Could a community be green and have a lot of McMansions?

An Australian community is moving to become a garden city even as there is a demand for teardown McMansions:

The Monash Urban Landscape and Canopy Vegetation Draft Strategy suggests increasing canopy cover in Monash from 22 to 30 per cent by 2040.

Councillor Geoff Lake, who submitted amendments to the plan, said the people of Monash felt strongly about vegetation protection overlays…

“In particular, concerns related to overdevelopment on blocks where the site is razed to build a ‘McMansion’ and vegetation is not retained or replaced,” Cr Paterson said.

She said the council acknowledged that people valued the green character of Monash.

While it sounds like the vegetation plan is partly in response to teardowns, it could lead to an interesting scenario: a community that is both green and has a number of McMansions. The two are often assumed to not be compatible. McMansions are viewed as wasteful, whether because they are part of sprawling settings or provide unnecessary amounts of private space or use mass-produced materials. Garden cities, in contrast, feature plenty of green space alongside greener housing.

I have hinted at this in earlier posts: could we reach a point where McMansions are compatible with green settings? Imagine big homes with garish architecture that are built with eco-friendly materials and in settings that limit some of the worst features of sprawl. I suspect it may be difficult to convince McMansion critics that such homes could ever be green but given the public’s interest in such homes plus the ability to brand numerous products as green, the day where we have green McMansions may indeed come.

No one wants your old, heavy, non flat screen TVs

Thrift stores and recyclers in the Chicago area are not thrilled to get old TVs:

In 2012, an Illinois law took effect prohibiting residents from throwing televisions in the trash. But places that used to take them are either cutting back or no longer accepting them. Others are starting to charge to take old televisions…

The Salvation Army thrift stores have stopped taking them because used TVs don’t sell, said Ron McCormick, business manager for The Salvation Army’s greater Chicago area…

In Will County, e-recycling centers might stop taking televisions and other electronic waste entirely on Feb. 11 if a deal isn’t reached between the county and its recycling contractor, said Dean Olson, resource, recovery and energy director for Will County.

So, what is a consumer to do? THe solution proposed at the end of the article:

“We’re just being flooded, especially with those giant TVs,” Jarland said. “If they’re still working, keep using them.”

It would be interesting to see the overall numbers regarding how quickly Americans have replaced their old TVs. Given how much TV Americans watch and the technology (which dropped in price pretty quickly) of the last ten years that has led to a better TV viewing experience, this may not be a surprise. But, it makes recycling or being green tougher: people are simply buying a new television or two to replace the one that still works. They could still watch TV and save money with their old units but we refuse today to watch smaller, non-HD screens. (Though watching small screens isn’t necessarily on the way out – those who keep pushing TV on the smartphone, tablet, and computer are advocating for small TV but this is mostly about convenience, not preference.) Who should be responsible for disposing of these old televisions? Perhaps consumers should have to pay a fee to dispose of their old models.

For the record, I disposed of several older TVs at Best Buy in recent years. No resale shop wanted them. No relative wanted to use them. Would paying $5 each stopped me from properly disposing of the television? I’m sure there is some price point that would make sense.

The “Reincarnated McMansion Project” taking on big issues

The Reincarnated McMansion Project of an Australian artist keeps developing:

His plan is simple enough: buy one giant, carbon-hungry McMansion on more than 800 square metres of land and carefully demolish the brick veneer home to rebuild four sustainable, affordable and architecturally designed townhouses for $450,000 each – less than half Sydney’s $1 million median house price…

Gallois’ dream is to create a company or strata-titled commune where like-minded “model citizens” embrace sustainable living rather than climbing the profit-centric property ladder…

The community-funded project has attracted sponsors and some of Australia’s best environmental architects – including Tone Wheeler, who designed the eco house on reality TV show Big Brother – which is why the price tag is so reasonable.

“We have raised half the money and we want one or two more families with like-minded values to register their interest,” Gallois said.

The price tag could be even cheaper if there was a family currently living in a McMansion who wanted to join the project and downsize into one of the eco-townhouses, which feature greywater treatment, a shared laundry and “features that save space and are good for the environment”.

Gallois is taking aim at several issues at once: the growing size of Australian homes, limiting the carbon footprint and energy use for single-family units, avoiding the “profit-centric property ladder,” and finding alternative funding to make this possible. It will likely take some time to do all of this; the third and fourth ones seem more difficult to me while the first two are already prompting a number of people in the United States and Australia to consider other options. The market for smaller homes may be growing as people consume differently and both retiring residents and younger people want some smaller options. Being more energy-efficient is more attractive with rising energy bills and it isn’t too hard to do some simple things in newer homes that could have positive long-term consequences. But, how do you get buyers to see their homes differently such as moving away from “the most bang for your buck” and having lots of extra space for things that owners might need? Or to find large enough funding sources to do this on a bigger scale when it may be more profitable to develop, build, and sell McMansions?

See an earlier June 2015 post on the project here.

The Pope as urban critic

The latest encyclical from Pope Francis includes commentary on large cities in the third world:

One of the most intriguing aspects of the pope’s new encyclical on climate change is its commentary on the rapid growth of cities in the developing world, a phenomenon the pontiff lacerates as dehumanizing.

Early in the document, the pope observes: “Neighborhoods, even those recently built, are congested, chaotic and lacking in sufficient green space. We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

He blasts “green” neighborhoods that are open to the privileged, not the poor. “Frequently,” he writes, “we find beautiful and carefully manicured green spaces in so-called ‘safer’ areas of cities, but not in the more hidden areas where the disposable of society live.”…

As if offering an alternative to the vapid isolation of the trophy skyscrapers of China and Dubai, the pope’s encyclical springs from the idea of “integral ecology,” which argues that care for the environment and the welfare of human beings are inseparable.

“When we speak of the ‘environment,'” the pope states, “what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it.”

Megacities in the developing world often do have huge environmental problems – see Planet of Slums for an evocative look at the use of land and where waste goes. The Pope’s comments regarding nature and cities seem to be rooted in economic inequality. If you are wealthy, you can purchase small pieces of nature, escape harmful environmental effects (like living new power plants or polluting uses in American cities), and afford a life of consumerism where the waste you produce in a “throwaway culture” (a phrase Pope Francis has used before) is sent somewhere else. Yet, does this speak to a broader lack of interest in big cities where people are “deprived of physical contact with nature”? A more sprawling city that provides more space for nature may exacerbate economic inequalities (it can be more expensive to live near the core) as well as reduce the economics of scale that modern big cities might provide (using less land and energy per person with higher densities).

Taxing McMansions and other buildings by roof size to cover stormwater costs

Want a McMansion or another building that covers a lot of ground in Mississauga? You will have to pay more for stormwater costs:

In a move that’s a first for the GTA, Canada’s largest suburb and its sixth largest city will soon charge home owners and businesses for storm water costs based on how much of their property is covered. If you have a very small house that causes little run-off water, you will pay nothing. But if your home is in the highest of five size categories, it will cost $170 in 2016 for your share of the city’s storm-water management costs. It’s an approach that Toronto is also looking at ahead of its 2016 budget process, according to a city spokesperson…

Councillor George Carlson, council’s resident environmentalist, has championed the innovative approach since it was first examined in 2011. He recognizes the impact of climate change, but said development trends are also at the root of the problem. “You can’t use pipes the size of Dixie straws when we need massive concrete culverts,” he said after the meeting. “There were streets in Mississauga that looked like Venice in July of 2013 (when a major storm event wreaked havoc across the GTA).”

“But look at all the asphalt and parking lots and McMansions in this city. All of that covered land is sending more and more run-off water into pipes that were probably already too small. I can see the king and queen needing to live in a castle, but does every third person have to?”…

Charges to businesses will be based on a formula that measures the total covered amount of space, but they will be able to save up to 50 per cent of their fee by putting in measures such as catchment basins and permeable material to prevent storm run-off.

It will be interesting to see how this works out. The Councillor quoted above said he thinks this could have an impact on building sizes down the road. Communities with lots of sprawling development often have water problems and solutions range from permeable pavement to green roofs to taxes like these. But, many of these solutions are after the fact which can get quite costly (just see the massive Deep Tunnel project in the Chicago area).

If the real estate pressure is there to build McMansions, I wonder if there are ways around such a fee. (To be honest, $170 a year doesn’t sound like much for the types who buy McMansions.) What if people built underground to get extra space and to minimize the roof size (a la the luxury underground facilities in London)? Presumably there are height restrictions in the community that would limit building up.

What you can make from giving up your lawn in the West

There are some growing incentives in California and other Western states to replace your lawn with something else:

Even before Brown’s order, some of California’s 411 water districts offered rebates — now as much as $3.75 per square foot — to persuade homeowners to give up on grass.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority pays $1.50 per square foot of lawn replaced with desert landscaping, up to 5,000 square feet. After that, it’s $1 per square foot. Arizona and Utah also have lawn rebate programs…

In addition to paying rebates, the Southern Nevada Water Authority sponsors landscaping contests and offers homeowners free, downloadable designs, divvied into categories, such as “pool-friendly” and “child-friendly.”…

Las Vegas officials say they have removed nearly 4,000 acres of grass, with plans to rip up 3,000 more. In Los Angeles, officials want to take out 25 million square feet of grass by year’s end.

But there’s push-back from the $25-billion-a-year grass industry, which says lawns are good for the environment, producing oxygen, preventing soil erosion and dissipating heat.

Lawns are part of the American Dream and go along with owning a home and having private space. That grass industry is big and many Americans seem to like the status of having a well-kept lawn. Yet, when this dream comes up against ecological realities – as the article goes on to note, LA gets 15 inches of rain on average a year versus 50 inches in New York City – the lawn may just have to go. This isn’t something new; see this earlier post about painting the lawn.

I like the idea of landscaping contests because that would allow homeowners to still fight for status but in more sustainable ways. Perhaps some businesses would even want to sponsor these or offer discounts to those competing. At the same time, I do wonder how neighbors might view some of these new yards, particularly if they are front yard vegetable gardens (one illustration in the article).

Trying to revive wood skyscrapers

The idea of constructing high-rises out of wood and other sustainable materials may just be gathering steam:

This week, an ambitious proposal for the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper was unveiled in Vienna, Austria. The 275-foot, €60M timber building will be built next year, and follows in the low-carbon footsteps of recent timber structures in Canada, Australia, and England. The idea of fashioning tall towers from the earth’s natural materials, and not concrete or steel, first began gaining traction in 2013, when the Canadian architect Michael Green introduced the concept to the wider world via a TED talk that has now been viewed more than a million times. “I believe that wood is the most technologically advanced material I can build with,” Green said in his talk. “It just happens to be that Mother Nature holds the patent.”…

Unlike concrete and steel, synthetic materials that together represent eight percent of man’s greenhouse gas emissions, wood has the opposite effect: it takes in massive amounts of carbon dioxide, an obvious upside when cities are growing ever denser. “One cubic meter of wood will store one tonne of carbon dioxide,” Green explained in his TED talk…

At the time when Green gave his talk, the world was home to at least two existing timber structures that could have been considered towers: the Stadthaus residential building by Waugh Thistleton Architects in London, which has nine stories, and the Forté apartment complex in Melbourne, Australia, designed by Lend Lease developers with ten floors. Both buildings were made from panels of cross-laminated timber, which is a form of engineered wood that was originally developed as an alternative to stone and masonry. Unlike typical 2-by-4s, these panels made from many pieces of wood glued together are enormous, around eight feet wide and 64 feet long…It’s also fairly difficult to get cross-laminated timber to catch fire, which appears to be the main concern of supervisory bodies in cities where architects are attempting to use the material in their buildings. Vienna, which will soon have the tallest structure of this sort, has instructed its fire service to conduct special tests on the new building, which will already be required to install more sensitive sprinkler system than those required for other towers.

As the article notes, the main feature appears to be the reduction of carbon use compared to construction with cement and concrete. But, this might also draw the attention of architects less interested in the sustainability but intrigued by another medium with which to innovate. It could be fascinating to see the mix of mediums within a single skyline – imagine the glass skyscrapers of today next to wooden structures that have a entirely different feel.