Green Building Priority #4 – Reduce the Need for Driving
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Lund, Sweden, is the least car-dependent place I've been. You rarely see a car on the streets, but bicycles and pedestrians are everywhere. Photo: Alex Wilson. Click on image to enlarge. Number 4 on my list of the top-10 green building priorities ... "Transportation energy intensity" of office buildings--from a 2007 EBN article; refer to the article for footnotes. Source: Environmental Building News. Click on image to enlarge. A few years ago (2007), I dug into the "transportation energy intensity" of buildings for an article in Environmental Building News . I did this for office buildings, but many of the ideas transfer reasonably well to homes. We know how to measure building energy use (often using the metric of Btus per square foot per year); I sought to come up with a parallel metric for the transportation energy associated with buildings. To do this, I used statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Department of Transportation on commuting distances (12.2 miles each way), how Americans commute to work (76% in single-occupancy vehicles, 11% in two-person carpools, most of the rest via public transit or walking), and average fuel economy of vehicles (21 mpg). To estimate the square footage of office space per employee, I used a U.S. General Services Administration figure of 230 square feet (which I'm told may be significantly lower than in private office buildings). I assumed 235 work days per year. By building in places with effective traffic calming and pedestrian-friendly street design, such as Annapolis, Maryland (pictured here), vehicle use can be reduced. Photo: Dan Burden. Click on image to enlarge. The bottom line I found that, based on national averages, the annual commuting energy consumption for a typical office building is about 121,000 Btu/sq. ft. This compares with average office building energy use of 93,000 Btu/sq. ft. In other words, more energy is expended getting people to work than the office buildings themselves use. If, instead of an average office building, we consider one built to the most common energy code (ASHRAE 90.1-2004), this transportation energy use is 2.3 times that of the building energy use. What this means is that if we want to significantly reduce energy use and carbon emissions, we need to re-examine where we're putting our houses. Urban infill housing and renovation of older houses in more densely developed neighborhoods is greener than building new houses in suburban and rural areas. If homeowners can walk to the store or a coffee shop, they will be less likely to use their cars all the time. Building within a quarter- to a half-mile of a transit stop (bus, light rail, or heavy rail) allows easy walking to the stop and use of public transit. It's no coincidence that in the Washington, DC area property values near METRO stops have continued going up, even while most property values in the region have been dropping the past few years. The same argument applies with bicycle paths--properties close to many bike trails are more in demand and the values are going up. As they say in the real estate industry: location, location, location! We also need to advocate for better street design. In Copenhagen, bike lanes are often separated from traffic by a row of parked cars. The sidewalk is on the left. Photo: Alex Wilson. Click on image to enlarge. There are also things we can do in designing or reorganizing homes to facilitate alternatives to driving. Convenient storage of bicycles is one strategy--making it easy to get a bicycle out and use it. If it's easy, more of us will bike. At the workplace, providing safe, covered bike storage and shower facilities can help to encourage this alternative to driving. More convenient, premium parking for carpool vehicles may inspire more workers to share rides. Companies and institutions can also implement a wide range of measures to reduce commuting by single-occupancy vehicle: elimination of free parking, vouchers for public transit (as an employee benefit, or at least using pre-tax income so you're not paying tax on public transit expense), flexible hours for bicycle commuters to avoid rush hour biking, and other rewards or recognition for avoiding vehicle use. My top-10 list of green building priorities so far: #4. Reduce the need for driving #5. Build smaller and optimize materials use #6. Ensure durability and reuse existing buildings #7. Protect and restore the site #8. Use green materials #9. Create resilient, climate-adapted buildings #10. Make it easy for homeowners to be green In addition to this Energy Solutions blog, Alex writes the weekly blog Alex's Cool Product of the Week , which profiles an interesting new green building product each week. You can sign up to receive notices of these blogs by e-mail--enter your e-mail address in the upper right corner of any blog page. Alex is founder of BuildingGreen, LLC and executive editor of Environmental Building News . To keep up with his latest articles and musings, you can sign up for his Twitter feed .