Green building is everybody’s business

The crucial need to balance private interests and community interests lies at the heart of a number of recent heated development-related controversies in Asheville, such as the Grove Park Inn building proposals, the Wal-Mart Supercenter in east Asheville, and the Campus Crest for-profit student housing project in Montford.

Protecting community interests from self-interested attempts to appropriate them for personal benefit is essential to ensure democratic control of basic resources — and, indeed, our very survival. The most fundamental components of what is sometimes called “the commons” are the air, land and water we all need to maintain life. We hold democratic elections so we can choose representatives who will protect our rights, both as individuals and as a group. Our elected officials are responsible for protecting those resources upon which we all depend from the overly zealous or shortsighted forces of self-interest.

The “free market” is a mechanism for efficiently meshing the demand for and supply of goods and services — and for enriching of individuals and corporations. A market-driven system is appropriate for many things, but it often needs regulation to avoid the consequences of unrestrained greed. The Food and Drug Administration regulates drugs so that we don’t prescribe thalidomide to pregnant women; the Environmental Protection Agency regulates (though not much lately) discharges into our air and water, so we don’t poison ourselves with our own wastes. At the local level, city ordinances seek to protect neighborhoods from overdevelopment, encourage higher density (in line with smart-growth principles), and preserve city residents’ basic quality of life.

When the Grove Park Inn proposed building a large, multi-use structure on designated city parkland, it sparked a loud outcry. Clearly, many city residents were disturbed by the prospect of giving a corporate interest precedence over the commons. The main arguments centered on the scale of the building and the infringement on public parkland. The proposed 12 stories would have blotted out the mountain views in much of Pack Square, and the footprint and resulting traffic would have severely disturbed the integrity of the remaining green space. Now the GPI is considering another 12-story building — this one on site B, a parking lot adjacent to City Hall. Although this site raises fewer concerns about the use of public land, the scale of the project has some serious implications both for City/County Plaza and for The Block. Hopefully, open discussion can produce a solution allowing for mixed-use development downtown that will benefit both private and public interests.

Conspicuously missing from the public debate on these and other recent proposals (including the Civic Center renovations) is the impact of such large-scale structures on our air and water. According to the EPA, “42 percent of energy, 30 percent of raw materials and 25 percent of water consumption can be attributed to buildings. Likewise, 40 percent of air pollution, 25 percent of solid waste and 20 percent of wastewater are building-related.” Constructing buildings consumes a massive share of our natural resources and puts a huge amount of waste into our landfills.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Many cost-efficient strategies exist for reducing the environmental impact of our buildings and making them more energy-efficient; indeed, there are already many local examples of high-performance buildings. The North Carolina Arboretum has a high-performance operations-support building and is planning a second such structure. Warren Wilson College has the “Eco Dorm” as well as a registered LEED building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a rating system that quantifies how “green” a given building is). UNCA also has a registered LEED building and is building a satellite campus on the former Buncombe County landfill site that will incorporate sustainable building practices and even use the methane gas produced by the decomposing trash to meet some of the energy needs. And our neighbors in Cherokee are designing three school buildings to meet LEED standards.

Commercial “green” buildings are becoming more common as the related health and energy costs make them much cheaper to operate than standard structures. Energy production grows ever more expensive, and energy conservation is a cheaper and cleaner alternative. When renewable-energy production is incorporated into such projects, buildings can actually become zero energy consumers (for details, go to Day lighting improves worker productivity in businesses and boosts learning in schools. Enhanced indoor air quality reduces health problems and provides better living environments. All of these criteria should be considered whenever we build or renovate a building.

Already, some municipalities (such as Boulder, Colo., and Santa Monica, Calif.) require the use of certain green building practices that aren’t excessively expensive and that have a very short payback period due to lower operating costs, increased productivity and fewer health problems. The “green” buildings on the new EPA campus at Research Triangle Park cost about the same to build as industry-standard buildings would have. Yet the structures’ increased energy and water efficiency will generate savings of at least $1 million per year compared to Department of Energy standards for similar buildings. Besides reducing the environmental impact, incorporating renewable-energy generation into a structure also helps create well-paying local jobs, helps ensure a dependable energy supply, and reduces the community’s dependence on imported, nonrenewable, polluting resources.

Western North Carolina’s beautiful, diverse natural setting is part of what attracts people to Asheville. And protecting our environmental wealth is an important responsibility of our elected officials. Accordingly, public discussion of development in Asheville should always include a building’s effects on our air and water over its functional life span, as well as concerns about the site (including aesthetic concerns of scale). And we need to take steps to incorporate green design and construction techniques in more local buildings.

If we, as a community, commit to becoming part of the solution to environmental decline, it will provide jobs, save money and attract new businesses with similar goals — benefiting both individuals and the group as a whole.

[Boone Guyton, board president of the WNC Green Building Council, is a partner in Cady and Guyton Construction, which builds “green” homes. He lives in a passive/active solar home in Alexander.]

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