The Can't Do Attitude

I had a stimulating (if decaf) coffee with my friend the Green Skeptic this afternoon.  Conversation drifted to how Philadelphia managed to avoid being too overbuilt in the real estate bubble.  Everyone here always complains about how the archaic and endless zoning process and the expensive union labor force hamstring development in Philaldelphia.  And there is no doubt that these factors preclude easy and rapid development and redevelopment of Philadelphia's urban core. 

But, we speculated, did Philadelphia's "Can't Do" Attytood (as they say here) have the unintended benefit of preventing too much over-development that has been seen in places like Phoenix and Miami?  [Today's New York Times even had a story about how Bloomberg's emphasis on development and streamlining permitting may not even have benefited New York. ]

What does all of this Starbuck's infused musing have to do with green building? It stands as a cautionary tale--how fast is too fast?  

In St. Louis, Missouri's "First Green Development" was razed to the ground due to foreclosure:

five banks have started foreclosure proceedings on the project, which was started in August 2006 and appeared to be abandoned during construction.  

Expedited permitting processes for green buildings are an increasingly common non-financial incentive for green buildings, especially for cash-strapped municipalities that can not offer financial incentives or tax credits.  As we seek to encourage green development, does it make sense to ensure that the regulatory process is deliberate enough to prevent overbuilding? Or is that not the appropriate role for building regulation? 


How the Stimulus Bill Shortchanged The EPA, And What It Means For Green Building

I have written before about the conflict between local and federal regulation of green building.  But the issue of jurisdiction is not restricted to intergovernmental conflict.  At the federal level,  resources for green building are being largely handled by the Department of Energy, and not by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The DOE runs the Energy Star program, for example.  In its page on "buildings" the DOE states:

The Department of Energy, through the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (EERE) Building Technologies Program works closely with the building industry and manufacturers to conduct research and development on technologies and practices for energy efficiency. The Department also promotes energy and money-saving opportunities to builders and consumers and works with state and local regulatory groups to improve building codes and appliance standards.

As you might expect, the DOE information is all about energy efficiency.  By contrast, the EPA has an informative page about green buildings, including information on water efficiency, sustainable communities, indoor air quality, waste reduction, toxics reduction and other considerations.  In short, the EPA takes into consideration the multi-faceted ways in which buildings impact the environment. 

Why should you care? On the EPA page regarding funding for green building projects it states:

EPA does not currently provide funding to support green building projects.

In the stimulus bill, which, you recall had $60 billion for "green" programs, the EPA was allocated exactly $0 for green building, and a measley $7 billion over all.  Don't believe me? Look at the EPA's own assessment of the stimulus money.  By contrast, the DOE was allocated $32.7 billion, with $5 billion for weatherization alone. 

The government agency charged with protecting the environment was essentially shut out of the "green" stimulus bill, and as a result, I wonder whether the overall environmental impact of buildings will be promoted effectively through research, incentives and other mechanisms.

Podcast Conversation On Stimulus Package

This week, I posted an online conversation with James Bedell and Chris Hill about the stimulus package.

On Friday, we sat down and had a lively debate on KCast, a podcast brought to you by Konstructr, the social network for the building industry brought to you by one of the brightest lights in the online work, Vik Duggal.

You can access the podcast here.


Two More Pieces On The Stimulus

Paul Krugman, my absolute fave, had a very insightful piece on how the centrists killed the efficacy of the stimulus package.  He comes at it from a more economic, and less environmental, standpoint, but arrives at the same conclusion I did.  

My friend Chris Hill over at Construction Law Musings commented directly on James Bedell and my dialogue from yesterday.

Message to Smart Developers--Plan Now For Environmental And Fiscal Returns Later

Guest Post: Seth Shapiro, Director of Planning and Urban Design, Barton Partners

So, just as green building approaches mainstream acceptance, the economy tanks. Does this mean that the environment will once again have to take a back seat?  The answer is an emphatic no.   While the building construction and development industries are indeed in for some pain (for those who peddled unsustainable development, deservedly so) the current downturn provides for an opportunity to address some land planning and urban design issues, especially as they relate to sustainable design.

I have often been skeptical of green building as a panacea, especially independent of specific land use policy reform. Selling a building as “green”, even as it continues the development patterns associated with sprawl, is utterly ridiculous. With the release of LEED ND, the USGBC goes a long way in addressing this issue. But I wonder if it goes far enough. What if no building could be LEED certified (Homes, NC, Retail, etc) if it did not achieve at least a minimum of a LEED ND certification as a perquisite?


Clearly, this pause in building activity is the right time to address how we can redevelop the sub- and ex-urbs in a more sustainable fashion. Thankfully, this is exactly what seems to be occurring, independent of any greatly needed government stimulus or public policy shift.


At BartonPartners, where I serve as the Director of Planning and Urban Design, the projects that are making their way to my desk almost exclusively involve repositioning conventionally designed suburban projects for a more sustainable, and often mixed use future (usually independent of existing zoning regulations). Whether these projects eventually achieve a LEED certification or another green building designation is somewhat irrelevant as they, by there very location within already developed areas and often adjacent to transit infrastructure, are being repositioned in more sustainable patterns for future markets.


Indeed, the smartest of our developer clients are investing small sums of money now in specific project planning and urban design studies. In today’s environment, entitlement may be 12 to 18 months down the road anyway, especially in more established communities. While full architectural services are out of reach for many developers and property owners in this economic climate, up front urban design services, which are a fraction of standard architectural fees, can go a long way to position the smart projects for the future upturn in real estate, whether that be in early 2010 or (sigh) beyond.  

Reply to James Bedell

Thanks so much to James Bedell for his thoughtful response to my Senate stimulus package  piece.  You make the point:

Perhaps we should take the president at his word. That the primary purpose of this bill is to get people to work, to stimulate demand in the economy and break the downward trend. Not fulfill the agenda of the liberal left in one massive bill passed within 3 weeks of taking office.

My difficulty is that once you have passed a $1 trillion (there, I said it, everybody ok?) stimulus package, there will be little capital--fiscal or political--left over to apply to other projects.  Obama will have essentially spent all of his favors passing the stimulus package, and not be able to get solid legislation through on energy efficiency, green building codes, etc.

Thoughtful Response to Senate Stimulus Post

Yesterday, I posted a piece on the Senate stimulus package, arguing that it failed to provide the green basis for a thriving future economy. 

James Bedell, one of my Twitter buddies (he is @jamesbedell, and you should be following him if you are a tweeter) wrote this thoughtful response on Konstructr. 

How much is enough?

by jamesbedell on February 9, 2009

First of all let me say if you’re on twitter and not following @sharishapiro you’re missing out on some of the best info and opinion on green building to be found. Her recent blog post Proposing a Band Aid, Where a Transplant is Required  is a thought-provoking piece about the short comings of the forth coming stimulus package the president is helping to push through congress. To quote:

The problem with the stimulus package and the proposed amendments is not the amount of the allocations, or even the worthiness of some of the programs, like higher education and healthcare. Rather, it is the fundamental perspective on the American economy that it represents. 

I just wonder if we in the green building community have lost our sense of scope when it comes to change and nature of government in the US. While I share a desire to see the future of energy use and building in the US forever altered and I believe we need the federal government’s help in getting there, I can’t help but wonder if our disappointment is misplaced. Didn’t we used to think that the government’s role was in passing legislation, not funding every green project we ever imagined?

The fact is if the economy hadn’t slid into this horrendous tail spin we would never see a spending/stimulus bill this massive coming from Washington, and in truth it wouldn’t have been warranted. Perhaps we should take the president at his word. That the primary purpose of this bill is to get people to work, to stimulate demand in the economy and break the downward trend. Not fulfill the agenda of the liberal left in one massive bill passed within 3 weeks of taking office.

Read the rest of James' post on Konstructr

Senate Stimulus Package--Using a bandaid where a transplant is required

The Senate is proposing to give the United States a bandaid, when a transplant is required.


I was disappointed when the House’s version of the Stimulus Package was released with only $95 billion allocated to green initiatives out of $550 billion in expenditures (and another $275 billion in tax cuts), but the Senate version is far worse. By my reading, only $67.2 billion of the $885 billion Senate stimulus plan is now allocated for green initiatives:


Energy Efficiency for DOD Facilities


Water Infrastructure


Public Transit


Energy Investments





Instead of a down payment on our future, the Senate bill sprinkles most of the stimulus money throughout the existing economy, with $13.9 billion in Pell Higher Education grants, $13 billion "to help close the achievement gap and enable disadvantaged students to reach their potential," $5.8 billion to "fight preventable diseases and conditions." Some money is clearly not green at all—like $27 billion in highway funding.


There are also major bucks for residential real estate proposed. According to CNN, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said he would propose an expansion of a temporary $7,500 first-time home buyer credit so that it applies to all purchases of primary residences, and some Republican senators have called for an increase in the credit to $15,000. Senate Republicans are likely to introduce a provision that would encourage lenders to offer a 30-year fixed rate mortgage at 4%.


The problem with the stimulus package and the proposed amendments is not the amount of the allocations, or even the worthiness of some of the programs, like higher education and healthcare. Rather, it is the fundamental perspective on the American economy that it represents.

Read the rest of this article at

Building Green Value--Top Strategies For Green During The Downturn

On Wednesday, I was fortunate to attend the forum "Sustainable Energy: From Global Evolution to Local Execution" hosted by the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia.  I expected to come away with greater knowledge about local renewable energy initiatives in the Delaware Valley, which I did.  There were great presentations by Pennsylvania and New Jersey officials on the state's energy plans, which I will go into more detail about in a later post.  But what was far more interesting to me was the clever strategies that companies are using to promote green during the economic downturn.

John Gattuso, Senior Vice President of Liberty Property Trust, spoke about what Liberty (one of the leaders in green development on both the office and industrial side) was doing during the downturn:

Right now, we are looking at what the next set of buildings are going to look like.  People have the time to think and plan now.

Smart developers are using this time to plan their next projects.  It takes 12-18 months at least to get projects into the ground through land acquisition, approvals, design, etc.  Now is the time to be engaging urban designers and sustainable architects (not to mention land use attorneys) to create the next great places to live and work. If you wait until the downturn is over, you will be at the back of the pack, not the front.

David Stangis, the Vice President of Corporate and Social Responsibility for Campbell's Soup (headquartered in scenic Camden, NJ) spoke about the importance of honing the green business case. 

Where the business case makes sense in where change will happen.  Businesses are looking for the sweet spot in having sustainability initiatives make business sense.

Smart green companies, regulators and advocates need to use the downturn to hone the business case for sustainability.  Projects which were on the bubble in the boom times will not fly. in what I like to call the "money constrained economy." Energy efficiency, reducing travel, using fewer resources and collaboratively creating new value will.