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Does environmental conservation imply austerity?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

bedzed1.jpgThis is a post by EWG research intern Curtis Maples, who's interested in engineering a sustainable future.

When I hear “conserve”, a chain of thoughts comes into my mind. Something like this:

“Conserve?! What?! Why?! This is AMERICA!” “Well, what does ‘conserve’ mean anyway?” Conserve = Use less “Use less of what?” Multiple Choice:

  • A. Money
  • B. Food
  • C. Electricity
  • D. Water
  • E. All of the above
“Are you serious?” Its so easy even a caveman can do it! "So then, to conserve I have to use less and live like a caveman?"

While this chain of thought is obviously an exaggeration, according to popular opinion and in some cases history, this isn’t too far away from what comes to the minds of most Americans when they hear “conservation.” It therefore begs the question: does environmental conservation imply austerity?

Well thanks to the wonderful men and women of science and engineering spending countless happy hours in their cubicles and laboratories, environmental conservation most certainly does not always necessitate austerity. Although austerity is never really a bad thing, often times we live austere lifestyles out of necessity. But what if, with a little more engineering magic and a pinch of creativity, austerity can be rendered unnecessary while achieving the same goal?

There are a few architects and engineers who have done just that. The visionaries of Peabody Trust and the environmental magicians of Bill Dunster Architects, both of the United Kingdom, are saviors to everyone wanting to conserve without being cavemen.

Bill Dunster Architects and Peabody Trust teamed up to develop the Beddington Zero Energy Development project, also known as BedZED. BedZED is the first carbon and zero energy community. That’s right folks, community. You have to see this. It’s a sprawling complex of 100 homes, community facilities, and workspaces for about 100 people. BedZED has all of your favorites from the environmental goodie bag, from on-site renewable power combined with photovoltaics, to passive solar engineering. The homes feature heat exchangers, rooftop gardens, passive ventilation, sunrooms, composting technology and thermal mass insulation. They even provide a community carpooling service! The homes are actually very attractive aesthetically as well.

The project has been resoundingly successful, earning the designers many awards and the freedom to attend happy hours. Actually, these guys likely had the freedom to attend happy hour anyway, given that none of the technology they used is particularly high tech.

As a matter of fact, most of this technology is available “off-the-shelf” and was pioneered by the civilizations of antiquity. This is one of the few technologies that don’t require much research (So much for the government using “research” to cover up their lack of initiative). And these homes are not experiments, either -- these are actually homes that are up for sale, and environmentalists aren’t the only ones lining up to buy.

I just have to reiterate this: These homes emit zero, that’s “0”, net carbon and they use no electricity from the grid. Now keep in mind folks that in the United States and the EU, buildings use 40% of our total energy output. So now the question becomes, if there exists a way to significantly reduce our energy load, which would provide far more surplus energy than building a new plant of any kind, without decreasing quality of life, how come the U.S. isn’t diving in head first after it? Well that’s a question for another post.