But let’s not fool ourselves: The industry’s record on this issue is mixed. The history of the last 20 years is one of over-consumption of land, of overbuilding to meet the voracious appetites of new-home buyers and investors, and of general disregard for the sustainability of the products we put into new homes. Until recently, very few people in the mainstream of industry or politics seemed to care about sustainable development.
Economic growth was, and still is, the dominant issue facing the country. Our well-being depends on people buying more than they need—more house than they need, more car than they need, more food than they need, more holiday presents than they need. Sociologists would argue that you pay for over-consumption eventually, through diabetes, huge outlays for gas, personal bankruptcy, and foreclosure.
How do you get unsustainable development? When local governments decide that we can only develop 2-acre lots in far-flung suburbs and throw up roadblocks to higher-density infill development. When planning commissions decide in the name of fire safety to specify huge arterial roads in subdivision tracts that condemn people to drive everywhere.
It doesn’t help matters when builders resist new development schemes that promote more walkable, higher-density communities. They argue that new urbanist developments require higher upfront pavement costs, call for unprofitable retail development, or demand mixed-housing types and income strata in a risky way.
The Road Not Taken
It’s great that so many builders now sweat the details to produce homes that consume less energy. That’s one of the most controllable ways that builders can minimize a new home’s environmental impact. But when people buy a home that’s bigger than they need and wind up consuming more energy anyway, what good does that do?
And let’s be honest, the almighty dollar influences nearly every product decision made by a builder on a house. Unless customers insist on a green course, most builders view the environmental impact of a spec as a secondary decision. For years, builders have told us that buyers simply wouldn’t pay the extra cost for resource-efficient products.
We need better information. One of the problems in the marketplace today is that it’s still difficult to determine what products are made from and where their components are sourced. It’s hard to tell whether products are made with recycled or virgin material. It’s hard to say whether manufacturers recycle material in their workplace or whether they know the forest stewardship practices of their suppliers.
Even if you built a home to the highest green standards out there, you would still have to buy carbon credits to offset the home’s impact on the environment. Odds are, you would still be using energy from the grid somewhere, probably from a coal-fired power plant, unless you installed solar or other systems to generate power at home.
There are no easy answers or solutions. But the pressure for sustainable development is only going to grow, especially when you consider that the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world still adding people and new households. We need to build places for these people to live that minimize the impact on the ecosphere. It won’t be easy, but it’s a worthwhile goal.
We enter a minefield of trade-offs, hypocrisy, dou-ble talk, and confusion with this month’s coverage of sustainable development. When we sat down to plan the issue, we were tempted to emphasize only thepositive, since so much is being done by builders now to conserve resources and build resource-efficient houses. It’s all laudable.