No excuses

Jeff vonKaenel

With the economy in the worst recession since the Great Depression, many have said we need to postpone or give up on moving toward sustainability. They argue that being green costs more and therefore is not something we should concern ourselves with when money is so tight.

There is no denying that money is tight and the current economic crisis severe. But in our experience designing a green building on Del Paso Boulevard, we’ve discovered green isn’t so black and white. It’s not an either/or question. It’s much more complex than that. We’ve found that the numerous economical, environmental and aesthetic decisions that go into designing a sustainable building fall into three categories.

The first category concerns the use of sustainable materials and techniques that result in immediate savings. Some of these, such as weatherization, are no-brainers. President Barack Obama agrees, and to that effect, the recently passed stimulus bill contains $5 billion in funding to weatherize 1 million homes. It’s cheaper to save electricity than to make it.

For that same reason, skylights and building fans provide an immediate bang for the buck. Skylights bring in natural light, significantly reduce energy costs and make the building aesthetically pleasing. Whole building fans take advantage of the difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures in Sacramento, significantly reducing air-conditioning costs.

Speaking of air conditioning, properly sizing your air-conditioning units can result in significant energy savings. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Oversized air conditioners interfere with efficiency and effectiveness.

Our second category concerns sustainable materials and techniques that generally have significant upfront costs and produce a less immediate bang for the buck but yield significant savings in the long run. Energy-efficient air-conditioning units cost more in the short term, but in the long run, the utility bill goes down and the savings add up. The same principle applies to increasing the amount of the building’s insulation.

Our third and final category concerns sustainable methods that are costly for individuals and businesses but may provide enough benefit for the community at large to merit support from utilities and governmental agencies.

Porous concrete (also known as pervious concrete) allows rainwater to seep into the ground, which can recharge groundwater and reduce storm-water runoff. However, it’s extremely costly, and combined with other drawbacks, such as expensive repair costs and potentially increased pollutant loads, we decided porous concrete was “good in theory,” but simply priced out of our league.

Again, our experience doesn’t point to the question of whether we can afford to go green; rather, it looks at green in a more detailed way. Where can we be green in terms of both sustainability and dollars? We’re not just saying it, we’re doing it. In the broader scheme of things, there’s no reason why the economic crisis should derail the country from moving toward green. Instead, we can shift our focus to spending our resources more wisely, which, frankly, is the core of sustainability.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.