Part one of a two-part series on building homes while protecting limited natural resources. By the BUILDER Staff

As mass consumers of resources, builders and developers have an enormous stake in the current and future shape of the world's water, wood, land, mineral, and energy resources. The choices we make now can either accelerate our march toward resource depletion or aid in the slow climb back toward equilibrium.

For we happy few who dwell in the United States, the land of limitless material wealth, resource depletion may seem a distant threat. Our vast (and flourishing) forests, huge tracts of land, gypsum mines, and legendary rivers have never failed to deliver. But even here, nature is showing signs of strain. The long party is coming to an end, and builders will be among the first to suffer the hangover.

The strain can be felt most intensely in our waterways. The Colorado River, siphoned off in giant gulps, now only trickles to the sea. Aquifers such as the Ogllala in the Midwest have dropped to record lows. Dozens of rivers in the Northeast have run dry for the first time. Builders in these regions have already discovered the narrow, treacherous path that separates abundance from depletion.

What happened? Very simply, demand has begun to outstrip supply. Scientists, geologists, and even physicists warn that our resource balance books have tumbled dangerously into the red. In the United States, the combined impacts of inefficiency, excessive consumption, and a growing population now threaten our comfortable way of life--and your comfortable way of building homes like there's no tomorrow.

This doesn't have to hurt. But solving resource problems will require earnest effort on the part of builders and consumers, starting right now. Energy-efficiency losses must be reversed, coupled with an evolution from fossil-fuel dependency to a reliance on cleaner, less finite energy sources. Water and land must be treated with new respect. Materials must be used wisely, in homes of moderate size and scope.

Water: Thirsty Nation
Land: Space Crunch
Energy: Powering On
Materials: Consuming Passion

In this special report, we offer you a status update on the country and the planet (the two can no longer be separated)--written with your important work in mind. There's no question that the need for new housing in the United States will increase exponentially in coming years. What is in question, however, is whether the earth can continue to provide the bounty of lumber, bricks, and insulation; land, energy, and water that makes building homes possible--and acceptable to all.

Power to Burn

One way to gauge the ecological impact of a nation is to look at the amount of raw material coming into it (material inflows), along with the amount of waste it produces (material outflows). A recent analysis of Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, and the United States by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, estimates that these countries have an average per capita material inflow of 45 to 80 metric tons. That amounts to about 300 shopping bags per person, per week, of materials (with the combined weight of a luxury car).

Of that total, by far the largest inflow material (about 40 percent) consists of fossil fuels used to produce energy, fuel combustion engines, and so on. The result of those processes constitutes the single largest polluting by-product.

Coal-mining waste and fossil-fuel emissions alone account for roughly 50 percent of all waste in the United States. This results in about 70 percent of waste materials being dissipated "away" into the atmosphere. And of course, as ecologists have long noted, on this small planet, there is no "away."

Efforts over the past 20 years to reduce the amount of waste produced in the States have been thwarted by growing consumption and energy-wasting new technologies. For example, savings from the use of more efficient household appliances have been largely mitigated by the proliferation of "instant-on" electronic devices (televisions and VCRs, for example). At the same time, gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles and political inertia have erased gains in auto fuel efficiency.

Photo: Shane Rebenschied

Massive subsidies powerfully reinforce the fossil-fuel headlock, encouraging the use of old, low-efficiency coal plants and mining.

As a result, despite our transition from a manufacturing to a high-tech, service-based economy, the United States has increased its per capita output of wastes and emissions since numbers were first documented in 1975.

"It's time for builders to begin to connect the dots," notes David Orr, author and chairman of the environmental studies program at Oberlin College, in Oberlin, Ohio. Orr specializes in building efficiency and resource use.

"We probably use two to three times the energy we have to in our oversized houses," he says. "We're buying oil when we shouldn't be, spending $35 billion a year to patrol the Middle East. We've been in a sleepwalk. You can build a house today that is cost-effective and efficient, but one problem is the sheer lack of information. Home buyers never hear what the lifetime energy cost of the home will be. Appliance makers do it. Why not builders?"

Brian Skinner, an author and a professor at Yale University's geology department, forecasts the gradual, inevitable demise of fossil-fuel resources in coming years. "Sometime between now and 2012," he says, "we'll hit our maximum production point for oil and gas. Then, we can expect a steady decline for the next 50 years. Our coal reserves are quite large but becoming increasingly difficult to mine. Much of [the coal] is just too deep to get at economically."

Building Blocks

Just a few steps behind fossil fuels in terms of our use and (disposal) of resources are building materials--not just residential sticks and bricks, of course, but commercial steel, concrete, asphalt pavement--the whole shebang. These constitute the largest percentage of what are known as "net additions to stock" in the U.S. economy--defined by the WRI as a measure of "long-lived material goods and physical infrastructure."

At present, net additions in the United States total about 8 tons per person per year. Of that figure, about 2 tons can be attributed to cars, electronic devices, and household appliances. Much of the rest is building material for roads, airports, and new homes.

Most troubling to researchers, however, is the conclusion that the use of material resources for construction in the United States doesn't appear to be headed for a stable plateau, as once believed. According to the WRI's report "The Weight of Nations," "Mature industrial economies, with their road, rail, and housing infrastructure relatively complete, do not yet show any signs of significantly reducing the quantities of new construction material required each year."

Photo: Getty Images/National Geographic/Walter Meayers Edwards

Economies such as ours were expected to require fewer resources once they reached a "maintenance" mode. Instead, resource demand is now increasing faster than population growth. The WRI suggests that the blame in part goes to changing demographics (smaller families and, so, less sharing of resources) and greater affluence.

"In the United States," the report says, "increasing affluence has encouraged a taste for very large, low-density residences. If this trend continues, many millions of tons of minerals will continue to be dug from the land for the foreseeable future. The most damaging aspect of this trend will be the ongoing loss of productive land, degradation of scenic beauty, fragmentation and disturbance of habitats, and increased pressure on biodiversity."

Of course, increased wealth alone might not have brought us to our current over-consumption problem were it not for the trend that few dare to discuss: ever more people.

Human Locusts?

Albert A. Bartlett, a former physicist and well-known scholar of world population, argues that debate on population growth in the United States has largely been stifled--or co-opted with sloganism such as "sustainable growth," a term that he describes as an oxymoron.

Those who take solace in the fact that fertility rates are dropping in the industrial world have missed the bigger picture. U.S. population continues to increase more rapidly than at any time in our history, due primarily to immigration, with a boost from increases in longevity.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the country's population will double by 2100, from about 280 million to about 571 million. The Hispanic population here will triple in the next 48 years, going from 31.4 million in 1999 to 98.2 million in 2050.

"[We] can't just build a big wall and isolate ourselves," says Norbert Henninger, deputy director of the WRI. "Many people would not stand for that. Our economy is already too integrated with the rest of the world, and we don't have great inventories anymore. Migration is already much more limited than it was 100 years ago. No country will accept thousands of immigrants because of a crop failure."

Henninger says population pressure can be reduced. "We know what to do to limit [world] population. It involves things like the empowerment of women [to have control over their reproductive rights] and the education of girls. These things are documented, proven strategies. But the real key to managing population is to delink economic growth from material consumption. The planet certainly can't support nine billion people driving big SUVs. A person in Europe or the United States consumes far more resources than someone in sub-Saharan Africa. We have to stop being wasteful."

Escalating consumption extends to land as well as goods. According to the 1997 National Resources Inventory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, per capita land development in the country increased to 3.66 acres per person in 1997, the last year for which figures are available, from 3.16 acres per person in 1982--a figure that doesn't even consider the larger ecological "footprint." (See "More Equal Than Others?")

"I'm still optimistic," says Henninger, "but we are depleting biodiversity and fresh water very rapidly. It will make the room for maneuvering more and more narrow."

Land: The Best Goes First

You may have heard comforting statistics suggesting that only about 5 percent of the U.S. landmass has been developed (about 98 million acres). While this is true strictly on an empirical level, scientists warn that such evaluations grossly underestimate the broader ecological footprint effect of human intervention on the landscape.

"When you're talking about an acre in the fertile Chesapeake Bay region [of Maryland] and comparing it with one in the high desert of Utah, these are very different things," notes E-an Zen, a retired geologist and college educator in Reston, Va. Zen worked with the U.S. Geological Survey for 30 years. "We are using just 5 percent of the land, but in places great for agriculture, with important wetland areas. Then, you have to look at the total ecological footprint."

For example, few people understand that agriculturally suitable soil is a finite resource--and getting scarcer. Some of the most fertile growing areas--the Eastern Seaboard, Illinois, and the Mississippi Delta, have seen the most aggressive development.

"Without soil, there will be no terrestrial life," Zen says. "Soil regenerates by two means--either by way of streams carrying sediments, or by the breakdown of bedrock, which can take thousands of years."

In addition he says, when soil is moved during the construction process, it loses important structure. "Soil requires the construction of a complex ecosystem," Zen explains, "consisting of zones with the proper mix for roots, bacterial colonies, worm colonies, along with the right mineral composition and aeration."

On a worldwide basis, soil quality for agriculture is declining. "We are losing soil 10 times faster than it can be replaced," Zen notes. "Yet, as the population increases, we require an even larger portion of the land for agriculture. Can we live on a planet with nine billion people? Perhaps, yes, if we are willing to settle for a living standard like that of Calcutta [India's largest city]."

Oberlin's Orr notes that without good land planning, even small populations can devour prime land. The numbers back him up. For example, the American Farmland Trust issued a report last year, "Farming on the Edge," stating that since 1994, housing lots of 10 acres or more have accounted for more than half of residential lots developed nationally. Without more society-minded rules for land use, Orr says, "smart" growth may be too little too late.

"The last time land use [in the United States] was seriously discussed, in 1974, people thought it was a communist plot," Orr says. "But now, people are starting to realize that many problems such as sprawl and climatic change can only be solved collectively."

On the other hand, any development plan may simply forestall the looming shadow of overpopulation.

Developers as Activists?

Real solutions to our growing ecological problems will require builders and developers to make some hard choices. All indicators point to the same conclusion: Now is the time to act, to become an active part of the solution, urging buyers toward more efficient, reduced use of resources. Every choice a builder makes matters.

In this special report, we've done the research for you. Some of it is obvious (see "Gadgets That Work," how low-flow toilets save water). And some of it is surprising (see "Thirsty Nation," regarding how lawn irrigation is by far the biggest water waster). Getting people out of their cars saves resources. Building smaller, more efficient homes saves resources. Using more durable products cuts pollution. Your clients may never have considered these things.

"Right before the Iron Curtain fell, it looked like it would never fall," says Orr. "Then, bam! It was gone. One day soon, we're gonna wake up with a hangover. We can't afford to finance our oil and energy gluttony. We're out on a long financial limb. Developers say, "We don't have responsibility because our customers don't demand it.' But there comes a time when you have to stand up and say, "That's simply not a responsible thing to do, and we won't do it. But here's a better way.'"

Global Population: A Bell Curve?

Photo: Stanford Kay

Some argue that world population growth, especially in Europe, is slowing and will ultimately level out. A recent Austrian study published in the journal Nature cites an 85 percent probability that the world's population will peak in about 2070--with nine billion inhabitants. The United Nations expects us to hit nine billion by 2050. "As many people will be added in the next 50 years as were added in the past 40 years," the U.N. reports, "and the increase will be concentrated in the world's poorest countries." Whatever the benchmark, experts say it would take about 70 years after reaching a "zero growth" point before population would begin to decline.

More Equal Than Others?
People in developed nations consume many more times the resources of those in less "advanced" places.
Consumption per person United States Canada India World
CO2 emissions (metric tons/year) 19.5 15.2 0.8 4.2
Purchasing power $22,130 $19,320 $1,150 $3,800
Vehicles per 100 persons 57 46 .2 10
Paper consumption (kilograms/year) 317 247 2 44
Fossil-fuel use (gigajoules/year) 287 250 5 56
Freshwater use (cubic meters/year) 1,868 1,688 612 644
Ecological footprint (hectares*/person) 5.1 4.3 0.4 1.8
*1 acre = 0.4 hectares
Big Foot?: Researchers measure our ecological footprint by analyzing the amount of land required to supply the food, energy, raw materials, and space we require. Ecologists argue that a per capita consumption of about 1.5 hectares is the maximum the earth can sustain. Current consumption patterns, meanwhile, "exceed natural income by 30 percent, and are thus partially dependent on [wealth depletion]. The lavish party by the wealthy today means a hefty bill for everyone tomorrow."
Source:Our Ecological Footprint, by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees. Stony Creek, Conn.; New Society Publishers, 1996