De-facto Commercial Construction Moratorium: What Good May Come For Sustainable Development?

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Image credit: Lollie-Pop/Flickr

The slowing of construction in the USA has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity for driving significant, positive environmental change. Although I hesitate to even use the word because it has so little currency in the USA, an opening exists for a nation-wide consideration of sustainable development.

The construction slow-down reduces pressure on endangered species and prime farmland surrounding urban areas.
Were the US Congress to place a moratorium on taxpayer-supported loans for commercial construction, while it considered amendments to improve the Endangered Species Act, political wars would ensue. Yet, as a consequence of the widening financial crisis, we have exactly that: a near-moratorium on construction projects. Never will there be a better time to look objectively at how to improve the ESA and farmland preservation measures.

What other unexpected opportunities flow from the de-facto moratorium ?Water Resource Reserve Capacity Allocations
With water projected to be in increasingly short supply in several US states, the construction 'moratorium' offers an opportunity to link development permit issuance to water consumption rights.

Congress and State legislatures can require developers of large commercial and residential projects to provide advance estimates of proposed project impacts on water resources and to include in their site plans and building designs proposed means to reduce per-capita water consumption. Receipt of government incentives can be made contingent on such plans, overseen by local zoning.

Moreover, when taxpayer supported developments are proposed for stressed watersheds, approvals could be based upon the projects meeting allocations of projected future water availability. Insufficient water availability would mean no construction permit: developers would have to learn to work with hydrological modelers before buying land.

If all the components of a building are green, does that mean the building is green? Of course not. Component selection does not a green design make. Moreover, green construction materials are not a differentiating factor for the hungry and out of work.

It makes little difference whether it is the equivalent of a green WPA, or a pave-everything, extend-the-suburbs package, that is ultimately offered by the new Administration. Incentives for any kind of construction will be widely welcomed if the economy continues to dip.

Makers of boards, asphalt, concrete, bricks, steel, cultured stone, siding, rolled and coated steel panels, foam insulation board, fiberglass batting, plate glass, nails, adhesives, and more will welcome a market resurgence, as long as it is fast.

How do we get the construction industry and its suppliers interested in sustainable development?
Job one is to avoid resurfacing old stereotypes of sky-is-falling, everything-you-touch-is-toxic brand of environmentalism. Remember those long standing debates over which construction material choices are greenest? Vinyl vs wood? Steel vs stone? Compare those to what will be happening in 'inside the beltway.'

Lobbyists are ready to head back to Washington DC. Their talking points will include: free-market-solves-all, get government out of the way so we can create jobs, and give us "flexibility" to compete in the global economy. End of story.

Avoid the material selection monkey trap.
Want to help the Think Tanks frame a media narrative that the green movement is a bunch of very-dirty hippies wanting to steal jobs from laid-off workers? Public quarrels over "bad" vs "good" building materials will give Congress a reason to disdain green initiatives and amendments.

Focus on design, and whole-building performance instead
A more effective strategy is to support incentives for whole building energy efficiency, linkage to public transportation systems, and minimizing the collective "embodied energy" of structural and envelope materials.

Indirect incentives for suppliers.
Indirect ncentives are needed for A&E; firms and general contractors, so that they will choose material suppliers which have good records of environmental regulatory compliance, which have shown voluntary resource efficiency improvements, and which have made, or will have, systems in place to improve the efficiency of their distribution, logistics, packaging, recycling programs, and so on.

A reformed and re-empowered USEPA, working with USDOE, surely can collaborate with NGO's and trade groups to define reasonable sustainability performance measures. Assuming that can be done, will the incentives emphasize fast green jobs, replicating well tested designs and materials. Or new, innovative designs using unproven technologies? Zoning changes tailored to heating and cooling degree days? All of the above, and more? These things we hope to post on a great deal more in coming weeks.

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