NEWS Sustainable Design of Communities, in Scientific American

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Sus­tain­able Design of Communities:

Mov­ing beyond a focus on solar roofs for single-​​family homes, ambi­tious projects are attempt­ing to join blocks of build­ings into sus­tain­able units

 Pub­lished in Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can and in the RAEL pub­li­ca­tions list here.

June 26, 2017

Mov­ing beyond a focus on solar roofs for single-​​family homes, ambi­tious projects are attempt­ing to join blocks of build­ings into sus­tain­able units

In the past decade, the con­struc­tion and retro­fitting of indi­vid­ual homes to reduce energy and water use has grown explo­sively. Yet apply­ing green con­struc­tion to mul­ti­ple build­ings at once may be an even bet­ter idea. Shar­ing resources and infra­struc­ture could reduce waste, and retro­fitting impov­er­ished or moderate-​​income neigh­bor­hoods could also bring cost sav­ings and mod­ern tech­nol­ogy to peo­ple who would nor­mally lack such oppor­tu­ni­ties. Work­ing at the neigh­bor­hood level does add com­plex­ity to plan­ning, but these neigh­bor­hood efforts offer rewards that even green single-​​family homes can­not offer.

One pow­er­ful exam­ple is the Oak­land EcoBlock project, which I lead at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, with my col­league Har­ri­son Fraker, a pro­fes­sor of archi­tec­ture and urban design. It is a mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary endeavor involv­ing urban design­ers, engi­neers, social sci­en­tists and pol­icy experts from city, state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments, acad­e­mia, pri­vate indus­try, non­prof­its and grass­roots organizations.

The pro­gram, which has been planned in great detail but has not yet begun con­struc­tion, will retro­fit 30 to 40 con­tigu­ous old homes in a lower– to middle-​​income neigh­bor­hood near California’s famous Golden Gate Bridge. It aims to apply exist­ing tech­nol­ogy to dra­mat­i­cally reduce fos­sil fuel and water con­sump­tion and green­house gas emis­sions. We expect to rapidly recoup the money spent on infra­struc­ture with sav­ings from oper­at­ing expenses while at the same time ensur­ing res­i­dents’ long-​​term com­fort and security.

On the energy front, we will install solar pan­els on build­ings through­out the com­mu­nity, send­ing the energy to a smart micro­grid; excess solar energy will be stored via fly­wheels housed in a shared build­ing. The com­mu­nity will also share elec­tric cars, which will have access to more than two dozen local charg­ing sta­tions. These mea­sures should reduce annual elec­tric­ity con­sump­tion by more than half and bring car­bon emis­sions to zero—a valu­able feat, con­sid­er­ing that more than a quar­ter of U.S. green­house gas emis­sions emanate from residences.

The Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency esti­mates that as much as 50 per­cent of California’s home water con­sump­tion goes to lawns and gar­dens. Our esti­mates sug­gest that the EcoBlock’s system-​​level redesign will cut demand for potable water by up to 70 per­cent. We will treat and reuse waste­water from toi­lets, as well as gray water sent down drains and released by wash­ing machines. The recy­cled fluid will go to gar­den­ing and irri­ga­tion. We will col­lect rain­wa­ter and deliver it to toi­lets and wash­ers, and we will install effi­cient fix­tures and taps. Treated solid wastes, mean­while, will be incor­po­rated into compost.

Beyond serv­ing as a model for sus­tain­abil­ity, the Oak­land EcoBlock project will pro­vide local con­struc­tion jobs and revi­tal­ize a com­mu­nity. If it is as suc­cess­ful as we expect, it will serve as a model to be repli­cated else­where in the U.S. and beyond. To date we have received inquiries from Europe, North Africa and Asia, con­firm­ing wide­spread inter­est in tar­get­ing and redesign­ing com­mu­ni­ties, not just indi­vid­ual homes.

Daniel Kam­men is a pro­fes­sor in the Energy and Resources Group, and in the Gold­man School of Pub­lic Pol­icy, and in the Depart­ment of Nuclear Engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, where he also directs the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory (RAEL: http://​rael​.berke​ley​.edu).

For the arti­cle link, click here, and for the RAEL pub­li­ca­tion, click here.

Twit­ter: @dan_kammen

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