by Mark Haubner
The average life span of a regular house is over 100 years. Skyscrapers are built to have a life span of 75 years. And our thousands of commercial buildings stick around for only about 50 years before they are more cost-effectively crushed to bits, put into a 30-yard container and driven by a diesel-fueled truck to places in Ohio and Pennsylvania 350 miles from here to be dumped in a landfill.
We are watching new projects being built every day in the Peconic Bioregion—houses, stores in strip malls and standalone buildings, warehouses and factories.
Warehouses? Factories? Yes, to the tune of about 14,000,000 (14 million) square feet of them, all on the drawing board and part of a permitting process which is governed by building codes and zoning laws which are ill-suited to require these ultra-high-impact buildings to be any more than an instant monument to an aging past.
In Riverhead, 10 million square feet at the EPCAL site for what was originally touted to be the leading edge in high tech careers and innovative aviation research has given way to ‘market pressures and demands’ and the not-yet-even-owners are proposing an air cargo facility. The other three or four million feet are going to be feeders to Amazon, Walmart or any of a dozen other online shopping Megasauruses. And combined with four other large-scale warehousing and distribution in Calverton, we have started to take a hard look at the cumulative impacts of it all.
High Impacts of All Sorts
The social impacts of more and bigger don’t seem to trickle down to the residents of our town—and not just the town that is permitting them, but the entire region. The environmental impacts of the fragmentation of habitat, the loss of the vistas we so highly value, the loss of land, which will never in a hundred years be recovered to health or become a source of beauty or food.
The economic impacts of large, industrial buildings can be evaluated in a number of ways: the cost of vast amounts of carbon-based fossil fuels needed for the millions of tons of steel, glass, aluminum and asphalt, all in the highest range of carbon pollution in their production alone; the additional costs of all of the ‘nasties’ (NOx or Nitrous Oxides, SOx or Sulphur dioxides, tire dust with polymers embedded in them, black carbon from the trucks themselves, carcinogenic brake dust) that come from the use of equipment to build them and trucks to service them.
Mitigation Starts With Design
At the moment, it is the responsibility of citizens to dispose of everything at the end of its useful life in the way of materials. But there are thousands of architectural firms with design teams working with engineers and manufacturers and the raw materials industries, and more thousands of developers waiting for solutions that will reduce our need for virgin materials, especially the non-renewables (mining, fossil carbon fuels). Simply rethinking the system into one which creates products with the goal of recovering and reusing (recycling) the basic parts and materials, in the end, will stop the problem of waste.
Industries sometimes struggle with change that comes unwelcome or too fast, but this is because they are simply responding to trends rather than creating them. Take a look at the plumbing and construction industries, when black Orangeburg pipe was largely eliminated as old technology when lightweight and cost-effective PVC pipe came to market. Look at the grocery industry when bar code technology threatened every worker who relied on a sticker gun to price out a case of groceries. In neither case did people just lose their jobs in wholesale lots—companies adapted and retrained and rethought their practices, and people were given jobs with new skills.
Project Drawdown Insights
Twenty-one of the 80 practicable solutions to climate change outlined in Project Drawdown have to do with not just alternative materials like low-carbon concrete, but also with address the very idea of designing the qualities of low impact and high efficiency at the very beginning of the process. We are all comfortable with the idea of LED lighting (after having suffered through the curly bulb fiasco), nobody is afraid of The Nest (almost nobody) and heat pumps are starting to come into their own as replacements for heating and air conditioning. We’ve been aware of the benefits of using proper insulation since the ’oil shortage’ of 1973, but now it’s time to bring the 1960 home up to date with new insulation, part of the process of retrofitting — which itself is a major driver of technology and meaningful work in the construction industry.
Bringing emissions drastically down from current levels and making our use of fossil carbons (fuels) greatly more efficient are just the goals. The benefits, however, are infinitely more important—less reliance on the fluctuating markets in fossil carbons, more resilience against supply chain disruptions and knowing that by creating less pollution every one of us is going to be healthier.
We know that personal commitment to any one of these efforts is a great start, that our friends and families are influenced by our actions, that our communities and civic groups can put their weight behind something simple like composting food scraps, and that by bringing these techniques and visions of the future we can include our representatives to make meaningful changes for all.
So, if you build it right today, you’ll still be glad to see it in 50, 75, 100 years.
Mark Haubner has been recycling newspaper since 1965, and not seeing his example being followed by everyone on the planet, started learning Science Communication in earnest about six years ago. He got a Certificate in Sustainability and Behavior Change from the University of California at San Diego (the daily commute was grueling) and now writes Community Based Social Marketing programs for the various nonprofits with which he is involved.
Climate Local Now is a partnership between the East End Beacon and Drawdown East End, whose mission is to inspire local solutions to reverse global warming. | DrawdownEastEnd.org