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.

“How solar power and electric cars could make suburban living a bargain”

New technologies may help the American suburbs live on for decades:

[A] new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Magali A. Delmas and two colleagues from the UCLA Institute of the Environment suggests that recent technologies may help to eradicate this suburban energy use problem. The paper contemplates the possibility that suburbanites — including politically conservative ones — may increasingly become “accidental environmentalists,” simply because of the growing consumer appeal of two green products that are even greener together: electric vehicles and solar panels…

Installing solar panels on the roof of your suburban home means that you’re generating your own electricity — and paying a lot less (or maybe nothing at all) to a utility company as a result. At the same time, if you are able to someday generate enough energy from solar and that energy is also used to power your electric car, well then you might also be able to knock out your gasoline bill. The car would, in effect, run “on sunshine,” as GreenTechMedia puts it.

A trend of bundling together solar and “EVs,” as they’re called, is already apparent in California. And if it continues, notes the paper, then the “suburban carbon curve would bend such that the differential in carbon production between city center residents and suburban residents would shrink.”…

The reason is that, especially as technologies continue to improve, the solar-EV combo may just be too good for suburbanites to pass up — no matter their political ideology. Strikingly, the new paper estimates that for a household that buys an electric vehicle and also owns a solar panel system generating enough power for both the home and the electric car, the monthly cost might be just $89 per month — compared with $255 per month for a household driving a regular car without any solar panels.

Read on for the discussion of how both solar panels and electric cars are becoming cheaper to purchase and operate. Yet, I’m sure environmentalists and critics of sprawl would argue these costs aren’t the only ones incurred by suburban life. Other factors include using more land, spreading out services (from police to shopping centers), the resources needed to build and maintain individual properties, and the loss of community life.

This is another piece of evidence that the suburban based lives, the space where a majority of Americans live, is not likely to disappear anytime soon.

Designing an “eco-elegant home”

Interior designer Trudy Dujardin discusses what it takes to have an “eco-elegant home”:

Q. What is an eco-elegant interior?

A. I’m glad you asked! Our favorite saying at Dujardin Design is “A healthy home is the ultimate luxury.” All of us spend most of our time in containers — a house, office, school, bus, car, museum, restaurant. We feel strongly that all of these spaces/containers should support one’s health and well-being. They can be beautifully designed, but if they are not also “eco,” meaning having excellent indoor air quality, to me it’s a contradiction in terms. With every project we do, we strive to show that you can have a beautiful home that is also healthful for you, your family and the planet.

Q. My home is probably the opposite of eco-friendly, but I want to change that. What are some easy things I can do and where should I start?

A. Here are my top five suggestions to make your home eco-friendly: First, try to eliminate as many chemicals, insecticides, pesticides, etc., as possible. When chemicals are used on your lawn, they are tracked into your living space. Second is energy conservation. We can all begin to switch to LED lights over time. Caution: If you are using compact fluorescent bulbs, which is what we have all been told to do for energy conservation, dispose of them with extreme care. They need to be separated and sent to the dump as hazardous waste. Third, use water-based, latex-free, no-VOC paints and floor finishes, such as Benjamin Moore’s Natura and Basic Coatings’ StreetShoes floor finish. Even though it’s water-based, it’s highly durable and is used on basketball courts. Fourth, recycle. Fifth, check on your insulation, to reduce fuel consumption in the winter months.

Greener homes have some appeal these days, particularly for those who want to cut costs (energy is a big issue) or those with health concerns. It remains to be seen how much appeal all of this would have for the general public if they had to pay more for it. Perhaps the best way to do it is to simply build it into the house in the first place rather than having to make expensive retrofits.

Illinois gas tax receipts down $380 million between 2007 and 2014

Going green for transportation is good but it does hurt gas tax receipts:

In 2007, Illinois collected $1.59 billion in gas tax receipts, according to a Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning analysis of Illinois Department of Transportation data adjusted to 2014 dollars. In 2013, that had ticked down 24 percent, to $1.21 billion, adjusted to 2014 dollars.

One reason: People are driving less. Vehicle miles driven per capita on Illinois roads has fallen 6.5 percent since its peak in 2004, according to Federal Highway Administration and Census Bureau data. The recession was a factor, but studies suggest that the change in driving habits is likely to stick, particularly among younger people who socialize via technology rather than driving.

Those who do drive also are using less gasoline. So far, government analysts say that’s not a huge factor in driving down gas tax revenue. But with new government standards expected to boost average fuel efficiency of new vehicles from 29.7 miles per gallon to 49.6 miles per gallon in 2025, such improvements in fuel efficiencies are expected to increasingly tamp down gas tax revenue.

At the same time, more people are turning to vehicles fueled by electricity or natural gas or are opting for other forms of transportation. Nationwide, bike commuting grew 61 percent from 2000 to 2012.

Chicago more than doubled its rate of bicycle commuting from 2000 to 2012, according to the Census Bureau. Half a percent biked in 2000 versus 1.3 percent in 2012…

The changes in how people are traveling is not good news for Illinois’ crumbling infrastructure. Illinois received a C- rating on the 2014 infrastructure report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers. For roads, the state got a D+, with the society claiming that 42 percent of Illinois’ major roads are in “poor or mediocre condition.”

Taxing gasoline is not a “sin tax” in the same way as taxing cigarettes but the concept is the same: to ensure a steady flow of revenue, consumption has to stay the same (and even then inflation eats away at this) or increase.

I haven’t heard much lately about taxes based on miles-driven rather than gas consumption. But, the article notes that it appears Congress isn’t going to address the issue so we may end up with a bunch of different regulations as states and municipalities look for ways to replenish these funds.

Looking for $30 million to finish thorium cleanup in West Chicago

The decades-long fight over thorium cleanup in West Chicago may be nearing an end – if the federal government provides the needed final $30 million:

After officials spent decades and roughly $1.2 billion cleaning area sites polluted with radioactive thorium waste from the former factory, the environmental response trust overseeing the work is in jeopardy of running out of money because it hasn’t received federal funding since fiscal 2008…

So while bulldozers were moving soil Tuesday on the roughly 60-acre property, part of the site remains contaminated. Officials estimate it will cost $30 million to clean it.

The hope is to get the money from the Department of Energy’s Title X program, which provided reimbursements to West Chicago for previous work…

All that remains is to remediate one residential property and part of the old factory site. The cleanup of the residential property will be completed this year, officials said.

This has been a long saga from the functioning facility that built items in the mid 1900s but then made contaminated dirt available to property owners throughout the city, officially discovering the radioactivity in the 1970s, to extensive cleanup of properties and lots of dirt shipped to Utah. While one could celebrate the persistence of local residents and leaders, it is also a cautionary tale about how many resources it takes to rectify such pollution. It isn’t just about the money but also about the time (several decades involving recognizing the problem, securing funding, and then the time for actual cleanup) and reputation (imagine considering West Chicago as a potential community to move to knowing that there is radioactivity in the community). It is this long view that is often missing in public discussions of the environment – and pollution seems like it has clear consequences, particularlly compared to other topics like the rancor about global warming – though it is admittedly difficult to foresee some of these dangers at the time.

Normal people living in “America’s smartest homes”

As part of Time‘s recent look at smart homes, they profiled a number of “regular people” in different types of smart homes:

At the start of her final semester, Spratley, a 29-year-old design student, spent 90 minutes every day driving between her apartment in the suburbs and her college classes in midtown Atlanta. “It was tiring,” she says, “and it made it really tough to meet people.” So she moved into a parking garage behind her school’s main building. Literally. Spratley, who graduated in May, was one of the first residents of SCADpad, a three-dorm compound built and styled by students, faculty and alumni of Savannah College of Art and Design to prove that underused public spaces–many U.S. parking structures operate well below capacity–can be repurposed into homes. Although the 135-sq.-ft. (12.5 sq m) space felt cramped at times during her weeklong stay (“I was like, Where’s the closet?!”), Spratley found plenty to love: the iPad-controlled lights could mimic a sunset, a nearby 3-D printer made free home accessories like coasters, and the compound fostered its own minicommunity. “I had friends over to watch The Fifth Element on the ceiling of the parking deck,” she says. “It was like living in a piece of the future.”…

After marrying her college sweetheart in 2007, Miller, then 22, happily took what her friends called the “normal next step”: putting down a payment on a 2,500-sq.-ft., four-bedroom house with her new husband. But when they divorced a year later, she says, “my financial torture began.” First, she failed to resolve a messy deed situation with her ex; then the economy collapsed, and the bank seized her home. At that point, Miller, an architect, had an idea: “What if I take the $11,000 I’d have to spend on a year’s rent and build a minihouse from scratch?” She wasn’t alone: more than 70 architectural firms now specialize in helping Americans ditch their large, pricey abodes to raise low-cost, low-energy tiny homes, and Miller found starter plans aplenty online. She bought a flatbed trailer ($500), rented a 0.125-acre lot ($200 a month) and within 18 months had built and moved into her dream home, all 200 sq. ft. of it. Now Miller’s monthly expenses are $400 instead of $1,200, and she’s dating her new landlord; the two had a daughter in March. Her next project is designing a 650-sq.-ft. abode for the whole family, including her Great Dane. “I’ve realized I don’t need a big house,” she says. “I never did.”…

When retired Marine Sergeant John Peck awoke from a medically induced coma in July 2010, two months after stepping on an IED in Afghanistan and losing all four of his limbs, his skin “was so hypersensitive that I would scream if someone touched me,” he says. But once his physical pain subsided, Peck, then 24, faced a much more daunting obstacle: adjusting to everyday life in a new body. The challenges at his Walter Reed housing complex were immediately clear. He couldn’t enter rooms with nonautomatic doors, because he didn’t have hands to grab them. He’d wanted to be a chef since he was 12, and now he couldn’t reach the food cabinets–let alone prepare meals. “It was incredibly frustrating,” he says. Today, however, Peck lives in a house built by the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Foundation that was designed to serve his individual needs. Now 28, he has a bathroom with a bidet, so he can use it solo, and can adjust lighting, sound and even the height of his kitchen cabinets by tapping a tablet. To be sure, there are plenty of issues his home won’t solve. “I can’t put shampoo into my hair or put shorts on by myself,” he says. And unloading the dishwasher is nearly impossible, even when he’s wearing prosthetics. But Peck draws hope from a potential double-arm transplant–and his November wedding to fiancée Stacy Elwood. For now, he says, “my house makes the little things easier.”…

Like many other people living in America’s poorest neighborhoods, Giuria, a South Bronx native, grew up at risk for obesity. He ate junk food (it was cheap) and avoided playgrounds (the equipment was undermaintained and dangerous) and gyms (he was never taught the importance of exercise). By the time he was 27, he weighed almost 400 lb. (180 kg). “It was awful,” he says. “I sprained my ankles, I couldn’t buy clothes, and I didn’t sleep well.” His brother eventually took him to a nearby fitness center, where he learned to use the elliptical. (“It was so weird–I did it backward for a while.”) But to really get healthy, Giuria knew he needed a lifestyle makeover. That’s when he learned about Arbor House, a $37.7 million, 120,000-sq.-ft. (11,150 sq m) low-income housing project going up a few blocks from his then residence. The new site emphasized active design, an increasingly popular style of architecture that’s meant to encourage physical activity. (Think visible stairwells and bright, inviting indoor-outdoor gyms.) He immediately applied for residency and moved in last June. Now 30, Giuria has continued to lose weight–he’s almost down to 200 lb. (90 kg)–by running and playing alongside his wife and three kids (including Xzavier, right). “This will make it second nature to them to be healthy,” he says. “It won’t be foreign to them like it was for me.”

Some interesting options with several common themes:

1. Homes more customized to individual dwellers. Some of this can be accomplished with technology but design can also help. People living in the home get the benefits of using the space better as well as having the home reflect well on them.

2. Smaller spaces. This could be the case because people want less space (limiting consumption, more green) or they can afford less space (often in more urban areas).

3. Greener, more sustainable building starting with lowered utility costs to houses that encourage more activity and are built using different materials.

My big question for all of these options is whether they could be produced and lived-in on a mass scale.