Monday, June 16, 2008

Energy Efficient Construction

LEED gas station in Los Angeles.
Image by Omar Omar" on Flickr

Town Meeting voted to ask the Planning Board to create a law requiring that new buildings be "green" (energy-efficient and environmentally friendly and such).

Oh, except for single-family homes.

I think a reasonable argument can be made that there's a "market failure" when it comes to building energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly buildings. Most of us aren't well-equipped to figure out if it's worth spending $20,000 more up-front for a super-energy-efficient home that will save us $1,000 a year in energy costs, even if you are the type of person who drives a Prius. How can we possibly know? Maybe Global Warming will mean milder winters in 10 years, so we'll be spending less on heating. Or maybe oil prices will be double what they are today, so we'll be spending a lot more.

And I bet nobody really knows if it's better for the environment to buy a house made of cheap, commercially produced pine, sheetrock and fiberglass insulation or one made from engineered plywood created from bamboo, all-natural vermiculite and clay, and organic hemp fiber. (Note: I mostly made that up, I have no idea what is being touted as the most environmentally friendly building material these days...)

But if you believe that there's a market failure here, then it's really odd that single-family homes are exempt, for two reasons:

1. Single-family homes are the most energy inefficient form of housing. Multi-family dwellings tend to use less energy per person.

2. People buying single-family homes are most likely to be irrational when it comes to considering long-term costs. Businesses and landlords have to be at least reasonably good at weighing short-term costs against long-term benefits, or they'll go out of business.

It makes sense to ask that government buildings be energy efficient and environmentally friendly; the incentives for government-funded construction projects are to build as cheaply as possible-- after all, the laws require that the construction be done by the lowest bidder, and the long-term costs will probably be paid by some other administration (or the tenants if it's a public housing project).

But I think it would be really dumb to put more regulations on businesses and multi-family dwellings in Amherst, and not on single-family houses. I'm quite certain that turning Amherst into a bedroom community with nothing but open space and single-family houses, where everybody has to drive everywhere because businesses decided to relocate to nearby towns that don't make them jump through environmental certification hoops, would not be good for either the Town or the environment.


Unknown said...

Good points Gavin. There was a New Yorker article a few years back that compared the super green Rocky Mountain Institute building to any apartment in NYC and concluded that the effect of urban living trumped the most extreme eco-dwelling in a rural area. Which doesn't mean that eco-dwellings in rural areas shouldn't be green. Just means you're not saving the planet by living in a green McMansion.

Matthew Cornell said...

I think the image is telling. We're talking about saving energy, and the photo is of an energy efficient gas station!

Gavin Andresen said...

Yeah, I chose that image for both the irony and because, to my eyes, it's really, really ugly.