Becoming A Very Green City

Convergence. Synergy. Whatever you call it, many different organizations in my city (the La Crosse, Wisconsin area) are coming together to learn, teach, and practice sustainable living principles. And it appears that momentum is building. La Crosse is becoming a very green city.

So many different projects are interwoven that it can be challenging to remember them all. Some are well under way, such as Gundersen Lutheran’s projects, and some are still in the planning stages. In no particular order…

Creating a community food system

Hillview Urban Agriculture Center is building a community food system. This nonprofit group is working with Western Technical College, Mayo Health System, Organic Valley, the YMCA, and others to grow and distribute food for local people to eat, addressing food insecurity, food deserts, and healthy eating.

Western Technical College will build a new greenhouse system on campus that will provide space for Hillview, as well as for the college’s Landscape Horticulture Program. The college will build three Passive Houses on the former Hillview Greenhouse site. WTC students will help build one home per year, gaining invaluable hands-on experience, integrating the different elements of the Building Innovations program, and adding to knowledge of best practices for sustainable housing. The houses will be sold, adding to the tax base of the city.

This photo shows the old Hillview site, where three Passive Houses will be built by professional contractors and WTC students.

 

Western Sustainability Institute will be a regional resource

WTC is also building the Western Sustainability Institute, which is to be a central resource for the regional sustainability efforts of business, government, nonprofits, and education. The Sustainability Institute will be advised by the Mississippi River Region Sustainable Communities Consortium (MRRSCC), which includes members from regional government, planning, education, and nonprofit entities. The MRRSCC is being developed with funding from a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Gundersen Lutheran is nearly energy independent

Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center is a national leader in sustainability efforts through their Envision program, and will be energy independent in 2014. They’ve invested in conservation, tapped the county landfill for methane, invested in wind farms, installed a biomass boiler, and more.

And the City of La Crosse and La Crosse County have adopted The Natural Step, which provides a framework for ensuring that human activities are done sustainably. And many more projects are under way.

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Green Cities Make People Happier and Healthier

Live Science reports on a study that people feel enhanced well-being in cities with more green space.  It’s clear that green cities are not just more pleasant; they’re good for us! Green cities make people happier and healthier.

parks make people happier and healthier

Here’s another example. And another from a post I wrote in 2012.

So what do we do to create green cities? Lots of things, but one of the most crucial is improving the urban forest.

 

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Are Handmade Homes Better Than Prefab Homes?

A few days ago I read a blog post by Richard Olsen, who’s a former editor at Architectural Digest. His book, Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design, celebrates the funky and creative in homebuilding.

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The author is critical of modern and post-modern design, including works from Le Corbusier to new iterations like those in Dwell. I can see his point, as homes such as the Clark House in West Vancouver are the ultimate example of a work of art you can live in, and celebrate both design and craftsmanship.

Olsen wrote in his blog about Le Corbusier’s ideas for “…a house free of idiosyncracies, a house in celebration of standardization, one made of parts not crafted by an artisan aiming for one-of-a-kind character but, instead, fabricated by an anonymous factory somewhere—capital-‘I’ Industry.”

And Dwell, he says, continues with that direction. Are handmade homes better than prefab homes?

Is Dwell really that bad?

However, I don’t feel so critical of Dwell homes and modern design. It would be nice if we could all have a handmade home, but I think we need better homes more than we need handmade homes. We need healthy, efficient, durable, and attractive homes, even if they’re factory made.

I’d like to see more variety in design, and more of a vernacular approach, too. Now the hot design motif is Mid-Mod; in the suburbs it’s the McMansion with a dozen gables. And so on. A factory-built home can have style—much better than a nostalgic suburban box—along with solid workmanship, a lack of artifice, healthier materials and construction techniques, and great reduction of waste. Not to mention better design, that is easier to heat and cool, and that will be more durable over time.

The handmade idea is great, but there’s no way to get that to the majority of people, so let’s go with prefab and factory-built in whatever style. The mass market can have dramatically better homes, and I see the prefab innovators dragging the industry toward better homes.

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Where Are the Neighborhood PV Systems?

I recently visited an off-grid, net-zero home out in the boonies of Vernon County, Wisconsin. The owner/builder, Jon, installed a 3 kWh photovoltaic system, and created a useable, comfortable home. It would have cost $10,000, he said, to hook up to the grid, so he skipped it.

It got me thinking, though. PVs are about $1/watt right now, thanks to massive excess production capacity, especially in China. The installed price will vary but should be $5-6/watt. If demand is less than supply, as is the case right now with PV panels, we should see low prices for a time, then production capacity (supply) diminish to meet demand. Now would be the perfect time for Jon, for example, to buy PV panels, hook up to the grid, and start selling electricity. Plus, there are still federal tax credits for these systems.

Even better would be a neighborhood PV system. In a new development just being built, it seems like it would make sense to put those rooftops to work with PVs on every home, all grid-tied. The PV system could be owned by all homeowners together, and maintained by the association. The PV system would be a valuable asset that’s part of the house, and the homeowners get the benefits of PV power with little hassle.

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I’ve also read about this project in Ithaca, New York, where a housing co-op added panels to their existing development, and self-financed the project. In this case, the PV project generates 55% of the electricity needed. I think it would be great to have developments and neighborhoods that generate a surplus.

For that to happen, it’s important that every state adopt net-metering, so that homeowners and developers are adequately rewarded for their investment. This idea is essentially a distributed power system that requires little maintenance and produces no pollution. An added benefit: the utility companies will need to build fewer new power plants in the future.

Where else is this happening? I have seen few examples besides these two.

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