Building Green

Around the Neighborhood…

I recently found out that the Irvington newsletter has featured a column of the same title (Around the Neighborhood) for several years.  Apologies to Dick Levy, but I decided to keep using this title anyway.

This column is for Earth Day, April 22nd.  One of my pet peeves in the land use/development world is how politicians and businesses get away marketing themselves as “green” when they are anything but.  Recent articles have extolled how “green” Oregon and Portland are.  Also, several recent housing developments in Eliot have made the same claim.  The combination finally set me off.

My simple definition of sustainability is living within your ecological means.  I am a realist however, so I don’t mean living off the land literally.  I still believe in the global economy and modernism, but impose sustainability responsibilities on it.  Following this vision would lead to unique economies, cultures, and lifestyles within each ecosystem.  This more or less is where Oregon was before WWII, when our economy was largely shaped by the agricultural, forestry and fishing industries and trade in those commodities within a fairly limited market area.  It led directly to the types of wood frame houses we currently live in, the location and size of our urban areas, our regional transportation networks, and so on.  In a word, it made Oregon, Portland and Eliot what they are today and what we find familiar and value in them.  Anything calling itself “green” or “sustainable” should reinforce these features rather than alter them.

With respect to land use and development, I would offer the following guidelines.

Save the Earth.  The State, Metro, and Portland have embraced planning as a way to preserve land for food, forests, and wildlife by concentrating development in urban areas.  In Portland and Eliot, this means higher density zoning of land that is close-in and along transit corridors.  No lots in Eliot are zoned “single family” despite the fact less than half of our housing units are still individual homes.  Instead, out lots are mostly zoned for up to 3 units.  Developing to that density is “green.”  Doing otherwise is “waste.”  The Sacramento Lofts currently under construction and Bill Reed’s projects maximize density.  The Holst 12.5 development on Knott and 7th didn’t even meet the minimum density requirement of 13 units (hence the name 12.5).  That site could have hosted over 30 units, and probably would have looked better if it did.  But, Holst still bills it as a “green” development.

Save our past.  The greenest building is one that is reused.  Almost all infill development in Eliot demolished the structures on the site.  I am not aware of any that even bothered to salvage or recycle period woodwork.  Instead the building and its bit of Eliot’s history went to the landfill.  I see this as the expression of architects egos, and developer laziness.  But there are exceptions.  Ben Kaiser’s “tree house” development on Stanton preserved the houses on the site and added another behind.  I and other Eliot residents have relocated buildings targeted for demolition and repurposed them for housing in Eliot.  This is important for several reasons.  An older building integrates more readily into the historic fabric of Eliot than a new structure does.  It also saves the construction materials needed to duplicate the same unit and reduces landfill waste.  That said, not every old building should be saved.  But, it is worth noting that roughly 5% of Eliot’s older homes were vacant in 2000 (the latest data I have) and at risk of demolition or at least deterioration.

Save our trees.  Almost every infill project in Eliot starts by clearing the lot of trees.  In many cases these trees could be preserved simply by reorienting the structures on the lot or changing the location of driveways.  The Sacramento Lofts removed at least three mature trees that could have been saved.  That said, not all trees need to be saved.  Some are non-native, others a danger to neighboring buildings or unhealthy.

Save energy.  The most common measure of “green” buildings is the LEED rating system.  Unfortunately, it values energy efficiency the same as using low fume paint.  Buildings can be made to use almost no energy for heating and cooling, but most “green” infill projects opt instead for showy energy features such as Energy Star appliances that are often larger than necessary and solar water heaters that are a poor match for Oregon and Oregonians hot water morning bathing habits.  They also tend to rely on extensive window area that is not oriented to avoid winter heat loss or summer overheating because the buildings are designed for maximum size not minimum energy demand.

Save our neighborhood “feel.”  Most infill is of a modern design.  Typically of the “etch a sketch” style (so called by me because they consist of boxes that could be drawn on an etch a sketch).  These structures are usually 3 story towers that lack the features called for in “The 10 Essentials of N/NE Portland Housing.”  The 10 Essentials characterize N/NE housing by pitched roofs (versus modern flat roofs), covered front porches (versus modern doorways with no porch), detached garages or parking (versus first floors dedicated to a garage), and other details.  There is sufficient variety of housing styles, sizes, and so on in Eliot that capable architects should be able to match modern designs to the current building fabric.  Instead, it appears they would rather build the same design in all neighborhoods judging from the variations on the MODA and Holst buildings evident throughout Portland.  The Irvington Commons between Knott and Russell and Irving Townhomes across from Irving Park show how dense development can be both modern and fit in.

Save the rest of the world.  50 years ago homes were built using local materials, be that wood from forests, stone from local quarries, or brick in treeless regions.  A lot of green developers are using exotic woods imported from someone else’s forests instead of using indigenous materials.  I don’t see what is green about hauling wood from a forest 2,000 miles away when you can find wood nearby.  I also don’t trust the “green” credentials of that wood, just as I am wary about the source of building materials from local forests.  Best to leave those resources where they are for use by the locals for their homes and furniture I think.

To shift gears a bit, let’s talk about transportation options in a “green” world.  It should be obvious to everyone by now that the petroleum age is at an end and along with it, the auto age as we have known it.  Eliot developed as a streetcar neighborhood.  That is why a lot of our homes don’t have driveways.  People didn’t need them.  The metro region has more transit options today than it did then, yet most of us have at least one car per person and expect our transportation infrastructure to accommodate its use and parking in front of our home or business.  While that is a reasonable expectation, trying to accommodate it in light of the pending end of the auto age seems unnecessary to me.  For context, I am assuming conventional vehicles will be replaced by electric or plug-in hybrids within 10-15 years, at least for daily use.  These will be smaller than current cars and need less space on the road and for driveways and parking.  The high cost of fuel and high “carbon” taxes will mean we will mostly use the available transit resources, walk, bike, and otherwise avoid autos as much as possible.  Thus, we will have less use for roads, bridges, parking strips, and so on.  If this is the case, then it has three implications to me.

First, we shouldn’t be expanding transportation capacity.  Adding lanes to an interstate bridge to Vancouver is unnecessary.  Despite claims to the contrary, it will increase traffic volume on I-5, defeating the goal of reducing congestion.  For Eliot, that means worse air quality since our neighborhood is one of the hardest hit with petrochemical emissions and soot from vehicle exhaust wafting over us from I-5.  Second, expansion isn’t needed for trucks either.  As diesel prices continue to climb, it will become clear that it makes more sense to ship goods from China to ports in Portland and Seattle rather than to LA and shipping them north in trucks on I-5 as is currently the case.  If that doesn’t make economic sense, then shipping north by train will, because that is more economic today.  But that would hurt the trucking and highway building industries who are lobbing for highway and bridge construction.  Third, looking locally, Portland cannot maintain the streets it has.  New taxes are proposed to do so.  Rather than invest in infrastructure that may not be needed today and all of which probably won’t be needed in 15-20 years, the City should simply cede use of parking strips to adjacent property owners for them to use as they will.  The City would be responsible just for the center of the street for local access and access for fire and safety equipment.  Finally, although off-street parking is not a requirement for new developments in Eliot currently, perhaps the City should go further and provide an incentive not to provide it.  The idea being the lack of parking will discourage auto ownership, encourage transit use and patronage of shops and services within walking and biking distance and increase reliance on services like Zip Car.

Well, that’s it for this Earth Day.