is hard to find good controls, particularly for long-term low exposure. Because there is so much plastic out there, and has been for so long, that it is almost impossible to find anyone who hasn’t been exposed.

Here’s the part I want to highlight in terms of sustainability:

Halden explains that while plastics have legitimate uses of benefit to society, their brazen misuse has led to a radically unsustainable condition. “Today, there’s a complete mismatch between the useful lifespan of the products we consume and their persistence in the environment.” Prominent examples of offending products are the ubiquitous throwaway water bottles, Teflon-coated dental floss and cotton swabs made with plastic PVC sticks. All are typically used for a matter of seconds or minutes, yet are essentially non-biodegradable and will persist in the environment, sometimes for millennia.

Emphasis mine. Plastics are useful! They can do things other materials can’t! But 8% of all petroleum goes into making plastics, so it seems like – if we’re going to use it at all – we ought to use that resource a little more thoughtfully. And non-toxicly.

Calling it 'sustainable' doesn't make it so

I heard about this really neat construction system at a meeting recently:

This company, Strata International Group (website navigation requires Flash, so is unnavigable in my current Firefox), has invented a method of making small structures (I believe the height limit is two stories) out of foam and a thin layer of concrete. They sell a polymer that you mix into the concrete before spraying or troweling it onto the foam, which keeps moisture out (concrete normally will let moisture through).

And on their header, which shows on every page, is the phrase “Sustainable Building.”

Walls and clerestory made of foam blocks.

House in progress in Arizona; the columns are used only to support the roof during construction; image from Strata's site

It’s a really awesome system, but I have a hard time understanding how foam, which is made from fossil fuel, is sustainable. And without knowing what the special polymer is made from, that, too, might not be sustainable. Oh, plus there’s the adhesive used to attach the foam pieces to each other. Probably not made from renewable resources. Can it be recycled? Does it biodegrade? I’m dubious. And what about offgassing of the polymer? Maybe it’s completely inert once it dries/cures.

I know there have been some advances made in the manufacture of plastics, like making plastics than can be truly REcycled, not just downcycled (ignoring for a moment the plant-based, biodegradable plastics), but they have not reached a scale where ENORMOUS BLOCKS OF FOAM are being produced in a sustainable way. Perhaps there is a better recycling method out there for foam than I have heard of; I am not the world’s most expert expert on recycling.

Of course this is better in some ways than making a house entirely out of concrete, which has a significant carbon footprint. And it looks like a pretty fast process, because you’re just gluing big chunks of foam together and then spraying concrete on them, and inexpensive; a 400sf house in Mexico was built for about $2500. Yes, that’s a small house. But that’s a trivial amount of money for a solid structure (the guy at the meeting said the company has tested the system in wind tunnels, and they can definitely stand up to hurricanes, because they survived 400mph winds in the testing).

The pictures of projects in process (also requires Flash) are pretty awesome, even if they look deeply wrong. You can’t build a house out of foam like that! Except yes, yes you can.

But I am deeply bothered by the labeling of this method as sustainable, because it isn’t, and diminishes the meaning of the word.

Energy retrofits are sexy!

They can keep you warm at night!

This post has two parts: the part that discusses some very large retrofits going on, and the part that lists a variety of programs designed to help individuals with home energy retrofits, though two of them are still in the “hasn’t passed Congress yet” stage.

Two large retrofit projects going on now are the Empire State Building and the House of Representatives.

I highly recommend reading this article about the Empire State Building in Preservation Magazine, which also gives a nice, brief history of the building. The article describes the energy retrofits being included in a $550 million restoration,which are projected to reduce energy consumption by 38 percent, decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 105,000 metric tons over 15 years, and save $4.4 million every year.

The restoration will include retrofits like removing every. single. window. and replacing them (reusing the existing glass) with a sheet of Mylar and argon-krypton gas filling the space between the panes. The Mylar will reflect heat from the sun, and divide the air gap into two separate insulating pockets; the gas improves the insulation value of the gap. Another, simpler, improvement is to put insulation between the radiators and the walls. So that the heat goes into the room, not the wall. The wall won’t mind. Ventilation and the chiller plant are also going to be improved, and a variety of electronic controls will manage electric lighting, equipment loads, and provide data to the users. There is ample natural light, and the windows are operable. Because when they were designed, operable windows were your air conditioning system. (I would gladly trade most modern a/c systems for an old system with operable windows.)

Retrofitting is important not just to lower operating costs, and improve tenant comfort (and improve the odds that they’ll pay more rent), but to preserve the building and not lose its embodied energy. It’s cheaper to retrofit than to have to replace the whole building.

A little farther south, the House of Representatives has just begun a 30 month project to cut energy use by 23% and water use by 32%. The project will replace light fixtures, install low-flow fixtures in bathrooms, and upgrade the heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems. The article describes other measures being taken as part of Speaker Pelosi’s Green the Capitol Initiative, which has the goal of making the House as close to carbon-neutral as possible.

A private company, NORESCO, is covering the $34 million cost, and will be repaid out of the savings that the upgrades create, expected to be $3.3 million a year, for over $67 million in total. So no taxpayer money is being spent on the project, which is probably the only reason it got going at all (I’m sorry, was that cynical?). It is not clear from the article if all of the savings is going back to NORESCO, or not. I’d rather that taxpayer money was being used, because then we could be benefiting from the payback in ways other than reducing costs to operate the House. I’m sure they could have found a worthy program to spend the $67 million on! Like perhaps even more subsidies for retrofitting the houses of taxpayers.

Home energy retrofits. They sound like a great idea; who wants drafty windows? Lowering heating and electric bills is also really appealing! But the upfront cost of fixing those problems well (plastic sheeting taped over the windows only goes so far), when the payoff may take many years, prevents many people from taking major steps to improve their home’s performance. Putting insulation into the walls of your 100-year-old house may not be a massive expense, but if it’s going to take 10 years to see a return on it, it’s harder to justify the cost. However, there are programs out there that, if passed, would make it much easier to manage the cost:

PACE is an idea that has actually been around for over 2 years, which “allows private property owners to pay for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects through an addition to their property tax bill, overcoming the high upfront costs that prevent most property owners from investing in such retrofits.” It is adopted on a city-by-city basis, and so far, 18 states (Mass. is not among them) have adopted legislation to permit municipalities to do this.

Not yet passed: HOME STAR, aka Cash for Caulkers (and not to be confused with this Homestar), is a Federal program to encourage people to retrofit their homes to save energy, and to simultaneously provide more jobs in the energy retrofit provision field. There are two levels: Silver, which is simpler and acts like a checklist (i.e., “replace inefficient appliances”), and Gold, which involves doing a complete energy audit of your home and then implement a variety of measures that will work together as a system. (via greendesigncollective)

Also hopefully coming soon (the legislation was just introduced yesterday), there’s also a program for rural homeowners, who can’t benefit from a municipality’s participation in the PACE program, and who may not be able to afford the up-front cost required by the Home Star/Cash for Caulkers program. It has bipartisan support (!!! in this day and age! fetch me my smelling salts!), which bodes well.

The Boston Area Social Energy Association had two forum sessions (April and May of the 2008-2009 series) on the topic of energy retrofits; here on their archive page you can find links to the presentations by Paul Eldrenkamp and others. The April forum presentation was focused on what his company does when they do deep energy retrofits, and should give you some idea of what’s involved (a lot of the details – as well as a lot of the Doom and Gloom about the necessity of doing A LOT of this – are not written out in the presentation).

One thing I’m really curious about is whether any of this will have much impact in areas like Boston, where a lot of houses are rental properties. What incentive do the owners have to fix them up? They’re most likely not paying the heat or electric bills, and while everyone who has ever rented is thrilled to find an apartment with lower-than-average heating bills, is “recently retrofitted to lower heating costs” going to be appealing enough to convince someone to pay a higher rent every month?

I’ve heard a lot of renters in the area complain about the cost of heating, about drafts from old windows, and lack of insulation in the walls (I’ve been one of those renters; in one place, I ran packing tape around the bottom of the wall, over the trim, because there were drafts COMING OUT FROM THE BOTTOM OF THE WALL), but if it came to moving to a new apartment that promised insulation and sexy new storm windows, would I pick that over an older place? Heating costs can vary a lot based on so many things besides good construction, like what floor you are on (my semi-basement apartment in one place was toasty all winter). I don’t know. I suspect that the best way for a landlord to really convince tenants that the higher rent was worthwhile would be to get proof of heating costs . . . and that sounds like more work than I expect the majority would be willing to put in. Assuming that tenants would be willing to provide that information to a soon-to-be-former landlord.

The Empire State Building can count on its tenants to pay higher rent for lower operating costs (and snazzy, modernized office spaces), but I’m skeptical that retrofits can scale the same way for individual apartments.