Monday, January 12, 2009

New Orleans. Green Washing Machine

Here, it seems the whole green thing has gotten a little bit out of whack. It is kind of interesting how little I have really thought about green and sustainable stuff on my trip. It was kind of a shock to return and be bombarded with the word, ‘GREEN.’ In returning to the Gulf Coast, I am reminded how green is all the rage, not only here, but in the entire country.
While it has always been at the back of my mind, it is just not that relevant in most of the projects I have been looking at. There are so many more fundamental things that are important, like having a home in the first place. Land, electricity, water, plumbing, opportunities, human rights, education, and the ability to leave a better life for the next generation. All these seem much more about sustainability (economic, social, and environmental) than the word, ‘GREEN’, just because it seems to get isolated and represent the latest fad. It almost seems like the rest of the world’s homes are more sustainable precisely because they are incremental. So, I don’t even think that green is even an issue in most of the world, but sustainability absolutely is. Architects need to get the basics right and since people in most of the world don’t consume so much, they don’t talk and care about being green, although that is quickly changing in places like India and China.
One of the more high profile green projects is the Global Green house in the Lower 9th Ward. The spaces are really nice, the scale is good, and it is attractive. 1300 square feet, the volunteer on duty told me it was about $200,000. It does the basics pretty well (south facing, shading, high ceilings, clear story windows, natural ventilation). But, it also has all the bells and whistles: paperless sheetrock, low VOC paints, a dashboard (computerized control system monitoring all the energy usage), water collection cisterns, energy efficient appliances, piping to use rainwater as greywater in the future, (if codes ever allow it) solar panels, small green roof, and hopes to eventually put turbines in the Mississippi River right next to it. And, it is a LEED Platinum building (the highest green rating a building can get.). Great, right? Sort of.
Some guys from the adjacent neighborhood walked in while I was there and one said to the other, ”It looks like it is from…..California.” It was actually designed by people from New Jersey. And while it is a demonstration project, it seems to go overboard, a bit, especially in terms of providing solutions that average homebuilders can employ in helping them rebuild and improve the efficiency of their homes in the 9th Ward. I was talking to another architect, and she was saying that some friends working on the project, gave a price more like $400,000-$450,000. Daaaamn. That would put it around $325/sf. Okay, it is the first one, right? Well, still, too much and too excessive. Like so many things in our country.
In many ways, we wouldn’t need to pushing such crazy technologies and issues if we didn’t consume so much in the first place. Of course, there will always be a need for renewable energy sources such as sun and wind, but a lot of this other stuff still helps us feel better and not so guilty about the lives we have been leading for so long. Our country is one of the main reasons we have such a problem with climate change in this world. Our consumption per capita dwarfs that of everyone else. But, you can’t just change the systems by which energy is delivered. It takes a lot time. And the infrastructure is prohibitively expensive. But, for me, that is where the government can come in a provide the much needed funding and incentives for change to take place. The true free market will not ultimately work where it needs to. Look where it has gotten us now. I suspect there are certain areas where it won’t adjust itself and energy seems like it might be one of those areas.
And now, we create products to help solve the problems we have created. I guess it is not that bad, at least. The improvements we have done in building design in terms of energy efficiency have been incredible and the LEED rating system has done an amazing job. But, much of this stays in the commercial sector (where companies have to have capital to invest in these things) or in the middle to upper class portions of the residential market. I am interested in how these ideas and technologies can make it down to lower income people and how it can truly make such housing more affordable, and not vice versa. Right now, a lot of the green stuff is not really addressing such issues. And houses like Global Green just address reinforce the notion that geen is expensive and is a just a bunch of toys that architects like to play with and can’t really reach a broad spectrum of people. The Home Depot Foundation invested $5 million into the Global Green project. I guess they have an incentive to make it work. More sales for them….Corporate responsibility? Who is funding and paying for the rest? How much do people actually pay, and how do the mortgages tie into all of this?
The same thing is happening down the road with the Make it Right project, but not quite on the same scale. Both projects have Brad Pitt’s fingerprints on them. The MIR project is working to build 150 houses in the Lower 9th Ward, of which they have currently built 5. The website says each of them costs $150,000 but people working closely on the project, say they are well over $200,000. The forms are a little funky and a bit off base, and there are some scale issues developing in that process. People talk about one of them as a McMansion. But, it has solar panels. So, in many cases when high profile architects get involved and green comes to forefront, the affordability goes out the window.


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