Since 2000 when the Healthy Building Network (HBN) was founded, the advocacy group has been researching and making public their findings on environmentally friendly building materials and policies. In 2006 HBN introduced the Pharos Project, to publish information on the environmental impact of building materials commonly used by today’s architecture and construction industry sectors. In 2009, Pharos received an award from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which called the project “a revolutionary on-line tool for evaluating and comparing the health, environmental and social impacts of building materials in a comprehensive and transparent way.” In my series of Q&As about the Health Product Declaration (HPD), I asked Bill Walsh, founder of HBN and executive director, to provide the public advocate’s point of view. Here he talks about some initial victories and the dogged efforts of a small group of dedicated professionals (30 people in all) who have volunteered for the battle to clean up our environment, one building product at a time.
Susan S. Szenasy: Recently you wrote in Healthy Building News that “March 17th marks the 10th anniversary of the EPA order that made it illegal to use the arsenic-based pesticide CCA (chromated copper arsenate) to treat wood intended for most residential uses,” and that, as a result, “the amount of arsenic used in the United States [has dropped] from over twenty metric tons annually to approximately six” since 2003. What do these hopeful numbers tell you about the inroads HPD can make on helping to eliminate toxic materials from our built environment?
Bill Walsh: The Healthy Building Network initiated the effort to create the Health Product Declaration [HPD] because informed customers are the most influential driver of healthier building products. With pressure treated wood, once consumers understood that there were two equivalent types of product on the market – that with arsenic, and that without – the writing was on the wall. Chemical manufacturers voluntarily withdraw their requests to EPA for an exemption to arsenic restrictions. That made it easy for EPA to take the action it did.
As HPDs gain currency, unnecessary, avoidable toxic hazards will be the first thing to go. For example, I expect we will see a steady transition out of chemical flame-retardants in many uses where they are unnecessary, such as below grade foam insulation, and provide no added safety benefit, such as in upholstery foams. Leading manufacturers have also said that the HPD will create an incentive for companies to make quiet transitions in order to avoid disclosing problematic chemicals.
Over the long-term, the HPD is going to create incentives for continuous improvement toward ever-healthier building products. But the first thing the HPD is going to accomplish is a rapid acceleration away from hazards that can be avoided today.
Storms and hurricanes are nothing new for New York City. Some four decades after the European founding of the municipality in 1625, a severe storm was chronicled in Manhattan. Subsequently, the Great Storm of 1693 rearranged the coastline, likely creating the Fire Island Cut. Many more significant storms followed over the centuries. To underscore the lessons of super storm Sandy, there are people alive today who can remember the great hurricane of 1938.
What’s new in recent decades is the relentless development of the coastline, haphazardly accelerated with apparent disregard for protective natural buffers, such as wetlands and dunes. As recently as the 1980s, development exploded in today’s storm ravaged Staten Island, even filling and building on marshland.
Also new to many people is the realization of the human contributions to climate change through our modification of atmospheric gases, a warming climate, and the attendant increases in sea levels, storm frequency and severity, droughts, heat waves, and more. These meteorological changes are real and measurable.
Hurricane Sandy, aside from its tragic aftermath, has done us a huge favor, providing a loud and unequivocal “I told you so!” in the nation’s densest population areas and most developed coastline. The visible devastation of New York City and the Jersey Shore brings tangible urgency to our efforts to take all possible measures to alter the lifestyle and behaviors that have brought us to this critical juncture. We need a paradigm shift in our land-use patterns and energy consumption. Most fundamentally, we must change the ways we interact with the natural systems of the earth. Massive sea gates and walls might protect against some storm surges, but what will they do to fisheries, sediment transport, water quality—to mention but a few potential repercussions? We need an integrated approach to climate adaptation and mitigation that uses natural systems as ongoing guides.
Wetland Restoration and Mitigation, image courtesy of appliedeco.com
Living in a big city can be hard. If you live in New York, you have probably quoted the famous song, “If I make it there, I can make it anywhere.” But Portland-based developer Gerding Edlen recognizes the need for giving a softer side to the city.
They develop buildings that, from my perspective, promise to be soft on communities, soft on the environment, and soft on residents.
Gerding Edlen has spoken with Metropolis before, but now they are considering bringing rental development to the east coast, potentially to New York City. I spoke with Mark Edlen, CEO, about their development plans and how those plans fit into cities like ours, “the city that never sleeps.”
“We’ve seen a movement to the cities. Cities are the solution to our global population growth,” said Edlen. His firm recognizes that people see city living as a way to help solve global problems. They also see how it’s becoming more popular to live a mobile and sustainable urban lifestyle.
“Living Green” has gone vogue and so has finding new creative “out of the box” ways to do so.
Next month, the forward thinking Phoenix-based development firm of UpCycle Living lead by Ashton Wolfswinkel and Jason Anderson will break ground on a cutting-edge residential community known as Switzer Terrace in the beautifully forested mountain top city of Flagstaff, Arizona, utilizing stacked shipping containers.
Recent years has seen eco-friendly developers look for new ways to promote sustainable living and this new form of housing has emerged as a phenomenal way to reuse these virtual “LEGO-blocks” as modern sustainable modular homes.
Phoenix (December 14, 2010) – The Gilbert Town Council has a big decision to make on Thursday with respect to the fate of a proposed downtown mixed use project.
Phoenix (December 10, 2010) – Who says that you can’t beat city hall? An effective group of Gilbert elementary school parents and residents took on that challenge…and won, with the cooperation of SRP.
(Phoenix, December 1, 2010) — Over 100 Valley leaders convened yesterday to develop a future vision for the West Valley in an exercise led by Leadership West. Leadership West is a volunteer-led, non-profit organization that convenes, educates and activates proven leaders in business, non-profits and government to leverage their time, talents and treasures to enhance the quality of life in the West Valley.
Phoenix (November 29, 2010) – The Tempe City Council recently voted unanimously to move forward with plans to restore Papago Park and Mill Avenue. The Papago Park restoration plans focus on improvements to marketing and park amenities while Mill Avenue will receive some much needed clean-up and landscaping.
Phoenix (November 24, 2010) – Our favorite “small, but in the middle of it all” 6.6-square mile Southwest Valley city of Tolleson broke ground on a catalytic new landmark redevelopment project on Tuesday. City leadership sees the potential of other future downtown development opportunities to follow suit.
Phoenix (November 19, 2010) – The Gilbert Town Council unanimously approved an overall update to the Town’s General Plan which will place it on the May 17th ballot. Then, the Council approved a Minor Amendment to the current General Plan for a slight increase in density for a 27-acre parcel. The Minor Amendment was not included in the overall update that the Council first approved, so what happens to the land use designation for that 27-acre parcel if the General Plan update is approved by the voters in May?
Phoenix (November 18, 2010) – A New Yorker’s plans to invest $450,000 to construct a second house on his lot have gone awry due to a recent decision by the New York Federal District Court. We often think that the issuance of a building permits automatically “vests” the development rights associated with that approval. Not the case here.
Phoenix (November 16, 2010) – The downtown Scottsdale skyline may welcome new, taller buildings after the new City Council takes seat in January. The downtown infill-incentive district is the likely motive for the several rezoning proposals requesting greater building heights.
Phoenix (November 15, 2010) — East Valley Partnership’s annual economic forum in Gilbert spurred discussion about how cities should be planned and built for the future…for people, not cars. This discussion was led by Rebecca Ryan, who has conducted extensive research on America’s younger generations as founder of Next Generation Consulting in Madison, Wisconsin.
Perched on the threshold of economic recovery, cities whose housing markets crashed and burned during the Great Recession are struggling like modern-day Phoenix birds to rise from the ashes.
While rebirth comes naturally for some, others seem caught between a trap labeled “sprawl” and a wide-open window tagged “sustainability.”
The question is, can cities that once embraced policies favoring sprawl over density buy into a new vision calling for a more sustainable, livable and socially just way of life? The shift required may be dramatic, but it’s not impossible.