Sunday, March 16, 2008

Burning Down the House

The Pacific Northwest has no shortage of eco-saboteurs in the midst, doing innocuous pranks that make us aware of some outstanding issues or going further and relying on major destruction to get their point across. This hit home recently with the torching of McMansions in a new Woodinville, Washington rural cluster development (RCD). I'm a big fan of statements like harmless culture-jamming, critical mass rides, and an occasional billboard liberation but tend to draw the line where people and property is seriously damaged. I think for some, it's a cop-out - for others it's jobs, livelihood, etc. For the most part the most damage is to the environmental causes that are espoused by groups such as this to make such striking gestures. It's self-defeating.

:: image via Treehugger

There were some interesting reactions, such as people defending the green-ness of the houses, chastising the arsonists for the environmental degradation in pollution and wasted water due to firefighting, conjuring up conspiracy theories about insurance claims due to the poor home sales - and of course that most damning of all terms - to label them terrorists. I'm staying out of that debate, but want to comment on terminology such as the t-word, as I think the term is overused and counterproductive, much like s-word of sustainability.

I do think that whatever you call it (terrorism, activism) - actions by people that feel disempowered by a society or situation reacting negatively with violence is counterproductive as well. Both sides need to find common ground and address the root cause of the issue - not point blame and righteousness at the opposing view. Damning or destroying without thinking, listening, and striving for positive dialogue is negligent and ignorant.

So the environmental debate: For starters, the houses in question were varied shades of green, certified by the Seattle Built Green program. Were they perfectly green? No. Were they better than what is required by the market and the codes. Yes. The question of size is an issue as well - with a healthy debate as to whether a 4000+ s.f. house can be green at all. My initial thought is yes - if you want, you can make anything - like a large building, community and urban city be green. It's a question of cumulative impact. If we all lived in large houses, we would be magnifying our impact manifold and causing significant degradation. Should we build this big? I'd say no. But it's not for me to decide. So perhaps it's good that only a select few of us perhaps want to (or more likely can) build on this scale.

This all being said, I tend to make my livelihood by designing things that people want and are willing to pay for. Landscape architecture as a luxury item perhaps is finally becoming passe, but there is still some lingering traces of it perceived as not being a necessity. The tie of the work with nature is a good step to credibility, and the trend to green design is important to expand it beyond landscaping and make it just as vital to lessening our ecological footprint than driving hybrids and taking the bus - perhaps more. The market, for good and bad, determine what is built and offered to the customers by the suppliers. Target one thing and you miss the myriad others that are just as impacting. Look at the big picture and you lose the focus on any particular issue.

Street of Dreams is a marketing tool - just like any green development strategy or environmental slogan. While applauding excess with some added green features is questionable, it fits into the general strategy of tending to get a little bit better incrementally (this by no means equals good - but to the chagrin of Mcdonough, perhaps less bad). These approaches will not change overnight, but are evolving, through LEED, as well as some other examples that range from perhaps overly stringent to potentially greenwash, and there is not really any objective body that is parsing these shades of green.

The real question for me is directed at the trend for large-house suburban development in general. A story in The Atlantic offered some insight to the trend towards urban living - and what this means to the suburban mega-housing in general:

"Pent-up demand for urban living is evident in housing prices. Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C."

"This future is not likely to wear well on suburban housing. Many of the inner-city neighborhoods that began their decline in the 1960s consisted of sturdily built, turn-of-the-century row houses, tough enough to withstand being broken up into apartments, and requiring relatively little upkeep. By comparison, modern suburban houses, even high-end McMansions, are cheaply built. Hollow doors and wallboard are less durable than solid-oak doors and lath-and-plaster walls. The plywood floors that lurk under wood veneers or carpeting tend to break up and warp as the glue that holds the wood together dries out; asphalt-shingle roofs typically need replacing after 10 years. Many recently built houses take what structural integrity they have from drywall—their thin wooden frames are too flimsy to hold the houses up."

Maybe in the future, Street of Dreams will evolve to encompass more of the diversity and variety that is reflective of society and our varied habitation in general. Green McMansions may avoid the above fate due to better materials and construction, this is true. But that might not be enough. The Street of Dreams may be one where the houses are built to last for 100 years, or consist of green renovations, dense urban living, or smaller footprint development models that can accomodate our needs and protect ecosystems. That sounds like a dream, and a potentially fire-proof one at that.

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