To go green, avoid greenfields for offices and homes

Greg Galitzine : Green Blog
Greg Galitzine
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To go green, avoid greenfields for offices and homes

There have been a lot of articles lately about green buildings and homes. So when I find out about the ones located in 'office parks' and low-density subdivisions on what had just been open space i.e. 'greenfield development' I just shake my head.

A 'green' building surrounded by a huge car-packed parking lot and a 'green house' on a cul-de-sac with a couple of SUVs in the driveway are the environmental equivalent of the fitness fanatic who jogs to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes.

For no matter how energy efficient these structures are the gains don't fully compensate for the environmental losses caused by (a) perpetuating transportation patterns that favor the private automobile, which consumes more resources and emits more pollutants both directly and indirectly than any other mode and (b) the loss of oxygen-generation, water supply, erosion control, food production capacity and other life-giving benefits when land is paved over.

That's why I placed single quotes around 'office parks' because their environmental consequences contradict what real parks should be about and that is rejuvenating one's own health rather than painting a pretty picture, like the billboards that hide the destruction in the film Brazil. 

Both 'office parks' and their residential counterparts by their location and low-density design make transportation access by means other than the private automobile impractical and expensive to provide. While main line transit routes serving downtowns and high-density residential and commercial hubs do well financially, those that serve sprawling office and residential developments incur high operating costs and low demand, and are often the first to be cut during budget crunches.

The Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI) based in Victoria, BC, Canada, is a leading authority on the direct and indirect costs of transportation, including land use. I've worked with VTPI's executive director Todd Litman and he knows his stuff.

For example the VTPI compared the land consumed by sprawl and compact development. For an office with 1,000 square feet and needing four parking spots, if it is sited in an 'office park' it would have an environmental footprint of 2,640 square feet while if it is placed in a three-story urban location with 1 on-street parking space it would leave a mark of just 580 square feet. 

Similarly for a home with 1,250 square feet, one located in a sprawl development would have an environmental footprint of 2,580 square feet while one located in a compact urban area would consume just 1,040 square feet.

This last point illustrates one of the potential environmental downside of teleworking. Its benefit of reducing commuting, and emissions could be degraded if the teleworker decides to buy a larger home, like on a subdivision that once had been a field, and which removes public transit, cycling, or walking for non-commute trips.

To illustrate the total environmental impacts of sprawl especially transportation, the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (Canada's better-heeled equivalent of Fannie Mae) and the Natural Resources Canada, a federal government department, published a report that shows that a family living in a low-density suburban type home in the outer suburbs emits 11,800 kilograms of CO2 annually. Instead if they lived in a medium-density inner suburban compact development they would emit just 6,100 kg, largely because public transit is more readily available.

Therefore, if you truly want to go green in your office and home/home offices you need to:

* Select locations and buildings for offices and homes on long-existing already-serviced land including brownfields (i.e. recycle, reuse, renew), in mid-to higher-density areas, well served by transit, and with cycling and walking access. The one exception are new walkable transit-oriented developments at rail and bus stations and at ferry terminals;

* Develop and implement strategies to encourage driving alternatives i.e. no free parking, subsidized transit passes, bike rakes, and devising and expanding telework programs;

* When choosing homes for home offices maximize your existing space like basements, garages, and spare bedrooms or if not possible build a loft or an extension.


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