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By Wayne Hanson: What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?

Have-It-All Sustainability

September 2, 2011 By

The key to sustainability is not settling for less. Some spartan types think putting a home together from used wooden pallets or metal shipping containers is cool because -- well, we have lots of them around and this counts as green recycling in the great carbon ledger in the sky. Settling for less -- like a nine-square-foot house -- is just wrong. A few architects and designers have managed to come up with attractive shipping container and other homes from recycled materials, but they must overcome an inherent design problem: shipping containers are long narrow metal boxes, a lot like family-sized coffins.

The New York Times looked at the idea of smaller homes for the economic downturn. During the recent good times, said the Times, colonnades, cathedral ceilings and observation towers -- embedded in thousands of square feet -- were all the rage. But now, let's get sensible and buy what one builder calles a "Home for the New Economy," meaning small. The Japanese have taken their homes down to sardine-can proportions, building in what would be considered a parking space here in the U.S.

Some people -- let's call them the "think small" people -- just don't like anybody to have things, and have given sustainability a bad name attacking the pollution of cars, the wasted space of large homes, the greed of the capitalist and touting the humble lifestyle of the homeless who recycle water bottles, urinate in the doorways of the affluent and get plenty of exercise and sunshine.

So here's an idea: Let's have it all. Take energy, for example. The sun shines a lot everywhere except Oregon, the wind blows a lot, especially in Wyoming, water always runs downhill and the earth has a lot of heat that's not doing anything.

Instead of burning wood -- which is, by the way, renewable because it grows on trees -- and putting wood smoke into the air, let's get some geothermal action going. The idea is that the center of the Earth is molten, and even just a few hundred feet under the soil, the temperature is a consistent 70 degrees or so. The Chilean miners were working in free geothermal heat. Drill a hole into the ground, pipe water down into it, run it around a bit so it gets warm, then up to the surface, to run through a heat exchanger and warm up a house. When it is 10 degrees F outside you get 60 degrees of heating courtesy of the earth. Or, when it's 100 degrees outside, pipe that 70 degree water through the heat exchanger and get 30 degrees of cooling. You need a little electricity to run the pump and a fan or two and there's the initial expense of setting it up. Otherwise you have it all: Cheap heating and cooling, no carbon footprint and the earth's heat should last a few million years at least. Plus, nobody charges for it. The rest is just common sense: install good insulation, keep the doors shut and the flies out.

There are some very "have it all" types running around innovating because they are smart, and also want a big house, and nice car, money for their kids' college, etc. etc. Some of these HIA people are building electric cars that anybody would want. Like the Tesla, the Fisker, and even the big automakers like the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf.

The "think small people" want less, so if you dislike people and love weeds, then follow them. It's not sustainable -- sustainability and survival require abundance. If however, you want it all, then follow the innovators, the bright idea people who will help us have it all -- beautiful cars, aesthetic homes, clean air and water, cities that are easy to walk or bike, flourishing plant and animal life, and abundant opportunities for anyone with a bright idea to keep the game getting better and better.

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Wayne Hanson is editorial director of Digital Communities. His interest is in the future of communities and the elements necessary to create those places in which we would most want to live and work. What makes an ideal community, and how can civic leaders help their cities, counties and regions evolve to better meet old necessities and new opportunities?