PublicationJournal Article Sustainable Design of Communities 

June 26, 2017
Publication Type:
Journal Article

Sus­tain­able Design of Communities 

Daniel M. Kammen

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).

Twit­ter: @dan_kammen

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