Building more sustainable communities: How can more be created? - by Alan Jalon

May 21, 2019 - Design / Build
Alan Jalon,
The Falcon Group

Going green can sometimes seem like a daunting task for existing condominium and planned communities. Many associations do not even know where to start. Even the smallest step taken towards sustainability can help to reduce the strain placed on the world’s dwindling natural resources.

Sustainability is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Living sustainably means analyzing and adapting our current human cultures and institutions to address a variety of issues negatively impacting our world. The goal is to produce a change in behavior that will hopefully have a positive impact on our natural environment.

So how can a more sustainable community be created? To answer this question, we must observe and analyze the makeup and needs of our communities. Residential communities are found in both urban and suburban areas, but regardless of location, each community has a unique makeup based on the diversity of its residents (economics, age and familial status) and certain community culture. Each community also has its own special needs for basic resources like food, water and other commodities. In the sustainable world, this impact is measured by determining a community’s ecological footprint, which is defined as “the land areas required to supply a person, community or city with food or other products and to absorb its output of waste gases such as CO2.” In other words, the meal you just had was dependent on various outside sources, such as energy, land and transportation, to arrive at your table. This dependent interconnection creates a strain on our natural environment as the amount of people in that supply chain grows while the finite amount of resources available is reduced over time. Any sustainable mission is focused on reducing this strain and helping to create opportunities for reduction in use and self-sufficiency, regardless of the size or type of common interest community involved.

While your own personal ecological footprint might not be that large, the demand for resources is compounded in outlying residential communities and in cities with
ever-increasing populations. In a world of rapidly diminishing resources, it should be a goal of every community to reduce its ecological footprint and to strive to develop principles that use local resources and contribute to the long-term goal of sustainability.

Sustainability in residential communities is a multi-faceted concept that can be measured in several ways, such as energy efficiency/performance of the residential units, waste disposal and food consumption. Every person can easily make certain changes immediately. You can replace incandescent lights with high-efficiency fluorescent or LED fixtures.

You can replace old appliances with “Energy Star” appliances that will reduce energy consumption and lower your utility bills. Anyone planning home renovations should consider using sustainable materials during construction. This will improve the quality and health of your indoor environment by reducing the toxic off -gassing in our homes from newly-manufactured items that release volatile organic compounds and other chemicals. Reducing waste, recycling and composting of organic materials also requires a minimal change in behavior but has a large impact both on you and your community. There are many new compost collection services that have sprung up in the past decade and will collect your organic materials for composting weekly for a small fee. Most municipalities now offer free weekly recycling programs.

More costly projects might involve analyzing the exterior envelope and the heating and cooling systems of the building through an energy audit. Energy audits are broken down into three levels.

1. Level 1 addresses the “low-hanging fruit” topics discussed above.

2. Level 2 analyzes the consumption of energy within a building and identifies potential operational and maintenance changes that can be made to improve energy efficiency.

3. Level 3 investigates deeper, potential energy savings that may include the addition of insulation at exterior walls and green roofs to create a tight building envelope and to reduce heating and cooling needs. Level 3 is typically called the “investment grade” energy audit as most recommendations focus on capital-intensive projects.

Promoting natural daylight with the addition of skylights or solar tubes could also be utilized during construction or any renovations of an existing building. In the end, a good energy audit and the auditor’s recommendations will assist in the reduction of energy consumption of the homeowner. Since energy prices will continue to increase in the future, communities should consider large-scale, community-wide projects to reduce energy consumption and introduce cost savings to homeowners.

In addition to building modifications and upgrades, communities could also incorporate renewable energy production systems, such as solar panels or wind turbines. Associations should engage a professional to identify a suitable location and the proper scale for such systems. 

Solar panels can be installed in both urban and suburban sites. In suburban communities, any large common open space would likely provide an excellent location for solar panel systems. 

The solar panels can be incorporated into the open space by creating trellised walkways or gazebo-like pavilions. In urban areas, where low-sloped roofs are typically common, solar panels can be installed on the roof.

Wind turbines may be a little more diffi cult to incorporate (as they require open, unobstructed space), recent developments in technology, such as variable air wind turbines, may provide more options to communities without open space. A study should be completed to see if the turbine receives enough wind to generate electricity and if it would provide a good return on investment. Renewable systems can off set resident energy demand and self-generated power can signifi cantly reduce utility costs for homeowners and the association over time. For example, if the association interconnects its power generation equipment to the electric distribution system, it may be able to use “net metering” to off set traditional utility costs.

Another inexpensive and fun way to reduce a community’s ecological footprint is to designate an area for food production, such as a vegetable garden, in a common area of the community. An association could establish a gardening committee to monitor any on-site food production area. The food harvested can provide residents with organic produce and beautify the community while also increasing home values, especially in the city. A garden project can also help to bring together homeowners for a community-building activity and provide a way for non-working association members to feel useful and involved. Additionally, studies show that gardening can help to reduce stress and provide other health and mental benefi ts, all while re-establishing the connection between nature and ourselves. In fact, during World War II, when labor and transportation shortages impacted the food supply chain, the U.S. government encouraged people to plant “victory gardens.” These gardens, planted in backyards, empty lots and even roof tops, helped to provide families with fresh produce, which was diffi cult to obtain at the time. Neighbors began to pool their resources and plant diff erent crops and even create cooperatives. Thus, a garden project is a great way to bring together homeowners to socialize and to show how they can work together to make their community more sustainable.

There are many ways to incorporate sustainability in our communities and our lives. Some ways are easy and quick, while others may require a larger investment of time and money. In the end, it is important to note that regardless of which method is selected, any eff orts made by homeowners will be a huge boon to building a more sustainable system for our region and the planet.

Alan Jalon, RA, AIA, LEED AP is a senior architect at The Falcon Group, Bridgwater, N.J.

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David 5/22/19 3:33 AM

Great write-up, Alan! I think that the transition towards sustainability is inevitable so the communities that embrace it sooner than others will leverage the most from it.

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