The Green Column #56

Buildings and cities as ‘green’ designs

October 26, 2011—Intensive research in several places around the world is underway to prove the economic and technical feasibility of buildings as independent power generators. Technologically, there are existing multiple systems and materials that can cause buildings, either new or retrofitted to generate more electrical energy than the individual building would consume. But a larger energy systems question is behind the research: Will nations and cities opt for big systems or little systems for future power generation? Central power or distributed power generation?

  • Here are some of the purported benefits of distributed power (DP) over the grid system:
  • Proven technologies for DP are widely scalable, i.e., generation systems can be built to the size of the demand;
  • Customers can match the DP capacities to precisely known needs and not have to over-buy equipment;
  • Copper is in short supply, expensive and dirty to make and string overhead;
  • Expansion of transmission corridors is increasingly difficult, with more land-use conflicts;
  • DP, especially small-scale projects, allows for more of a pay-as-you-go infrastructure investment approach.
  • Putting to use the waste heat from power generators can raise the total fuel efficiency of a thermal DP technology by 30 percent or more. Central distribution generation units are notoriously inefficient and they use millions of gallons per day of water needed for condensing and cooling, in addition to being the largest sources of pollution.
  • DP systems can be owned by multiple sources and will be less vulnerable to nature or human-caused outages.

The ecological dream of transforming buildings from energy consumers into energy producers—by integrating heating, energy and ventilation systems into their facades—is getting closer to reality by the London-based European arm of India’s Tata Steel Group, now the second largest steel producer on the continent. Through nanotechnology, biomimicry, photovoltaic energy generation, dynamic facade technology, membrane development and a growing emphasis on “intelligent” building materials, building facades will increasingly have to become more than just a pretty face. With these technologies buildings can legitimately be called “green”.

“Green”, in the built environment context for both buildings and cities, is code for health, safety, and welfare; energy efficiencies; conservation of natural resources; designing for a balance among and between the environment, socio-cultural, technologies, and public policies; a long-term return on investments; and high performance, low maintenance for the life of the building.

“Design” is code for deciding, choosing among the available options.

In the context of these Green Page articles, over the past two years in the Neighborhood Extra, I have attempted to shine some light on the needs and opportunities for Lincoln to become more “green by design” in both micro and macro settings. This article will be my last, as Lincoln Green by Design (LGbD) has taken the next step in evolution of an organization—to become organized as a nonprofit body with elected officers and a board of directors. Doug Boyd, local Lincoln realtor has stepped up to serve as president of LGbD and will be responsible for future Green Pages representing LGbD. My parting comments for the citizens of Lincoln are these:

Making designs, making cities and communities is framed in a context of public policies. The making of policies creates politics. There are different politics: the politics of exclusion; the politics of inclusion; the politics of darkness and closed doors; the politics of sunlight and transparency; the politics of the privileged and discrimination; the politics of equal rights and equal opportunities.

There are civil servants and there are politicians. The civil servant begins with the question, “What is best for civil society, the community, the city?” The politician begins with the question, “What is best for me? How can I retain my power position?”

When fuel and food prices are rising, jobs are difficult to find, municipal budgets are shrinking, and housing and health care is unaffordable for many citizens, ask the politician, “Why shouldn’t we be investing in long-term returns rather than short-term losses?” Ask your public representative, “Why is every public building not a certified green, high-performance building?” Ask him/her why there should not be greater investments in sidewalks, trails, bike lanes, and public transit. What is the long-term return on investment in an almost exclusive system of personal mobility—the automobile?

EVERYTHING about making cities and communities is policy related. The challenge is defining the first design question, and making the best choice for the greatest good. Is the design intended to serve the greatest public interest, or narrow individual interest? Is the individual interest being served only possible because of public investments? Is the decision leader a public servant, or a politician?

The green design of the building is, or should be, more about performance than appearance and economic expedience. The green design of the city should be more about health and safety, convenience, efficiencies, conservation, sustainability, high-performance and return on long-term investments, than on single-focused, short-term market speculations.

If these choices about becoming green and sustainable in Lincoln are political—and some readers have apparently complained that the Green Pages are political—I plead guilty as charged. I only wish the best for Lincoln as a green and sustainable community, for the future services of Lincoln Green by Design, and for the future Green Pages as contributions to the public discourse.

© Lincoln Green by Design