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Author: Carson

IBS 2024 Retrospective

I’m back from the International Builders Show (IBS) 2024 in Las Vegas once again. It was warm and sunny, much better than the past few years. Here’s a brief follow-up on some hot topic items on the Environmental Issues (EIC) and Land Development Committees (LDC) I serve on.

An updated Wetlands Resolution was presented to both committees by sponsor Vince Messerly, EIC member and President of the Stream and Wetland Foundation, Lancaster, Ohio. I was a task group member assisting in drafting the resolution. This new resolution directly responds to the recent Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruling that redefines Waters of the US (WOTUS) per the Clean Water Act, a topic of great importance to our committees.

Our committees have been actively involved in other recent actions regarding the revised WOTUS rule, including:

• The EPA/Corps of Engineers hosted listening sessions for industry stakeholders.
• The Corps proposed new regulations for reviewing historic/cultural resources during the Clean Water Act 404 wetland permitting process.
• House Republicans introduced a series of CWA permitting reform bills.

Our discussions on impact fees, an issue of high importance to the Land Development Committee, have been fruitful. Tom Ward, with the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) staff, presented to the Committee a litigation known as Sheetz v. County of El Dorado. This litigation is in response to a traffic impact fee imposed upon a property owner, highlighting the relevance of our ongoing discussions. As a part of the permit process, the County imposed a traffic impact fee of $23,000 for the single unit! Hence the litigation.

Something to consider. Houses don’t impact traffic – motor vehicles do. Perhaps the impact fee should be on the motor vehicles – not homes.

Call me if you want to learn more about these and other issues that may affect your work and how you might participate in our committee work.

Quebec Run featured in Case Study on Water-Wise Landscaping

Quebec Run featured in Case Study on Water-Wise Landscaping

February 22, 2024

Consilium Design is proud to see Quebec Run, one of our projects, featured in the recent case study titled “Water Wise Landscapes: A Cost-Effective HOA Investment in Resilience.” Thank you to the Waternow Alliance and the Western Resource Advocates for their work in this excellent study.

Consilium Design was able to help the HOA at Quebec Run reduce their water bill by 43% by converting water-hungry Kentucky Blue Grass to native grasses. If you’re interested in seeing similar results, Consilium Design is offering a free sustainability consultation from now until June 1st, 2024.

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Technology Cannot Replace Trees: A Response to Bill Gates

This article was originally published in the December 2023 edition of the Colorado Real Estate Journal. Please support local building-industry journalism and subscribe to the CREJ today.

At the New York Times Climate Forward Summit, Bill Gates said that planting trees to solve the climate crisis is “complete nonsense.” He proposed instead that we invest in companies like Climeworks, whose scrubber technologies capture carbon dioxide directly from the air.

Solving the climate crisis goes beyond simply removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; it’s also about preserving and restoring functional ecosystems, and trees play a critical role in many of them. We’ve lost 35% of forests in the past 300 years. The United Nations Environment Program quantified the Earth’s Forest area following the last ice age, and they estimate that the global number of trees has fallen by about 46% since the start of modern human civilization.

Trees and forests provide human communities with what we call Ecosystem Services. In addition to producing fiber, oxygen, and food, forests act as carbon sinks that absorb and hold onto carbon emissions.

The Ecosystem Services provided to us by trees and forests are wide and varied:

  1. Forests provide us with food like nuts and fruits and are home to many game species humans hunt for sustenance.
  2. They shade and cool our homes and cities, mitigating the impact of the urban heat island effect. Transpiration from trees further cools the atmosphere like giant swamp coolers.
  3. Trees stabilize soil and hold onto large amounts of water. With large-scale weather events becoming increasingly common, the ability of our landscapes to withstand these events is increasingly important.
  4. In addition to preventing soil loss in rain events, trees slow stormwater run-off and the potential for flooding and support stormwater infiltration, recharging groundwater.
  5. Trees provide critical habitat and promote biodiversity in both natural and urban ecosystems.
  6. Forests and other nonagricultural lands absorb a net of 13% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, reducing the greenhouse effect and, in turn, releasing oxygen.
  7. Trees help to make our streets safer by changing the scale of the road, influencing driver perception, and slowing them down.
  8. Stress relief researchers have found that certain natural scenes are visually appealing and stress-relieving. Exposure to natural patterns and fractals created by trees can reduce stress by up to 60%.
  9. People have a sense of history and tie to culture and community in old trees. Mature trees instill a sense of establishment and security, are stately, and have withstood the test of time, often for generations. The Banyon tree in Lahaina is an excellent example.

Technology is only part of the solution.

Climate Change didn’t happen overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight or even in the next 20 years. While scrubber technologies like Climeworks are encouraging, they only solve a narrow portion if the problem. It will take more than purchasing a carbon offset plan to reverse climate change. Also, is it just me, or does the idea of industry owning and controlling clean air sound a bit foreboding? Does this solve the problem? Or are we just handing the climate over to industrialists and billionaires? It may sound enticing to try and pay our way to a healthy planet, but there’s no way around it – technology is only PART of the solution – we still need to do the work. Think of scrubbers like a ventilator in an I.C.U. They may keep the patient alive, but they don’t make that patient healthy again.

before and after reforestation
Before and after reforestation.

What CAN we do?

An effective and socially sustainable long-term solution for humanity must come from the range of diverse communities of society, not the 1% alone. We have the potential power of 7.8 billion humans to regenerate life-sustaining ecosystems around the globe and solve the climate problem. One person in rural Indonesia will likely never have the resources to build and operate a scrubber perpetually. However, they can plant trees and rebuild ecosystems within their community in their lifetime. Those local communities also carry generations of valuable knowledge and understanding of their ecosystems and how to support the generation of ecosystem services best. Between 2000 and 2020, the amount of forest increased by 1.3 million square kilometers, an area larger than Peru, according to the World Resources Institute, with China and India leading the way. While those trees won’t sequester much carbon in the first five years, they will over their lifetime. Healthy forests are regenerative. They replace themselves in perpetuity. What’s the lifespan of a scrubber?

forest restoration
One person in rural Indonesia will likely never have the resources to build and operate a scrubber perpetually; however, he can plant trees and rebuild ecosystems.

The best practice for our involvement as community builders in reforestation and urban forest development means involving local people from the beginning to the planning stage and on through to the delivery and management of the forest, be it a natural condition or the forest within their own neighborhood.  It is local communities that will often look after the forest, prepare the land, plant the trees, and maintain the site, all of which diversify local employment and improve livelihoods. Prioritizing reforestation and management of forests, both in rural and urban settings, is crucial for the longevity of our communities and planet. We must think and plan in the scope of decades and centuries, not the latest news cycle.

Why I Plant Trees I Will Never See Grown

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

When an old person plants a tree they know well that they will likely not live to see the plant grow up to bear fruits or enjoy its shade, still, they do it so that future generations will benefit from it.

Trees are a key component of any sustainable and resilient community.

They provide us with many practical benefits like:

  • Food, like nuts and fruits
  • Shade to cool our homes and cities, mitigating the impact of the urban heat island effect. Transpiration from trees further cools the atmosphere like giant swamp coolers.
  • Trees make our streets safer by changing the scale of the street, influencing driver perception, and slowing them down.
  • Trees hold lots of water in a rain event, slowing stormwater run-off and the potential for flooding.
  • Forests and other nonagricultural lands absorb a net of 13 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Trees sequester carbon from the atmosphere, reducing the greenhouse effect, all while releasing oxygen.
  • Stress relief-researchers have found that certain works of art or natural scenes are visually appealing and stress-relieving – and one crucial factor is the presence of the repetitive patterns called fractals. Exposure to natural patterns & fractals like trees can reduce stress by up to 60%.
  • People have a sense of history in old trees. Mature trees instill a sense of establishment and security. They are stately and have withstood the test of time, often for generations. The Banyon tree in Lahaina is an excellent example.

The average lifespan of a newly constructed house is 70–100 years, assuming exceptional maintenance. The lifespan of trees can be as much as 300 years or more, depending on the species. The growing conditions we provide for them will dramatically impact lifespan. Given the right conditions to thrive, trees can outlive many of our homes by generations, providing all the benefits listed above for decades and even centuries.

Trees should be considered a critical part of future urban infrastructure development and the design of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods.  They cannot be an optional item, planted when all other needs, real or perceived, are met.

Those of us who work in community development or “city building”, as we often refer to it at Consilium

Design, understand that the noted Greek proverb applies to much more than the planting of trees.  The work we do to create great places for living should focus on more than a flashy branding campaign to get the sale of a new home to the first homeowner.  It should be focused on how we build places that will be “home” for generations to come.

When we advocate through our designs for narrower streets, it’s not just to save our client money.  It’s to reduce the amount of impervious asphalt and concrete we introduce into the environment, the pollution created by its manufacture, and the expense of perpetual maintenance.  It’s because narrower streets are safer streets. It’ because land not used for streets can be land for homes, open space, and biodiversity within the community.

When we design and advocate for higher density, It is not just for the bottom line.  It is to give people more opportunities to be less automobile-dependent and have better access to transit and other community resources. It is to make housing more attainable and closer to employment.

When we integrate public spaces as the focus of our designs, we advocate for a fundamental right of a free society- freedom of movement and public assembly, in all its forms.

We are creating a backdrop for the growth of healthy and free communities.

As “city builders”, we will never live in most of the places we create, but the “trees we plant” both literally and figuratively, will provide shelter and shade for our children and many future generations.

Design and Planning Innovations for Housing Attainability

Innovative approaches to neighborhood and community planning and design can significantly contribute to housing attainability. The following are ways to achieve attainability with innovative neighborhood and community planning and design.

*Leyden Rock (Arvada, CO)

Low Impact Design

Successful low impact neighborhood and community design is more than just building ever bigger houses on ever smaller lots. Low impact design reduces infrastructure costs while maximizing open space and protecting vital habitat, historical, and cultural features of the site. Thereby, creating a sense of place-an amenity valued more than ever by homebuyers and community stakeholders.

Low impact design contributes to attainability by:

  • Reducing the overall development footprint and increasing density. A great example of this is at Leyden Rock in Arvada, Colorado, where low-impact site design resulted in 40% higher density than conventional development in the surrounding area while preserving 3 times as much open space.
  • Reducing the linear feet of street and utility improvements per home, resulting in lower infrastructure costs.
  • Using shared drives, loop lanes, and “Woonerfs” (living streets) for access to homes reduces the number of streets needed for access and the impervious surface area, providing both economic and environmental benefits.
  • Reducing the amount of impervious surface in streets, walks and drives reduces the extent and cost of stormwater infrastructure required and leaves more area in the landscape leading to increased infiltration and reduced runoff.
  • Planning compact lots and xeric landscape design, which reduces the expense of water and maintenance costs to the homeowner.

Design For All Life Stages

Attainability is an issue for all homebuyers, not just first-time buyers.  Designing communities for all life stages contributes to housing attainability by broadening the type of homes and range of costs available to homebuyers. People at different life stages have different housing needs, financial goals, and resources. The needs and finances for a first-time homebuyer may be significantly different than an active adult move-down buyer.

Simplify the Landscape and Preserve Open Space.

Preserving the existing landscape whenever possible ensures it is the most affordable and resilient landscape in a community. Restoring disturbed areas with native landscape whenever possible promotes affordable installation and maintenance.

Be judicious with amenity improvements. The most important and desirable amenity for neighborhoods and communities is space, but it doesn’t need to be filled with all the latest trends. Create simple, cost-effective spaces that will continue to benefit the community and a wide range of users as time passes and resident demographics change.

Light Touch Density

The most affordable homes, neighborhoods, and communities in the United States are the ones we already have. We cannot build our way to attainability solely by building large single-family home communities within greenfield development or with high-density development in the urban core.  New home and infrastructure construction costs are the highest they have ever been, and it is highly unlikely they will go down anytime soon. It is counterintuitive to think we can use the most expensive construction costs, often combined with significant political resistance (Nimbys) to meet our attainable housing needs.

Edward Pinto, Director, AEI Housing Center made an outstanding presentation about Light Touch Density (LTD) at the 2023 NAHB spring meetings in Washington DC this past June. Here’s what was learned from his presentation:

  • LTD is a naturally affordable and inclusionary pattern of development that was commonplace 100 years ago. It’s the triple-deckers of Boston, the row houses of Philly and San Francisco, the brownstones of New York, and the various larger (but still generally walk-up) apartment buildings interspersed into that fabric. Moderately higher density and use by right zoning allows the free market to add substantially to supply. It drives smaller incremental investments by thousands of owners, developers, builders, and others, which allows for flexibility, resiliency, and mid-course correction based on feedback as opposed to relying on fewer, expensive mega projects, often in suburban or exurban locations.
  • LTD does not require subsidies, inclusionary zoning, income limits, rent caps, or complex plans.
  • LTD housing promotes filtering down, which does not happen when expensive housing projects built in limited quantities dominate the market. Instead, it works best when masses of homes are produced at or below the middle of the price spectrum.
  • LTD homes can have substantially lower prices and rents than single-family detached homes or large multifamily projects and adds more supply, diversity in form, and size choices for lower income households. LTD allows for more efficient use of existing and new infrastructure and generates higher tax yield per acre.

Light-Touch Density is useful in modestly increasing density in multiple ways:

  • In-fill: providing additional units such as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU) or adding a second unit to an existing single-family detached lot.
  • In-fill: tearing down an existing unit and replacing it with duplexes, triplexes, quadraplexes, or townhouses.
  • In-fill: a lot-split to allow increased density.
  • Greenfield: increasing as-built density.
  • Greenfield and Infill: increasing density by adding additional floor(s) or reducing the size of the units in a planned new apartment or condo building.

All these LTD strategies would moderately increase the as-built density of the land, thereby enabling owners/builders to construct smaller, less expensive units that are more naturally affordable & inclusionary without requiring subsidies.

Daniel Herriges is Editor-in-Chief for Strong Towns. His recent article in Strong Towns, “What’s the “Sweet Spot” For Building Housing Inexpensively?”  supports the concept of Light-touch Density.

Overdependence on high density housing can be counterproductive to affordability. Mid and high-rise construction technology is generally the most expensive construction form used in home building, and it is often built on the most expensive residentially zoned property in the marketplace, yet many communities focus their housing goals solely on this housing form. Most missing middle homes use basic construction techniques and doesn’t require features like elevators, steel-frame construction, or structured parking that add expense and complexity.

On the opposite end of the supply spectrum is the single-family home. In most parts of the country, new single-family homes are constructed in suburban conditions. Land may be more affordable, but water and infrastructure expansion costs add significantly to land cost, and ultimately, home cost. Exorbitant tap fees and other impact fees further drive up the per-home cost of building which then pushes builders to build larger homes to offset these costs. Adding supply at the high end yields few new homes and fewer move-ups from less expensive housing. Think of it this way:  Imagine if car manufacturers could only legally build Ferraris. Filtering down would be limited as few new cars would be sold, existing car prices would sky-rocket, and few could afford new or used cars.

The sweet spot for affordability is in “Missing Middle” housing, in all its forms from duplexes to small apartment buildings, as well as other arrangements like cottage courts.

It can fit on a regular urban lot, without the developer needing to buy up multiple lots to combine them, and can be done by a relatively small-scale, semi-amateur developer without a huge amount of capital. LTD adds to supply in the middle and yields a greatly increased number of move-ups from less expensive existing housing—making the most affordable housing we have attainable for new homeowners or renters.  It offers many more ownership opportunities, helps close the socio-economic status wealth gap, and reduces homelessness.

Low impact design, design for all life stages, simplifying the landscape and preserving open space, and light touch density all can play a part in providing more attainable and sustainable homes, neighborhoods, and communities.