The Elements of Green Development

March Deep Links—Sustainable Design: Common threads run through many green development projects. These can be grouped into three broad categories: environmental responsiveness, resource efficiency and community and cultural sensitivity, according to Green Development: Integrating Ecology & Real Estate, written by researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute, Snowmass, Colo.

By Staff April 7, 2001

The following is an excerpt from the book Green Development: Integrating Ecology & Real Estate , written by researchers at the Rocky Mountain Institute, Snowmass, Colo.

Common threads run through many green development projects. These can be grouped into three broad categories: environmental responsiveness, resource efficiency and community and cultural sensitivity. These three elements manifest themselves in many different ways and often reinforce each other. For example, a development designed to reduce dependence on automobiles is likely to foster greater community cohesiveness and lower crime, since residents walk more and get to know their neighbors. A building designed in a regional vernacular style may be more efficient in its use of resources for construction since more local materials are used.

Environmental responsiveness

Conventional development is frequently insensitive to the natural environment. Projects may scar the landscape, take valuable agricultural land out of production, or destroy wildlife habitat. Many green development projects, on the other hand, are designed to restore and enhance natural habitats and resources.

A key to environmental responsiveness is respecting—and using—what is already there or naturally belongs there. Environmental responsiveness is applied to land use by carefully siting buildings to blend in with the natural environment, by reusing already developed land, by restoring degraded land, and by preserving as much virgin land as possible. Environmental responsiveness is applied to infrastructure by capitalizing on natural features for stormwater management, erosion control and roadway design. And it is applied to buildings by using such natural resources as the sun, wind, land forms and natural vegetation to provide heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation and protection from the elements.

By practicing environmental responsiveness, it is possible for a new development not only to minimize damage to the local ecosystem, but actually to improve the surroundings. In fact, some see green development as an “economic engine” for bringing about ecological restoration. This process of sitting lightly on the land, even when modifications to the landscape are made, is the essence of environmental responsiveness. Resource efficiency resources are the physical materials and energy flows we have access to and use: land, water, soils, minerals, timber, fossil fuels, electricity, solar energy and so on. In real estate development, these resources are a form of capital that a developer works with in siting, constructing, and operating buildings. Resource efficiency is the process of doing more with less—using fewer resources (or less scarce resources) to accomplish the same goals.

Resource efficiency

Resource efficiency can apply to many aspects of real estate development, including land use, building design, material selection, waste reduction, water conservation, and energy efficiency. Clustered development patterns reduce infrastructure needs, saving resources and money simultaneously. Pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented planning reduces automobile use and cuts pollution. Reusing existing buildings prevents unnecessary new land development and reduces building material use. Recycling demolished buildings and construction waste saves manufacturing energy and reduces landfill loading. Specifying energy-efficient appliances reduces fossil fuel and/or electricity use.

Resource efficiency offers financial savings. Buildings in the United States consume more than 30 percent of our total energy and 60 percent of our electricity. Good building practices can cut those numbers drastically. Besides directly saving money and resources, resource efficiency offers other benefits to society, including avoided pollution and improved health. Energy efficiency can enhance a building’s comfort, beauty, quietness, performance, profitability and occupants’ productivity. Water-efficient plumbing fixtures and landscaping strategies can save money by reducing water and sewer bills, while reducing the need to dam rivers and expand wastewater treatment facilities.

Community and cultural sensitivity

According to surveys and media coverage, many Americans feel that their lives are lacking the quality they desire. Some of this is linked to the physical environment—people say they are tired of the toll that suburban sprawl takes on them through long commutes, auto dependency, and often monotonous, homogenous development patterns. People throughout America are mourning the loss of uniqueness, identity and community in the places they live. But what is this sought-after essence called “community”?

Community involves many things, including quality and quantity of human interaction, safety and a sense of involvement and neighborliness. Robert Zimmer, developer of the Inn of the Anasazi, defines communities as “living patterns of relationships, comprised of individuals, families, friends and institutions—all relating with their environment. Every living thing is connected, and all too often we fail to understand that interconnectedness. The result is that we attempt the impossible—trying to change one element or relationship in a community without having any effect on the rest of the community.”

Community is voluntary. It cannot be forced. Developers cannot create community, but, with participation from stakeholders and end users, they can put together the pieces that encourage it to happen. Developers should recognize that any new development will influence the larger community. They can choose whether that influence will be positive or negative, subtle or intrusive.

Community exists on many scales, and community sensitivity is reflected through land use, building layout and design, and building operations. Green developments seek to be mindful of the larger community, complementing and connecting to it where possible. These developments use land appropriately in terms of both scale and function; they plan for pedestrians as well as cars; they provide convenient access to the existing infrastructure of services, schools, work and shopping; and they offer a range of public and quasi-public spaces such as squares, porches and courtyards for accidental or planned gatherings. Just as importantly, green developments address community in the way they are operated, including educational components, in which concepts of sustainability are conveyed to occupants or users.

Cultural sensitivity means being responsive to the local history, the culture, and the existing built environment of a given location. This can mean using vernacular designs, purchasing local products and materials, respecting local customs and building practices, and honoring the cultural fabric of the region. Green developers usually support diversity—cultural diversity, economic diversity or “market segment” diversity.

Both community and cultural sensitivity involve respecting and promoting a sense of place by recognizing the uniqueness that every setting offers. Atef Mankarios, president of Rosewood Hotels, (for whom Robert Zimmer has developed resort properties) has praised Zimmer for his attention to cultural and community issues. “He doesn’t parachute alien properties into a city. His hotels embrace the community. He preserves and highlights the cultural aspect of each hotel and trains the staff to be good neighbors.”

Integrating ecology and real estate

One of the key features of a successful green development is that it establishes and reinforces connections: between people and place, between people and nature, between buildings and nature. The Inn of the Anasazi is financially successful largely because it gives the people who stay there a sense of place and character, a connection with the locale that is very welcoming to travelers.

This process of establishing connections can be seen as the application of ecological thinking to real estate. Ecology describes the interconnections or mutual relations between living things—including humans—and their environment. In social theory, “ecology” describes the social and cultural patterns that result from relationships between people and resources. Ecological thinking means looking at things in their whole context, while seeking to also understand the interconnections between parts. It recognizes that nothing exists in isolation; everything is part of a larger system.

Green development is the application of ecological thinking to the business of creating places for people to live and work. Each of the three elements described above is, in its own way, a means of integrating ecology and real estate. Environmental responsiveness is a recognition that a development is part of the ecosystem in which it sits and should respect that position. Resource efficiency is a way to achieve a level of sustainability in our resource consumption. Community and cultural sensitivity addresses the fact that people, too, exist within a context—the network of human contacts on large and small scales and the historical and cultural milieu that defines what we are.

It is becoming clear in today’s world that our actions have effects we would never have imagined. Over its life, a single compact-fluorescent light bulb in a New York City office building can keep three-quarters of a ton of carbon dioxide out of the Earth’s atmosphere. Developers who understand and utilize these interconnections—who employ ecological thinking—are going to be the leaders of tomorrow’s real estate industry. As they successfully integrate ecology and real estate, they are going to realize significant financial gain.

For more information, visit the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Web site at: .