Limiting suburban redtape to installing solar panels

A program is helping a number of Chicago area communities make it easier for residents to add solar panels:

If you want to install solar panels for your house or business, you’re likely to find a faster and more user-friendly permitting process if your community has earned a SolSmart designation.

Illinois has 18 SolSmart communities, including Aurora, Hanover Park, South Barrington, and Cook and Kane counties. Another 22 — including Elgin, Lake in the Hills, Naperville and DuPage County — started the designation procedure last month.

The designation means towns and counties have streamlined processes and reviewed ordinances to clearly spell out requirements, and staff members have been trained to properly examine installation plans and inspect the finished work…

There are 223 SolSmart communities across the country. The program launched in April 2016 with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to the International City/County Management Association and The Solar Foundation, which provides technical assistance.

Residents of the American suburbs like their local government and local control yet this is an example where local bodies can get in the way: does every suburb have to go through separate processes to address solar panels? It sounds like the SolMart program helps provide resources and guidance so that suburbs do not have to do all the work on their own.

Thinking more broadly, what other suburban initiatives could be addressed at a similar level? I’m guessing a national campaign to have more permeable driveways might not work as well or one that installs containers to catch rainwater from gutters. I wonder if the solar panels issue works in part because the demand for them is still relatively small in the Chicago suburbs. Or, perhaps it is because it deals with roofs – a part of buildings that is not as visible – so concern is minimized.

Would suburban neighbors rather live next to a McMansion or a home made from shipping containers?

A couple in St. Charles, Illinois has built a 3,200 square foot home constructed out of four shipping containers. What did the neighbors think?

“In the beginning, people just didn’t understand it, and no one 100 percent supported it. But as it progressed, a lot of those people who were hesitant about it started to come on board and see it for what it was, and not just an extravagant trash can,” said Stephanie, the mother of two…

“It’s a custom home. These aren’t cookie-cutter homes. So even if we build another one next week, it will not be the same, and no one else has this home. Even though there are people that say, ‘I don’t know if I’d ever live in one,’ they say, ‘I like what you’ve done.’”…

Clark said his wife didn’t want to mask the unique aesthetics of the containers. The city and the Evans went back and forth with suggestions, requests and recommendations until they arrived at the current design…

One hang-up: Not all associations and subdivisions allow container homes, according to Clark. But the couple hopes that the more common alternative housing becomes, the better received container homes will be.

The home as depicted in the Chicago Tribune:

https://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/realestate/ct-re-alternative-home-styles-20181129-story.html

The home is certainly unique. The article leads with this idea: “Goodbye cookie-cutter. So long McMansion. Out with formulaic, in with customization.”

Teardown McMansions are often criticized for not fitting in with the architecture of the neighborhood in which they are built. This container home also does not fit with what is visible of the surrounding architecture. Would the typical suburbanite rather live next to an oversized and architecturally dubious teardown McMansion or an architecturally unique home made of shipping containers?

I would guess the McMansion would be more palatable to a number of suburban residents. Even though McMansions may not match the architecture of the styles they are trying to imitate or they may be a mishmash of styles, they are often (not always) built in somewhat traditional styles. The container home goes for a modern look: boxy, clean lines, different colors, a completely different shape than many suburban homes. Some uniqueness in suburban homes might be okay but this is something totally different. I have argued before Americans prefer McMansions to modernist homes. Perhaps the fact that this modernist home is built of recycled shipping containers helps since the home can be considered greener.

I do not think this housing design is one that will spread like wildfire through suburban residential neighborhoods.

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.