Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Greenbuilding.com on the Cul-de-Sac Syndrome

Kelly Hart is guest blogging today. He has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation, video production and now website development. Kelly has lived in an earthbag/papercrete home that he built (but is now mostly living in Mexico) and consults about sustainable building design.

He was kind enough to review my new book The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome, the #1 book on suburbia on amazon.com. Here's what he had to say:

The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome

The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream is a timely book that analyzes the origins and eventual failure of what has been known as the "American Dream." John F. Wasik, the author of this very well researched and written book is a finance columnist for Bloomberg News, so he has his finger on the pulse of American finance and folly. Published in 2009, The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome is full of insight about how the dream has become a nightmare and ways that we need to proceed so that we may sleep contentedly again.

Europeans began settling in the Americas with the dream of establishing private domains that would provide wealth and security. Thomas Jefferson popularized and manifested the "pursuit of happiness" through land ownership with establishing his grand Monticello in Virginia. He believed that all free men should have the opportunity to follow his lead and he imagined a huge grid of towns and farms extending across the continent. There would be lots of open space between individual homesteads, and each domain would be more or less autonomous.

If you fast forward to the twentieth century, you can see how Jefferson's dream became manifest in the movement of people out of cities' central districts to establish their own little Monticellos in the suburbs. Homeownership became a way of building and preserving wealth. Everybody could have, and was entitled to, his own little kingdom. The cul-de-sac syndrome was born.

Wasik outlines the history of how this simple impulse for a better life became a real estate mania, where leveraged debt became a tool for creating wealth through homeownership. The belief that real estate values only appreciate fueled a speculative frenzy that created one of the largest bubbles of overvalued commodities ever: homes. Tempted by mortgage companies with easily accessible loans, even people who obviously could not afford homes jumped on the bandwagon.

As we are so painfully aware now, the bubble suddenly burst in 2008, and the fallout from this will be felt for years. The author uses case histories of real people to demonstrate just how difficult these post-bubble times have been.

John Wasik doesn't stop the narrative with his description of how unsustainable the real estate bubble was. He discusses what is probably even more important: how unsustainable the homes themselves are in terms of design, placement within the infrastructure, and energy consumption. He shows how these factors are adding to the misery of homeowners who cannot afford to pay to heat and cool their mini mansions, nor can they afford the necessary commute to work. The cost of these energy inputs (largely from fossil fuels) is stifling both the consumer and the earth's biosphere.

In general the infrastructure that supports suburban development is not borne directly by the inhabitants or the contractors who built them; these costs are passed on to government agencies. So this is another way that such sprawl is economically unsustainable.

The cul-de-sac syndrome is negatively affecting our health, productivity, and family life. All of those hours spent driving is lost time that could have been spent walking or getting exercise, doing productive work, or having a good time with the family.

As an antidote to all of this malaise, the author outlines a variety of strategies. He describes how houses can be built to heat and cool themselves through passive solar design and how they can even produce their own electricity. Water can be conserved in many ways. And often these greener homes are healthier to live in because attention is given to possibly toxic materials.

Wasik sees green manufactured housing as a strong component of sustainable development, and he gives examples of these. He points out that factory-built homes generally waste less material, can be constructed faster, and are designed with proven efficiency.

One aspect of home building that I feel is largely neglected in this book, and in much of the "green" building trade, is any discussion of the embodied energy inherent in both conventional and manufactured housing. From an environmental standpoint this is a significant factor, in that all of the energy that goes into manufacturing industrial products for home construction, and transporting them to the site is a form of pollution. I would like to see greater recognition that natural building techniques and materials, such as adobe, rammed earth, cordwood, strawbale, and earthbag building have an important place in designing a sustainable future.

A major thrust of any movement toward a sustainable residential complex is the recognition that inner city, urban dwelling is considerably greener than living in the suburbs outside the city's core. Wasik shows that not only are people finding that they save money by being able to walk or take mass transit, but they are healthier and more productive because they are not spending that time commuting. It is a high priority for cities to examine their zoning and building codes to accommodate more dense urban and greener residential development.

So the new American Dream may take awhile to realize, but once we begin to attain it we will become more secure with a smaller carbon footprint, we will become healthier, and we will lead happier, more fulfilling lives. This new dream is less about each person having his own fiefdom and more about all of us coming together to realize a common dream of living in balance with nature on earth.


Rosana Hart said...

I'm Kelly's wife and I just did a blog post about it too, on my website about simple green living:


Not a review, just mulling a bit on macmansions!

doc.of.the.bay said...

I gravitated to your blog when I heard of your book and it's thesis. I'm glad someone finally presented an informed voice to this inevitability. This is something I have predicted for many years, but my perspective came from my observations about ancient cultures. Older civilizations automatcially side-stepped many of today's problems for the simple reason advanced transportation tech didn't exist, so cities had to be build with a built-in growth limitation. The numerous fully-planned cities built by the Romans illustrate their intuitive knowledge that size and distance mattered, - even with slave labor.

What the US needs are more fully-capable city nuclei, self-contained and self-sustaining, built by intention rather than haphazardly, interconnected by good mass transit. Moreover, existing large cities need to establish good, confidence-inspiring mass transit, if it doesn't already exit. Such proto-cities are similar to your ideas about modular living built around work areas...from inception. I think it needs to go one more step, and that is to make the community more like a mini-city. Not just work-live-school areas, since that could describe many suburbs already. They really need to have a more mentally simulating basis than that to be attractive to most modern citizens.

Maybe such planned proto-cities themselves could be sold much as individual houses are today, bidding them up in a conscious effort to drawn down populations in overgrown cities. Unfortunately larger cities will usually command a premium in housing values, which in turn raises salaries to compensate, making the larger city generally more desirable. However, IMO that boom-town phenomena is no more than an out-of-control cancer. The cure needs to be an active effort to encourage populations to distribute more evenly.

What a lot of people never seem to discuss is that housing makes up the most expensive cost in most people's lives and therefore is the largest tax on everyone. By creating an economic environment which puts a downward pressure on housing prices, the costs of all things would be less expensive. It is a major component of inflation, and by trying to sustain those high prices, it becomes a barrier to recovery. If I remember correctly, wasn't there also a housing bust just before the last Great Depression? It seems to be, at the least, a related factor in other times of economic crisis.

I would agree that there are many ways to make housing more affordable such as inexpensive modular homes and the like. I think they really need to look to some of the better ancient societies...they had it all figured out thousands of years ago.

doc.of.the.bay said...

And yes, I do plan to get the book, too.