Asheville, N.C. — When Ginny Lentz first moved to Asheville in 1990, she thought she’d found the perfect property to kick-start her new career as a real estate agent: a funky riverside retreat she called Tom Sawyer’s Hideaway. But when she showcased the listing for her boss, he warned her that the house carried unacceptable risk. “You’re going to have to unlist it — it’s too close to the river!” Lentz recalls.
Her boss held firm, despite Lentz’s protests that the current owners were aware of the water and kept up with maintenance for flood prevention. She reluctantly removed the property from her portfolio; it proved to be the best move she could have made. “Not a year later, we had a big flood in Asheville when it rained for days, and that entire house washed down the river,” Lentz says. “Everything went over a dam, got broken up and went into the French Broad.”
Since that early brush with disaster, Lentz has made it a priority to protect her clients from the danger posed by severe weather — danger, she says, that only continues to increase due to global climate change. Data from the Asheville office of the National Centers for Environmental Information show that extremes in precipitation have become more common across the Southeast since 1990, when Lentz first listed Tom Sawyer’s Hideaway. And drought conditions in recent years have highlighted the problems a sustained lack of rain can bring. In association with those extremes, the area is becoming more exposed to events such as flash floods, landslides and wildfires.
Professionals on two sides of the Asheville-area real estate market — the agents who deal in properties and the architects who design them — are working to understand the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods. They say that the challenges of awareness, building safety and market pressures can be met by new opportunities for education, resilience and climate-adaptive design.
Fixing the blind spot
A primary issue, explains Doug Bruggeman, certified Realtor with Keller Williams and founder of Ecological Services and Markets, is that real estate agents with a solid grasp of climate issues are rare among his colleagues. “The practice of real estate hasn’t incorporated it,” he says. “Real estate agents can’t be expected to be experts on climate change, but they can highlight public data sources about climate change threats for their clients.”
Bruggeman sees his profession’s role as the first line of defense for consumers against risks to their most important investments. Just as agents point out the proximity of hazardous waste sites or airplane flyover routes to prospective buyers, he says, they should help clients understand how extreme weather might undermine their safety and property values.
“For example, FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] floodplain maps, which determine where you can build and if you need flood insurance, don’t incorporate climate change impacts,” Bruggeman says. “That’s a huge threat to the consumer that’s just being ignored.”
To help his fellow Realtors address climate risks, Bruggeman is developing a continuing education course titled “Climate Change and Real Estate Investing.” He offered a preliminary version of the course for the first time in September to members of the Land of the Sky Association of Realtors at The Collider in downtown Asheville. One of the key points made during the class, he says, is that real estate agents can be more proactive in starting conversations about climate change.
“I asked them to what extent they talked to their clients about things like wildfires, and the majority of participants said almost never — people don’t want to ask,” says Bruggeman. “I think the demand for climate resilience is out there, but consumers don’t know how to articulate it.”
Lentz, who took Bruggeman’s course in September, suggests that controversies over government response to climate change also contribute to how the practice of real estate has dealt with the issue. “I know that a lot of conversations around climate change have not happened because of belief systems. People don’t want to go political with their buyers or sellers,” she says.
However, Lentz continues, real estate’s commitment to consumer protection should fly above the political thicket. “I feel that to back off from potential issues for fear of offending someone’s belief systems is wrong,” she says. “They need to understand that every place on this planet is being affected by change, so they really need to do their due diligence.”
Water, water everywhere
When Lentz sits down to discuss climate issues with clients, she often boils her concerns down to one word: water. “When you get right down to it, it’s either too little water or too much water,” she says.
A shortage of the precious liquid dries out the landscape, increasing the likelihood of wildfires — and ridgetops and mountainsides with the scenic vistas that draw many new residents to the Asheville area are particularly vulnerable to damage when fires are raging. “Almost all of my clients are looking for some kind of view, the higher the better, and the data say those homesites may be more susceptible to wildfire,” Lentz says.
Greg Smith, district forester for the N.C. Forest Service in Asheville, agrees that topographic features can have a significant influence on fire behavior in our area. While most of this region’s wildfires are caused by human actions rather than lightning, once a fire gets going, it can move up to three times faster up a slope than across flat land, Smith says.
Altitude isn’t the only factor to consider in a homesite’s wildfire risk. South-facing slopes, which have traditionally been favored for their greater sun exposure, are also dryer and hotter than other mountainsides. Those conditions both attract fires and cause upslope drafts that can make blazes more difficult to fight. The topography of ridgeline saddles or dramatic stream-carved ravines can also funnel air into fires and fuel their spread.
An excess of water can lead to landslides and flooding, as Lentz experienced early in her career. But, as Bruggeman emphasizes, the danger to life and limb from these events is accompanied by significant financial risk. “Natural disasters have become a major source of mortgage default,” he says. In cases where a home is destroyed or sustains substantial damage as a result of an uninsured hazard, he says, “People are left with a mortgage but no equity.” He encourages clients to get professional opinions about flood possibilities as they consider properties in proximity to bodies of water.
Ironically, the disasters caused by excessive water seen elsewhere in the country, particularly hurricanes that threaten the coastlines of the Southeast, could create scarcity problems in Western North Carolina. Bruggeman reports picking up multiple new clients from Florida in recent months after the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. “People are going to be migrating, and I believe Asheville will become a spot for climate refugees — I think it already has,” he says.
That influx of population could put stress on the area’s water supply. “We’re going to be under even more pressure with the movement of people here for safety, with serious concerns about enough groundwater getting to the aquifers,” says Lentz. Both increased demand from additional water customers and reduced water infiltration due to new developments with impermeable surfaces could play a role.
Fitting the future
Climate change will influence where people buy real estate in the Asheville area, but it will also impact what they do with those properties. The Asheville Section of The American Institute of Architects falls on the supply side of that equation, and over the past few years, its members have explored climate adaptive design in a series of annual conferences. The latest edition of that conference, titled “Where Building Science Meets Climate Science,” takes place at The Collider on Thursday and Friday, Nov. 2-3.
Keynote speaker Victor Olgyay, principal architect at Rocky Mountain Institute — a clean energy think tank headquartered in Colorado — emphasizes that some of the biggest potential gains in climate resilience can be made by retrofitting existing structures, with no need for new construction. For example, he says, “If you insulate your building so well that it’s not dependent on a furnace, then it’s OK if the electricity goes out, because it can continue to survive.”
Olgyay refers to the potential for a building to carry on despite outside disaster as “islandability.” Solar panels for power generation, well-designed windows for lighting from the sun and proper ventilation for cooling can all keep occupants comfortable in the midst of a dangerous scenario. While these design choices are most important for critical structures such as hospitals and data centers, similar changes can help regular homeowners be more prepared for extreme events.
In addition to protecting building users during times of crisis, climate adaptive design often makes sense from a day-to-day financial perspective. “Even if you’re holding a building for just three to five years, you can lower your operating costs and make it more valuable when you go to sell or lease,” Olgyay says. “These are all no-regrets moves.”
The broader goal of Olgyay and other architects is not just to prepare for the worst-case scenario, but also to design in ways that help slow or even reverse the effects of climate change. “If you start to think about a building as a participant in the environment with a metabolism of its own, then you can design it to provide ecosystem services such as generating energy or cleaning water,” says Olgyay.
Emily Coleman-Wolf, AIA member and project architect at Novus Architects, explores these possibilities as a facilitator for the Asheville Collaborative of the Living Building Challenge. She explains that the LBC, a project of the International Living Future Institute, imagines the role of a building in the environment like that of a flower.
“Flowers get all of their energy from where they are: their nutrients from the soil, their power from the sun, their water from the rain,” Coleman-Wolf says. “They’re rooted in place, and they bring beauty to their environment — how do we make buildings like that, which add to the nature around them in a positive way?”
In contrast with existing green building programs such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), LBC certification focuses on the ecological performance of a building. These standards include producing 105 percent of energy used through renewable sources, conducting all water treatment on-site and sourcing at least 20 percent of building materials from within 500 kilometers (310 miles) of the construction site.
Although no buildings meeting those standards have yet been built in WNC, the Asheville Collaborative hopes to foster the area’s first LBC-certified construction within three to five years. “We want not just better buildings, but regenerative buildings. Buildings that give back,” Coleman-Wolf says.