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Tagged ‘Sustainable Design‘

Housing Prices and growth in San Francisco – Why it’s so expensive.

With all the discussion going on about housing prices in San Francisco, I’d like to add my perspective.  Our beloved City of San Francisco has become the least affordable place in the nation to live, and has some of the highest rents and home prices.  As an insider in the building process in the city (I design both residential high rise towers and single family homes in the city), I’d like to offer my opinion on why this has happened, and more importantly, what we can do to change it.  For many years this (in all other ways liberal and progressive) city has instituted and enforced some of the most conservative building policies in the nation; allowing a fear of change to ironically (and inevitably) lead to the biggest change San Francisco could go through: losing our creative class and forcing out of the city the very people that make the city great.  The city’s well meaning leadership and planning department, with the full support of some of the population, for many years have decided to slow building and development to a pace that was absurd for a thriving and growing metropolitan area, creating a gap between supply and demand that has lead directly to our current crisis.  (We are allowed on average to build 1,500 housing units/year.  We need 5,000+ units/year, and the current housing boom might add 6,500, leaving us still +/- 80,000 (nobody really knows?) short) This was accomplished through a byzantine and draconian planning and permitting process that is incredibly time consuming, costly and convoluted.  The effect that this has is to drive up the cost of any building in the city drastically, slowing down buildings by years, and neutering the design quality of any new building by encouraging a “design by committee” process and rewarding NIMBY’ism.  The Victorian Houses that everyone loves so much in the city; you would not be allowed to build those today, too colorful, too fanciful, too expressive.  The buildings allowed in the last 40 years are: grey, beige, and grey, making San Francisco known as “the place where good architects come to build bad buildings”.  Building has become so expensive in the city that any new building to come to market is outrageously costly and only very high end units can now be built.  Stifling growth and change like this is fine if you want to create a city where only the super rich can live, but that’s not what I or you want.  So what can we do to change it?  We can adopt intelligent policies on development and growth that allow our housing supply to keep up with our demand.. Encourage your city leaders, planners, friends and neighbors to rethink their policies on building, allowing for aggressive urban infill and smart levels of growth and change in a well thought out, beautiful, and sustainable direction.  Change is the only constant, embrace it.  Learn to love the old next to the new, rebuild the poorly built, non-dense and energy wasting buildings of the city and replace them with better.   Keep the beautiful and well designed, and set a high threshold for design and building quality then let the professionals do their job.  Learn to love experiments in building, take great pleasure in bold architecture and clever design, even if it’s not in your style.  Let your neighbors build an apartment downstairs and rethink the typical, conservative knee-jerk reaction to change in the built environment in the city.  Build intelligently, build sustainably, and build beautifully, but let us build.  It will take time, but things will right themselves, and we will get our city back, and if we’re smart about it, it will be better than before.

Sustainable Design Strategies.

I would propose that the biggest falsehood about sustainable design or ‘green design’ is that it is something that you can buy, instead of something that you actually design, and build into the very fabric of a building.  For example, there’s no amount of bamboo flooring that is going to make a poorly planned, poorly insulated, badly designed, oversized, 4 car garage, AC on all day,  McMansion style house into a green home.  As a matter of fact, by the time your reach choosing materials for a building, it’s often too late to do anything but well, put lipstick on a pig.  So what is true sustainable design?  I present to you my 5 tenets of sustainable design, in the order that they should be approached.

1.      Design your building well.

The absolute most impactful and sustainable thing that one can do in design is to design your building well; with pride, integrity of vision, and superior craftsmanship in one’s approach and architecture.  A building should be built with an honesty of materials and structure, and expressive reaction to the forces that act upon it, and a lack of fear in design on the part of the architect and client.  It should be thought of in terms of generations, and should be designed utilizing the most current technologies and structures, while not bowing to trends in composition or its’ formal language.  The building should be carefully detailed, exhibiting the pride of the owner, the skill of the builder and the talent of the architect.  Well designed buildings last for many generations with minor modifications, poorly designed buildings are torn down in a few decades or are so miserable and unworkable to live in that they must be radically remodeled quickly, a process that is incredibly expensive and wasteful.  For example; a project I am currently working on is an 1970’s building that was designed so poorly, and is so horrendously ugly, that we are currently gutting and remodeling it to the tune of 120 million dollars, a paltry 30 years after it was built.  There is nothing more wasteful than bad or ugly design.

2.       Utilize Passive Strategies for Heating and Cooling.

Design to take advantage of the site, the sun, the wind and any other forces available that you can use to make your building a living and sustainable machine.  These include:

A.  Passive Solar Design:  Utilize the power of the sun to heat your building.
B.  Passive Ventilation Strategies:  Harness the wind to cool your building, cross ventilation..
C.  Glazing Orientation:  Make sure to get plenty of natural lighting into the building, decrease your electric bills!  This will also increase your happiness.
D.  Thermal Mass:  Capture heat in the day, release it at night.
E.  Shading Strategies:  Control when and how you gain heat by adding strategic shading to the building.
F.  Rooftop Design:  Green Roofs, Heat Ponds, ext..  Don’t waste this space!!!
G.  Heat stack design:  Heat likes to go up, you can design to take advantage of this.

Many of these strategies cost no extra money, they just take careful planning and design expertise, and the payoffs are tremendous, both in monetary terms and in leaving the planet livable for your grandchildren terms.

3.    Active Solar and Energy Strategies.

The sun beams down on your building all day long with energy, capture it.

A.  Solar Panels:  Convert Solar energy into useful electricity, power your building..
B.  Solar Hot water systems:  These have the biggest monetary payoff, great place to start.
C.  Smart House Design:  You can use computers to control operable windows and shading, heating and cooling, making your house constantly react to the environment to be super-efficient.

It is crucial and obvious to utilize the power of the sun to power your building and create an organic living machine that sustains and runs itself.  Many of these strategies cost no extra money, they just take careful planning and design expertise, and the payoffs are tremendous, both in monetary terms and in leaving the planet livable for your grandchildren terms.

4.      Choose the right materials and construction methods.

Materials comprise a huge portion of the cost of your building, and therefore the correct selection of materials is key to reducing your negative footprint on the planet.  Materials should be considered in terms of “Life Cycle Cost”, the total cost of the material over its life.  Often, spending a little more up front will lead to huge savings in the long term.  We need to start thinking of costs in these, more accurate ‘full life’ terms so we can make better choices.  Often, higher quality materials will pay for themselves many times over in their full life cycle when compared to cheaply made materials.  Some other things to consider:

Is the material local? Shipping uses resources.
How reusable / recyclable is the material?
How healthy is the material? Off-gassing and VOC emissions will hurt you in a very literal sense.
Is the material responsibly made?  Don’t buy from companies that hurt people, there are many evil companies out there, don’t support them.

5.        Design your building well.

I really can’t stress this enough.

While this is by no means an all inclusive list, it starts to define a mindset that will help to make design more sustainable.  With half of the world’s resources consumed by building and buildings, the impact that we as Architects and you as Client or Builder can have on the planet is staggering. We owe it to ourselves, and our children, to leave this world in better shape than we found it. By designing with pride, integrity, without fear, and with clarity of vision, we can achieve that goal.

 

-Josiah Maddock

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