Monday, October 29, 2007

Green Building's Barriers

I was asked by the EcoInvestment Club ( to comment on why green building isn't catching on. I think it should be incorporated into every community in the world, but it won't become viable until economic and cultural factors bring it home to the masses.

Here's a Q&A that I responded to:

1. In your opinion, what is the biggest hindrance to the Green Building

Public attitudes and misperceptions are holding back this movement. Builders need to know how to sell the benefits. They're not just pushing spa tubs and granite counter-tops anymore; they need to show energy savings and healthy interiors. As long as green building is seen as a luxury item for people on the West Coast, it won't succeed elsewhere. It has to be mainstream.

2. A. Why do investors invest in Green Real Estate or Green Building?

Right now, it's the glamor factor. But they will see a return once public attitudes change. "An Inconvenient Truth" helped somewhat -- it earned Gore and the IPCC a Nobel Prize -- but it didn't sway Main Street yet.
B. What prevents investors from investing in Green Real Estate or Green

It's simple. They think it costs too much and doesn't add value.

3. What's the real ROI of building Green?

I think it's much higher than conventional wisdom says it is. When you consider that green buildings are more durable, healthier and have lower operating costs over a long period of time, that should be part of the equation.

4. Do you consider Green Building to be its own industry, separate from
conventional building, at this point?

Unfortunately it is.
If not, what will it take to get Green Building recognized as its own

Mainstream publicly held builders need to embrace it. I saw some Lennar homes going up in the Bay Area and thought, "this is it, this is the wedge," but the homes were too expensive, starting at $1 million-plus. I know that's not a lot of money for the San Francisco area, but it's still more than three times the price of the average U.S. home. It needs to be integrated into tract home developments, condos, resort areas, urban infill and nearly any kind of structure with a roof on it.

5. What is currently needed to support the Green Building Movement?

1) A national awareness campaign similar to the "Got Milk?" campaign. How about "Got Green?" 2) Tax incentives need to be given to builders and homeowners that consider the total structure and site. At present, the tax breaks available for alternative energy and efficiency products are paltry and piecemeal. They are also due to expire soon. If leaders are truly committed to energy independence, they need to target buildings, which consume 30% of all energy and the lion's share of resources. 3) Utilities need to be brought into the equation on a local, regional and national level. They need to provide incentives to home and building owners to produce what Amory Lovins calls "negawatts" -- energy savings through efficiency. 4) A comprehensive national energy policy that creates jobs, new infrastructure, affordability, new companies and research similar to the Apollo program. This has been proposed many times by many parties from The New York Times' Tom Friedman to the Sierra Club. Everybody has to be on board with this and set some targets. It's a win-win proposition for every constituency, but why isn't anyone selling it like that?

6. Do you foresee any legislative actions for 2008 that will assist the Green
Building movement?

The current energy legislation snaking through the House and Senate is the best hope. After that, the Climate Change package expected early next year. Rep. John Dingell had some interesting proposals for Carbon Taxes, but I think the proceeds should go right into alternative (not corn-based ethanol) energy and research.

7. What is the most significant factor propelling the Green Building
Movement forward?

A class of folks loosely referred to as "Cultural Creatives." These are mostly educated, upper-middle class professionals, artists and activists. They are embracing green building and hopefully setting a trend. I thought green building would have caught fire by now, but it hasn't because most Americans are mired in a housing bust that will last for years. No matter what the McGraw-Hill green building survey says, there will not be much growth in this sector this year until some huge inventories of unsold homes wind down. It may be 2009 before the market gets back to normal. No one is more disappointed in this development than I am. I was writing a book on green building that went poof after the crisis hit. Now it's a book on what caused the downturn.

8. How can developers gain the support of investors for their Green Building

They must sell the benefits the way consumers want them presented. People need to know how much money they will save and how much prestige it will give them. They also have to make Green Building a chic consumption item. I know this sounds crass, but it has to be hip. Nobody's going to do it solely to save energy or to reduce CO2 emissions. It has to be a cultural meme. It has to catch on like a new fad and keep going into every town in North America. Developers need to know about paybacks, total cost accounting and savings of resource use over time. The numbers are there, they just have to start plugging them into their production models. You should get a sticker on your home the way a car has a sticker. It should break out energy and consumption use and compare it to average benchmarks. Green building has to be standard practice for every structure and its benefits need to be quantified for every owner and renter. Until that happens, it will be little more than an isolated movement.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kurdish Freedom, the Moors, California

I've just finished Maria Rosa Menocal's Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (BackBay, 2002). This splendid scholarly but readable history of Spain from 700 to 1600 highlights the golden age of Moorish (Arab-influenced) culture in Spain. The time is a monument of cultural diversity and civilization when most of Europe was mired in the Dark Ages.

Menocal's thesis was that three seemingly disparate cultures thrived in Southern Spain during an awful time that included the Crusades, the Black Death and invasions of fundamentalist Berbers from Africa. What's left behind is a testament to how tolerance can work even if you're a stranger in a strange land without borders.

Prof. Menocal's book got me to thinking about the Kurds.

They are a tormented group, self-organized with their own culture and language, spreading out between four countries -- none of which want to recognize them or create a state called Kurdistan. Now, as the Turks consider invading Iraq to launch sorties against the PKK guerillas (they won't find them but will slaughter a lot of people along the way), they're in a bind. If they attack, they will set back their aspirations for joining the European Union for at least a decade. Since both the US and Turks have branded the PKK a terrorist group, they have that political cover, although it's not enough to justify adding even more chaos and destruction to Iraq. As if the situation wasn't complicated enough, the PKK or its affiliates are also attacking inside Iran, which the US doesn't discourage. Washington doesn't want the Turks in Northern Iraq because the rest of the country is locked in a civil war courtesy of Bush and Cheney.

So that brings me back to Spain. The Arabized Spanish, who were Muslims, Jews and Christians, managed to live with each other more or less for about 700 years. Various Christian princes were pushing a "reconquest" for that period of time, but only succeeded when Ferdinand and Isabella took Granada in 1492. Ruling initially from the magnificent Alhambra fortress, a series of palaces and citadels on a prominent hill in the town, they had promised religious freedoms to Muslims and Jews. In short order, though, they reneged on their covenants and expelled the Jews. Then they unleashed up what became the Spanish Inquisition. After conquering a large slice of southern North America and most of South America in the 16th century -- and bringing slavery, oppression, disease and their unsatisfied greed to the New World --the Spanish monarchy was nearly bankrupt by the time Cervantes published Don Quixote in 1605. Their intolerance did not foster a New World Order. By spreading too much gold and silver in the European economy, they fostered inflation and they paid the price. The country didn't really recover until well after the Franco regime fell in the late 20th century.

Sound familiar? As the Kurds, who have suffered mightily to live independently in hostile territories, try to preserve their people, they have engaged world powers in their struggle. Will we embrace diplomacy and bring all parties to the table to eventually establish an independent Kurdistan -- now is the time to talk -- or simply stoke the fires of hatred and cultural oppression?

We have to realize that so many national borders that the great powers have drawn have been arbitrary and have led to disenfranchisement of any number of other ethnic groups. Look at the partition of India and Pakistan or the fuzzy line that incorporates tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Or the fluid line of the Rio Grande that separates Mexico from the United States -- or doesn't. Keep in mind there were no defined borders in the nomadic Arabian peninsula prior to 1919. The British drew most of those imaginary lines ater the Ottoman empire fell. We also keep forgetting in this country that Texas was once a part of Mexico. Study the Mexican-American war and the expansionist policies of President Polk and you'll discover how utterly voracious Washington's lust for land was in the 19th century. Borders were redrawn after wars, just as they always are, although we still need diplomacy to understand that lines on a map do not guarantee tolerance and respect for the needs of our neighbors.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Solar Energy Now

As someone who lives in a conservation community dedicated to preserving the land and environment, I would love to see solar panels on every home and building.

Unfortunately, the economics of solar are not there yet. They still cost too much because they are not mass produced in the quantities of say, big-screen TVs. Silicon has become expensive and our government doesn't support solar energy the way Japan and Germany do.

Should there be subsidies for solar? You bet. We subsidize homeownership, college educations, drilling for oil and Native American fishermen in Alaska. We need to do much more to support solar and all forms of clean energy because we will not become energy independent until we do. If you've been reading this blog, you might note that I think oil will hit $100 a barrel. It's already passed $86 and any conflict or supply disruption will propel it further.

We could have had widespread solar energy in the 1980s, but that symbolically -- and politically -- was snuffed when Ronald Reagan yanked Jimmy Carter's solar panels from the White House.

Congress is currently considering a raft of new energy legislation. You need to write them to ensure that they extend tax credits for solar appliances. If they don't renew these rather meager tax breaks, then alternative energy will be set back for years in the U.S. Here's what you need to do:

Take Action to Protect Solar - 4 Easy Steps:

Call the local offices of your U.S. Senators and Representative today. You can find their phone numbers at the Project Vote Smart website.

Key messages:
* Urge them to support the solar energy tax credit extension
* This will help strengthen the economy, generate jobs, and reduce energy costs
* Email your members of Congress.
* Tell your friends and colleagues about this important opportunity to support solar and encourage them to contact their members of Congress as well.

More information is available at

Sunday, October 7, 2007

No, Cubs, No

Were the Cubs snakebit?

I'm not one of those disheartened Cubs fans obsessed with analyzing the zodiac, curses or bad omens. The North Side National League Ball Club -- okay, I can't bear to state their name again -- simply didn't show up. Their best line-up of mega-millionaire hitters didn't show up. Their best middle reliever in decades didn't show up. They saved their best pitcher for a ballgame he wasn't going to pitch. Their toughest, most balanced manager since Leo Durocher couldn't change their attitudes nor their performance when it counted.

Baseball is a matter of getting the most runs and limiting the other team to getting fewer runs. The rest is commentary.

I'm not proud to say that I feel asleep before I could hear the end of two of their dismal losses and didn't even catch the coup de grace on Saturday.

It was depressing to have such hope and get brought low again. Staying up late negatively impacted my job performance. Was it worth it? To me, failure is far more instructive than success. It isn't that I didn't want to see the Cubs get to the World Series. And I didn't think this year was a bad one, despite its disappointing close. They just didn't have the mindset to win. It may have been in their hearts, but it certainly wasn't in their heads. They were defeated by themselves. I don't blame any of this on bad karma, goats, interfering fans or anything else. The Cubs barely played well enough to win the division and they weren't good enough to win one game against a team that had been playing consistently well all year. That's baseball. Sometimes lady luck turns against you, but she always favors the winner.

Life goes on. While the Cubs were learning some kind of wisdom (I hope), I was exploring the Indiana Dunes, making dinner for neighbors, working on two new books and taking a hike in unsually warm October weather. I saw a building that produced heat from the earth, my daughter Sarah found a nice watch along a hiker's trail and I took my daughters out to lunch.

Life goes on. Baseball seasons, though we can measure our lives by them, are not our lives, nor are they facsimiles of life. They are not metaphors. They are not examples. We love to win, but in the end we don't. We all face the same fate. Only baseball starts anew again in the winter, revs up in the spring, flies through the summer swelter and concludes its pageant in the fall. It's one of the few seasonally attuned experiences. It is the only major sport with no time limit. It is our link to when experience was measured in the time it took for a horse or train to get somewhere. We mostly leave the 21st century when we step into a ballpark. There are no nanoseconds. It is not digital. The human experience cannot be stored on a hard drive. Yet.

What draws us to this thread of our existence so brimming with hope that we dream about the crack of the bat and the smell of a kosher dog during the darkest days of January? And what is it about a group of spoiled manish-boy millionaires who so intrigue us that one ticket to a playoff game suddenly becomes worth $50,000? Is it the aspiration to end a century of frustration? Is it that we would like our children to see something totally splendid that they can share with their grandchildren?

All I can tell you is that each year I bring my father and my daughters to the ballpark for one reason. I don't really care if the Cubs win. I want them to be able to share something with 40,000 people simultaneously without seeing it on television, to sing the national anthem with a group of complete strangers, then to celebrate that communal experience again during the 7th-inning stretch. And we bask in this peculiar celebration of life in a park with ivy growing on the walls in the middle of one of the greatest cities ever. All of these people are there to indulge in something real. Nobody cares about politics, religion, race, class, war or famine here. It is all a bountiful banquet of spectacle. Eighteen men dancing around a white sphere for however long it takes to conclude the match. This is America! It works and it's a pretty damn good accomplishment of civilization. Cities use to fight wars against one another. Now they sell peanuts and beer and go home quietly after the game is over. No lions and Christians. No cannon fodder. No war reparations. There's always another season.

Does the Cubs loss hurt? Sure it does. But the pain makes me feel alive and I will be all healed come the end of March.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Go, Cubs, Go

You know something special happened because Mayor Richard Daley, whose genetic makeup favors the Chicago White Sox, donned a Cubs hat yesterday to cheer on the North Side team.

Is this the Cubs year? I've consulted a number of key scientists, Cubs experts and Chicago voters still pushing up daisies for some opinions.

First, a bit of science. In years that Cubs have made the playoffs, hurricane activity in the Atlantic has been unusually low. This is because the low pressure systems that typically create the conditions for a hurricane have moved from the West Coast of Africa to just west of Lake Michigan around Addison and Clark streets. This unique atmospheric anomaly has the effect of lowering the ground temperature at Wrigley Field. So instead of the field feeling like 110 degrees with the humidity index, it only feels like 80 degrees or so. Thus, the incredible disadvantage of playing all of those day games in the Friendly Confines is neutralized. So pitchers can pitch in comfort, balls get caught and the atmosphere is less dense, meaning Cubs sluggers can pop them out with ease.

According to my climatologist friend I.M Storm, the tropical depression also brings the soothing breezes off of Lake Michigan in August and September, bringing the additional benefit of natural air conditioning. When I asked him if Global Warming would benefit the Cubs, play, his response was "of course it will." No longer will the Cubs have to battle snowflakes in April or frosty nights in September. "They will have much warmer weather at both ends of the season."

You might have also heard that legendary Chicago folk singer Steve Goodman (the author of the song "Go, Cubs, Go") had his ashes spread in the outfield. So I consulted my friend Vig R. Ro, the famous horticulturist, what this would mean for the ivy and grass conditions. "As you know, human ash contains generous amounts of phosphorous and potassium, which is generally good for the grass and even better for the ivy." In layman's terms, that means balls hit out of the infield will roll slower and are more likely to get caught in the ivy. That will enable Alfonzo Soriano to get perhaps a second more to get to the ball and employ that cannon of an arm.

There you have it. I've exhausted myself finding the best and brightest to comment on the Cubs. Of course, if the Cubs don't strand most of their baserunners, the "good" Z shows up (and doesn't loose his noodle), Lilly keeps runners off the basepads and Zo, DLee and Aramis keep hitting, things should be all right.

My dream series is that the Cubs meet the Boston Red Sox in the World Series. All of the forces of the universe might be properly aligned for this to happen. Speaking of the force, wait, I've left no stone unturned. Finally, I had to consult the expert of experts on the Cubs' chances: Mike Royko.

Mike, of course, needs no introduction. He wrote about the Cubs extensively for three different Chicago papers and never saw them win a World Series in his lifetime. Since the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist passed away more than 10 years ago, I engaged the services of spiritual medium I.C. Geist. Madame Geist, who has channeled Elvis, Jim Morrison and even Shelly Winters, made contact with the great columnist upon my request. "Mike only said one thing: keep Bartman in the upper deck."