Monday, December 27, 2010

Movie Review: The Power of Community:How Cuba Survived Peak Oil

The documentary The Power of Community:How Cuba Survived Peak Oil looks at how Cubans survived their "peak oil," i.e., when fuel oil imports were cut off after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

With no imports of fuel oil, power cuts lasted up to 16 hours a day, and they had no choice but to abruptly change. Power for everyday necessities like water pumping for indoor plumbing and refrigeration was at best non reliable and at worst non existent. They had a food scarcity, and the average Cuban lost 20 lbs by 1994.

Here are some inspiring ways Cuba dealt with their "peak oil" experience.

  • The government imported bicycles, which were not a part of the culture, and citizens had to learn how to use them. 
  • They developed mass transit service overnight with creative solutions like old trucks with covers acting as buses.
  • People in small towns turned to horses and mules for transportation.
  • In the early days while in crisis mode, they had to have food distribution so the wealthy did not just hoard what was for sale, and relied on “survival agriculture” using no chemical inputs (which were not available).
  • There was a drastic effort to convert every inch of arable land to agriculture. Therefore, urban gardening flourished. It's a growing sector of economy, creating jobs (organic farming is more labor intensive, therefore there are more jobs).
  • Farmers now among the highest paid professionals
  • Many kiosks are located throughout city that sell food grown using urban agriculture
  • 80-100% of food in smaller towns is provided by urban agriculture
  • Working against nature, in conventional agriculture, you have to use huge amounts of energy. They strive to create a “food forest”—self sustaining like a forest, and then you pick the produce as you would forage in the woods.
  • In some rural areas, it is less expensive to use solar panels than to connect to grid. More than 2,000 rural schools have supplied with solar panels. 
  • The use of solar hot water is an example of variety of small solutions used across the country.
  • Cuba imported fuel oil before the crisis, since the quality of their crude oil is poor. Now, crop waste like sugar is used to produce electricity. During harvest, 3-4 months out of the year, 30% of energy is from biomass sources.
The average Cuban consumes 1/8 of the energy of the average American, but their infant morality rate and lifespan are about equal. Obviously Cuba is very different from us, politically, geographically, culturally, and in the climate. But this movie provides great examples of baby steps and grassroots action, adding up and make a difference. Humans are extremely adaptable to change. Because of embargo, everything has to happen from the inside, making this a fascinating isolated, controlled experiment in how to survive peak oil, when it comes for the rest of us. 

Thursday, December 23, 2010

urban | design.banter:: All I Want for Christmas is to Replace Sprawl with Infill

urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs ::  
why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

Not a very simple request, is it? But it seems that every time I go home for the holidays, the new "it" retail center is located farther away, as the newest neighborhoods are built farther and and farther out. I am well aware of the hypocrisy of lamenting lost nature adjacent to the suburb where I grew up. My parent's house, built in the early 80's, was once in someone's prairie. There are still plenty of acreage around us, with cows, horses, and even some emu happily roaming. What upsets me is the skipping over of large plots of land not being used by happy animals (and not designated parks and greenbelts, which are essential with increased density), abandoned strip malls, and underused parking lots in lieu of greenfield development many miles from nowhere.

I know that I risk sounding like a "no-growth-er." I'm not a no-growth-er, just a smart growth-er. The term smart growth is used a lot, but here I'll look at implementing a few smart growth principals in my beloved hometown, or should I say, home Metroplex of Dallas/Fort Worth, and similar cities with many miles of suburbs.  I believe we can maintain the positive quality of life aspects of suburbs that people love while reducing the aspects they don't love (namely traffic, long commutes and total dependence on a car).

Why not infill instead of sprawl?

"But, there will be so much more traffic." Yes, with any development comes more traffic. But building farther out decreases the density of an area, making everyone dependent on a car (or a ride from mom). In an already populated area, it may seem like the existing roads could not bear the traffic added by an infill development. But that is the point: transit, walking and biking are only more viable options when they are the easiest and most desirable. When you are stuck in traffic on the highway and watch six trains go by while you sit in the same place, that's when you will think about using transit. The more density in an area, the more efficient transit can become. More density can support more businesses per square mile, bringing things closer to you and therefore more walkable and bikeable. 

"But, the city says we need all that parking." Maybe on the three nights before Christmas Eve. But most of the vast seas of parking lots are rarely full, and as density with transit, walking and biking become more viable options, less parking will be needed. Northgate Mall, a somewhat sad, smaller, older city mall in north Seattle, was given new life with a suburban style lifestyle center face lift. Now, the parking that is remaining is always full due to the popularity of the new stores and restaurants, but a revival of the whole area has occurred, with an improved transit center and new multifamily development. If the mall was not located along a freeway (as most malls are), providing parking in the middle and the new shops along the exterior (with zero lot lines along sidewalks) would have been a even better "smart growth" design. I am encouraged by cities realizing how detrimental so much surface parking is to the urban landscape, and making exceptions to require less parking.

 The new lifestyle center exterior of Northgate Mall in Seattle. Photo Credit.

"But, we don't have the space we need for a proper development." Yes, master planned developments depend on economies of scale, and buyers have come to expect certain amenities. However, I believe that if subdivisions were not totally isolated, autonomous developments, residents wouldn't need these extra amenities. If new developments were built as infill, residents would already be close to schools, city parks with pools and sport fields, greenbelts, and places to walk and bike. Existing and new residents would not have to pay for the roads and infrastructure expansion (including new schools, as city schools are being closed due to under enrollment). Following smart growth principals, streets inside the developments can be thinner and more appropriate for low speeds (versus the freeway width curving streets found in new suburbs). 

As we begin to pull out of the current state of the economy, I hope that the decreased value of homes in places of unchecked sprawl and the hours spent in traffic commuting farther away will serve as reminders that we cannot afford to keep up the current pace of suburban green field development. I believe that smart growth will bring suburban commuters a higher quality of life, and the happy horses and cows will thank us.

Friday, December 17, 2010

urban | design.banter:: Book Review - Sprawl Repair Manual

Each Friday we bring you  urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs :: why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?
"The promise of suburbia has been eroding for decades, but reached a critical point with the mortgage meltdown of 2008." 

This Promise of Suburbia is given new hope in "Sprawl Repair Manual," by Galina Tachieva, a partner at Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, an architecture and planning firm in the enviable position on the front lines of New Urbanism and suburban redevelopment. 

Sprawl can be repaired by "building communities based on the neighborhood unit." Instead of building new developments in green fields (land that has never been built on), why not densify existing areas? Not only will this bring life and density to existing suburbs and create what the author refers to as "complete communities," new developments will be closer to existing infrastructure and transportation. Children can attend existing schools (which, if they are in the city, may be underutilized) and existing fire and police can be used and will benefit from the new influx of taxes. However, according to Tachieva, "Sprawl remains cheaper to plan, easier to finance, faster to permit, and less complicated to build."

The main problem with sprawl, in terms of cost to the government and citizens, health, community connectivity, and access is dependence on the car. Part of this is the use of outdated single use zone, which makes it illegal for dwelling units to be near everyday needs. Repairing sprawl and densifying existing neighborhoods would mean integrating commercial and civic buildings into residential areas, and adding dwelling units to commercial areas. 

Reduction of dependence on a car is then created two ways: things are closer together, allowing for walking, and people live closer together, allowing for effective mass transit.  It's a snowball effect from there: people can walk, bike or take transit to more places, cities can require less parking, with less parking lot area more density can happen, and so on. With less area to cover and more efficient delivery, infrastructure costs can be reduced. Tachieva hopes by repairing sprawl that a more connected, cohesive transportation network can be formed, and the open space provided in suburbs will be accessible.

The author presents specific methods of repair at different scales: regional, community, parking and roads, blocks, and individual buildings.The book contains a great mix of text, diagrams, drawings and before and after photos. This is a must read for anyone interested in sustainable communities.

More information:

Monday, December 13, 2010

Holiday Cheer in Small Spaces

There will no doubt be no shortage of "green" holiday tips this time of year. We're expanding on that with some tips on how to celebrate within your green lifestyle--namely, a small living space. Living small doesn't mean you need to miss out on holiday celebrations.
  • Eating-You don't have to miss out on hosting that holiday meal just because you have a small space. Use a table with leaves, and store them when not in use. Use folding chairs and card tables that can be stored in clever places. Tables, chairs, and linens can also be rented. Nice linens, candles, and center pieces can dress up any room. If your kitchen is too small for preparations, you can always go the potluck route.
  • Your local Goodwill or thrift store is usually a treasure trove of fun china, serving dishes, and seasonal linens. Save money and go green by buying these rarely used items, well, used.
  • Even in my modestly sized condo, I have to have a tree, but like many multifamily buildings, we do not have yard waste pick up. Lucky for those of us in Seattle, you can take your tree to the transfer station free of charge, usually for about two weeks after Christmas. Or, look for tree-recycling events in your city. 
  • If you have a yard, another great option is a living tree, which is smaller (ranging in size from a potted plant to an actual tree). Since it's alive, you don't as much of that great smell, but you can replant it in your yard, so after a few years you have your own little tree farm. 
  • No room to decorate at all? Enjoy others decorations by visiting department stores, wineries, and hotel lobbies. 
  • There's no need for a permanent guest bedroom. Blow up queen sized air mattresses are a great alternative to a guest bedroom, and take up very little space when not in use. Consolidate kids in one space with a tent or sleeping bags for a fun slumber party. A sofa that folds down into a bed is a great modern alternative to the clunky sofa bed. Don't let the word "futon" give you a college apartment flashback--the fold down sofas available now are much classier.
  • As much as I love having everyone in one house, paying a higher mortgage or extra rent to have a guest bedroom can be much more expensive than a hotel room a few nights a year for your guests.
  • Short on storage space? Use those flat gift boxes to store lights and decorations in small spaces. Store seasonal items in matching bins above your cabinets or under furniture the rest of the year.
  • This is more along the lines of just a plain old green holiday tip, but I must admit that I am one of those picky people who saves wrapping and tissue paper, ribbons, and gift bags. I even reuse tinsel year after year (I like the old fashioned silver stringy kind, and you have to pick out every bit anyway if you are taking a tree to be recycled). It doesn't take much space to store these things, and it saves money and helps curb holiday waste.
  • To help others with small spaces, think twice before buying someone a holiday trinket. As the daughter of a preschool teacher, I have seen how many stuffed Santa's and wooden snowmen my mom gets each year. As thoughtful as they are, these items can be wasteful, have to be stored, and can just turn into clutter, especially if they are not someone's style. Opt for something like a gift card to a book store, spa or restaurant instead. 
  • It's a busy time of year for most, but do some last minute purging now, ahead of spring cleaning. Look for charities that need gently used items, or recycle your computer with a program like InterConnection in Seattle, and you can deduct those from your 2010 taxes if you itemize. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

urban | design.banter :: More Guidelines for ADU's-North Puget Sound

Each Friday we bring you  urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs :: why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

In this series, we are giving you a brief overview of what some jurisdictions allow. Not all of them allow Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU's) in single family zones. If you would like to build one, or just advocate for the cause of affordable housing, mixed income neighborhoods, density, accountable tenant-landlord relationships (landlord lives in the house, so he is not absentee, renter lives right there, so is held accountable), and allowing families to provide shelter for other family members on their land, talk to your local government. Many jurisdictions are realizing that allowing ADU's can help us reach many of the goals mentioned above and are changing their zoning codes to allow them. Here are some results of a questionnaire for the City of Seattle from our first article on ADU's:

Among those aware of a backyard cottage in their neighborhood:
• 71% said that the backyard cottage in their neighborhood fit in with the surrounding homes.
• 84% noticed no impacts on parking or traffic directly related to the backyard cottage.
• 83% were supportive or strongly supportive of backyard cottage policy.

  • Medium Density Residential zones: "caretaker's cottage" up to 140 SF. May need to fight for ADU. Attached ADU would be no problem in this zone as duplexes are allowed.
  • Single Family Residential zones:  No ADU's allowed currently


The city allows attached ADUs only (for instance, in a basement, as a flat on the second floor, or in addition), unless you want to renovate and existing detached unit. Here are some of their guidelines:
  • The floor area of ADU must not exceed 40% of the area of the primary residence, with a maximum area of 800 square feet (for both attached and detached), two bedrooms, three people
  • Only one entrance can be visible from the street, and any off street parking displaced by the new building must be replaced. Parking for the ADU should preferably be off the alley, if possible.
  • One of the building must be owner occupied. 
  • More information here
  • Here is some information on the code requirements in regard to construction, including creating a one hour fire separation between the units
Island County (Oak Harbor, Camano, Whidbey Island)
  • ADU's (in this code referred to as detached accessory Dwelling Unit or Guest Cottage) are allowed in most zones (Rural Residential zones must have a lot size of at least 1 acre). 
  • Must not exceed 1,000 square feet or 20% of floor area of the primary residence, whichever is larger (Max 2,500 square feet)
  • ADU and primary residence must share a driveway
  • Thirty five ADU's may be permitted each year in the county
Let us know if you are curious about ADU's and your city or county has not been covered.

Other blog entries about ADU's: ADU 101 with rules for Seattle/King County and San Juan Islands

Monday, December 6, 2010

LEED in trouble?

Henry Gifford of Gifford Fuel Saving Inc filed a federal lawsuit against the United States Green Building Council (USGBC). Here is a summary of the complaint from and Harvey Berman's article, "Federal lawsuit attacks LEED building rating system"

"At the heart of the 24-page complaint are claims by Gifford that the USGBC has deceived consumers and others by misrepresenting the benefits of LEED certification relating to energy efficiency and savings and attributes of the LEED rating system.

Some of Gifford’s criticisms of LEED include that it:
• is not based on objective scientific criteria.
• is not based on actual building performance data but rather on projected energy use.
• does not require verification of data submitted in certification applications and does not require actual energy use data.
• is not based on actual measurements but rather computer modeling of anticipated energy use levels."

The $100-million lawsuit alleges fraud, unfair competition, deceptive trade practices, and false advertising, among other things, reports TreeHugger.

The [alleged] problems with LEED wouldn't be such an issue if the program was totally voluntary. In the marketplace, problems would be identified, and other programs would be developed to compete, which is what has happened in the residential market. But many cities require civic buildings to earn LEED certification. See a brief list here [PDF]. This means that taxpayers are being forced to pay a specific third party--as opposed to say, a contractor or consultant, who have to present bids and proposals, and the most qualified candidate and/or lowest bid is chosen.

There is an argument that sustainable building should be codified (so that it is required just like life safety, accessibility, energy efficiency, and fire protection). Sustainability and green building could be seen as just as important as life safety, considering the impact of building on the environment and the damage to natural resources, pollution of air and water, production and release of carcinogens in the manufacture of products. From experience, a project can have the best green intentions, but the numbers just don't work. The more green building flourishes (or, in the case of this argument, is required) more products and competition could bring down the cost.

But codifying green building is a slippery slope, as present day conventional wisdom is often later proved incorrect or incomplete. For instance, there is legislation to eventually outlaw incandescent light bulbs. As I noted in an earlier blog post, there is research out there that suggests that Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFL's) contribute to the carcinogenic "electro smog." I don't think there is enough research out there on the effects of CFL's to completely outlaw incandescent lights. I may be one of those crazy people loading up on incandescents like it's Y2K before they are outlawed, though there is hope with other technologies, like Light Emitting Diode (LED). 

The business of certification of green buildings is in its infancy, relatively speaking, and no organization can expect to get it all right in the first few rounds. This is especially the case in post-construction building performance, which will naturally take time to test and allow for trial and error.  Hopefully, this lawsuit and the attention surrounding it will serve to improve existing guidelines, and perhaps open the door for other nonresidential certifications to compete with LEED.

Full disclosure: I am LEED certified, but we have never worked on a LEED certified building. I would venture to guess that this is mainly about the cost of certification, not a lack of interest in green building. We have certified a Built Green home, and are currently working on Built Green, Energy Star, NAHB Green and Builder's Challenge certifications.

Friday, December 3, 2010

urban | design.banter :: More Guidelines for ADU's

Each Friday we bring you  urban | design.banter 
:: infill | re-knitting our urban fabric | cohousing | keeping small towns from becoming suburbs :: why shouldn't where you live be somewhere you would want to visit?

This summer we posted a summary on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU's): a brief explanation, some benefits, and regulations for Seattle and King County. Below we will outline the regulations for the San Juan Islands.

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU's) have become more popular and acceptable in the past few years. The City of Seattle began allowing for ADU's in all residential zones (it had previously been only some south Seattle neighborhoods) in 2009. San Juan County allows for a limited number of permits for ADU's each year.

An ADU can be attached, as in a basement apartment, or detached, as in a backyard cottage, carriage house, or alley flat. The implementation of ADU's can fulfill many goals of sustainable development, including density, affordable housing, and smaller house sizes. As our urban fabric is "re-knit", neighborhoods can become more dense, creating more demand for services, therefore creating more opportunities for walkable neighborhoods and less dependence on a car.

Truly sustainable development also includes social goals, many of which are also met by integrating ADU's: a way for homeowners to have a separate income stream, a mix of income and ages; the ability to stay in one neighborhood through varying phases of life, therefore creating lasting community: kids can live in a backyard cottage as they start on their career path, elderly parents or relatives can live in smaller spaces that require less upkeep and be close to their children and grandchildren. The term "mixed income" may be worrisome, but from a social standpoint, renting out an ADU can more successful than an absentee landlord renting a house, in that owners are close to the rental unit, tenants are close to their landlord, so each keeps an eye on each other. The Kentlands Development in Maryland (designed by New Urbanism pioneers DPZ)  is a neighborhood that has successfully integrated market rate, large suburban housing with backyard rental units. An often cited example is of a woman who lived in her ADU and rented out her large house in order to save money and pay off her mortgage.

Anna spoke to BUILDERnews magazine about the benefits of building an ADU or guest apartment. See the article, including photos of two of our projects that include these structures here.

Hare House in Friday Harbor, Second Floor Plan: an apartment over an office and garage can be used for family, or rented out for extra income.
San Juan County:
San Juan County defines an ADU as "a living area that is accessory to the principal residence, located on the same lot, and that provides for sleeping quarters, kitchen, and sanitation facilities. An ADU may be internal, attached or detached."
  • The distinguishing characteristic signifying an ADU for the county is a kitchen, even without an oven or stove. A guest or mother in law suite with just a bedroom and bathroom may not be subject to the same restrictions.
  • An ADU must not exceed 1,000 square feet 
  • There is a limit on the number of ADU permits available, so check with county before moving ahead. The number of detached ADU permits in any calendar year shall not exceed 12 percent of the total number of building permits for new principal residences issued for the previous calendar year. 
  • In order to reduce impact, ADU's must be located within 100 feet of the principal residence. 
  • Urban Growth Areas and Activities centers generally allow ADU's with less restrictions than rural zones
  • A detached ADU is not permitted on parcels less than five acres in size in any rural district, 10 acres in size in the agricultural district, and 20 acres in size in the forest district. Visit the Assessor's Site to find out what zone you are in. 
  • Within the Town of Friday Harbor, a detached guesthouse is not a permitted
    accessory structure in Single Family Zones. The Hare House, which is in town and includes a guest house, is in a Multifamily Zone.
 Example home plan, the Pearl Cottage, under 1,000 square feet
Our Home Plan Collection has some great floor plans and designs under 1,000 square feet. View the collection for ideas and inspiration-plans can be customized to meet your needs. 

Next Friday, we'll look at regulations for Bellingham, Anacortes, and Island County.