A CHECKPOINT ON THE ROAD TO SUSTAINABILITY
A review of how new concepts such as sustainability work out when they hit the realities of actual project development has value for several reasons. Many people fear the potential abuse of such concepts for marketing purposes. Seeing standard California subdivisions being given a seasick green tinge of tree plantings and being marketed as eco-communities brings fears to many that a viable concept will be written off by the public as a marketing fad. Such a review may be able to highlight some of the implementation barriers that need to be addressed in other projects. It can also help a development get outside feedback on how well it is achieving the goals it sets itself to address and those which the broader sustainability community feels should or could be addressed.
At a Seattle AIA conference on Sustainability in October, 1993, the designers of the new community of Bamberton on Vancouver Island, BC, allowed their project to be critiqued on how well their plan-in-progress is achieving the goals of sustainability they set themselves to achieve, and the aptness of those goals themselves.
In the short time available, issues were raised which could not reach closure. I made arrangements with Chip Kaufman, the town architect, to visit the site a few weeks later for further information and to see the site itself. What follows are personal impressions and comments, with no claims to exhaustive review of the project.
The overall scope of the sustainability issues being addressed by the project is admirable. Focus on this review was on the physical planning and site layout, as it is too early to see the detailed direction of the cultural and economic dimensions.
* Site impressions:
Two points became immediately clear on the site. First, it was considerably flatter than was apparent from discussion at the conference, particularly in the areas being developed. While quite steep slopes do exist on the site, the neighborhood areas being planned had considerably less slope than the 30% figure understood at the conference. While possibly perceived as steep by flatland designers, most site areas being developed may not necessitate the "hillside-type" street layout discussed at the conference.
Secondly, the site condition was far less pristine than apparent at the conference. In addition to the limestone quarry and cement plant at the town center site, much of the site has been logged twice. Large industrial dumps of overburden, kiln dust and construction debris exist, as well as roads and remnants of site layouts from a worker's town which once existed on the site. At the conference concern was raised about what appeared an interruption of a ravine wildlife corridor by a planned neighborhood center. On site it was clear that the neighborhood center site is a former concrete mill dump site where the ravine had been filled in. The proposed development was intended to both heal that area and avoid construction on less disturbed areas of the site.
* Was this a wise site to select to build a town?
My personal impression is yes. The project shows the value of using and restoring a damaged area rather than developing a pristine one. Growth is occurring in the area on presumably similar topography, but more dispersed layout with more transportation impacts. Demonstrating successful ways to use marginal land compactly, preserving flatter land for agricultural and forestry, can be an important achievement.
* Will the basic marketing decision to have 60% single family lots support a sustainable community land use pattern?
I feel this remains doubtful, and probably the most controversial element of the development. It is the element of the project that most strongly requires additional consideration, and the one most likely to generate opposition from the "sustainability" community to application of the that term to the project. The "sustainability" of that land use pattern and the transportation demands it generates is highly questionable, and appears the result of a marketing study not well enough focused on the particular market niche involved.
While marketing of entire "sustainable communities" is in its infancy with little long-term documentation, there are quite a few factors that indicate a more substantial market for more compact living patterns than presently envisioned in the plan. A large market is well documented for environmental consumer and home products, with a demonstrated willingness to pay a premium cost of 10-15% during the development phase of recycled and environmentally-friendly products. Studies on home buyers in Traditional Neighborhoods shows a willingness to again pay 10-15% over market for perceived benefits of the new neighborhood configurations. A study of Village Homes in Davis CA shows a sustained value represented in resale prices averaging $11/sq.ft. above market, and an average of 53 compared to 133 days to sale. A study of Laguna West indicated a $1500 additional cost per lot for tree planting, lighting, and lake construction, resulting in an increased appraisal value of lots of $15,000 over those in a neighboring subdivision by the same developer. Marketing reports on Seaside, FL, strongly concur on the existeince and strength of a sustainability market.
These numbers suggest that a considerable market quite likely does exist for compact pedestrian oriented communities. If this market is addressed, the significantly lower infrastructure costs of more compact development patterns could provide considerably increased profitability of the project.
With preliminary approvals being based on the maximum site coverage, it would appear that more compact layout could be tried on the first neighborhood to be developed, with a fallback position of the present planning for other neighborhoods if it does not prove marketable. Without attempting that initial compactness, marketing of a truly "sustainable" community cannot occur in this project.
Although most lots are not oversized (c. 6400 sq.ft., 46' frontages), their pattern is conventional. The result is purchasers end up with a smaller and perhaps an inferior version of a conventional site planning pattern rather than a fundamentally more beneficial one. The 1992 design for Christmas Hill Village in Victoria by the same planner suggests some alternatives for more compact neighborhood layout which simultaneously can provide more usable community open space as well as pedestrian accessibility.
* Is the housing density high enough to make walkable neighborhoods?
This remains questionable. Project planners acknowledge that with the present lot patterns, rule-of-thumb walking distances are exceeded in order to size the neighborhood centers for economic viability. Once there is any incentive for us to get in a car, there is no incentive for us not to drive further and further. Putting the same number of units closer together can reduce significantly the situations where we would even consider a car, and increase the number of pedestrian-accessible destinations.
* Is the street and development pattern fitting to the site conditions?
One of the planning patterns promoted in TND is back-alley houses. Narrow secondary streets are run behind lots so they have streets on two sides, and auxiliary rental units built over garages abutting the alleys. Such a pattern has virtually as much paving as a typical suburban sprawl pattern. Backing out of blind-side garages is hazardous - more so as more people will be present in the alley. The same housing pattern can be achieved without the alleys, and concentrate pedestrian movement even more on public street areas, while creating more private "backlot" areas as well as the potential for shared mid-block greenspace. Regardless, the small size of blocks in this design pattern creates a high level of paving - in a four lot wide block, half the houses have streets on three sides of the lot!
Lot and housing orientation on the portions of the project less constrained by topography seem to lack orientation to either view or solar patterns or acknowledgment of other social or environmental considerations.
In some of the steeper areas of the site the street pattern actually seems better tied to the configuration of the site. The cost of street and utility development has been projected as being high - likely to significantly exceed $35,000 CN/lot - because of the rock and slopes. Slides of Sienna, Italy, were shown at the conference illustrating the kind of environment which can develop out of a steep hillside location. Yet the most obvious lesson of Sienna appears to have been ignored. In Sienna, the houses are built continuously along the street, though with considerable distance possible between streets, to minimize the development costs. Retaining walls for the streets also form retaining walls for lower floors of abutting downhill structures.
Revision of the marketing study and refinement of the physical plan should take a strong second look at the potential here. Reducing lot widths along streets by a third would reduce street development costs an equivalent percentage. This could be achieved either through deeper, narrower lots or with smaller lots with public spaces off the street frontage. The resultant $10,000 in avoided cost per lot could result in reduction of development costs by up to $20-25 million. That in turn could provide three valuable alternatives to the present patterns. It could allow lower selling costs, more development profit, or resources which could be put into roomier houses on narrower lots. This would improve walkability. It also would mean the remote neighborhood above the TransCanada Highway could possibly be eliminated as the equivalent housing is added into other neighborhoods, eliminating that site improvement cost and compacting non-auto access throughout the community.
Some of the awkwardness of the street layout appears to stem from intersection and road profile standards imposed on the project by local authorities (the Provincial Ministry of Transportation and Highways) whose normal charge is rural highway through traffic rather than community circulation patterns which can support walkability or reduce site impacts from cut/fill on steep slopes.
While cul-de-sacs are avoided in the plan and streets connect together, internal traffic in the town is funneled primarily onto a single main street as in conventional suburban design rather than being dispersed among a number of streets as in "traditional" communities. That main artery is shown as having housing located on it, which with its concentration of traffic may not be beneficial. Recent research has shown that spreading the traffic over a number of streets rather than collecting it onto a few has many benefits in capacity, less nuisance factors, and access time.
Layout of neighborhood centers so they abut rather than straddle the main road through the town should be considered to provide both access and pedestrian precincts in light of the traffic load of the main road.
* What improvements in site design could be possible?
One potential of the site that does not appear to have been well responded to in the present layout is the view potential for residential homes. The site has dramatic views of the Saanich Inlet and beyond. Such views can contribute to the quality of life and sense of place of residents, and also contributes to the economic value of the lots. Yet by concentrating development on the flat areas of the site, views are blocked, and that potential lost.
Similarly, orientation of streets, lots, and potential structures for minimal sunlight obstruction as well as minimal view obstruction could increase the well-being as well as possibly the energy performance of the housing. High performance insulation standards do make solar energy capture less essential to overall energy performance, but sunlight plays an important psychic as well as thermal role.
With streets roughly parallel to contour lines, a pattern of housing stepping down from the street on the lower side and up from the street on the upper side can assure views and solar access to both. With streets ascending or descending the slopes, a layout pattern sloping down towards the view could allow houses to stairstep and preserve views for all. With streets at an angle to view, as along ravines, angling the houses from the street can allow them to offset from each other and allow views for all.
From a financial standpoint, if such design added $3000 to the value of 1000 lots, it would represent an increased value of over $3,000,000.
* Are the configuration and ownership patterns of the "wildlife corridors" workable?
Creek ravines on the site have been left as wildlife corridors connecting the sound and the uplands behind the town. These are relatively narrow, though topographically separated from much of the development. Their continuity is also uncertain, being terminated in one case by a neighborhood center. How this will all work with the presence of domestic animals is uncertain.
The ownership patterns proposed, with private lots extending to the creeks from both sides may limit community use of the open space, which can occur with houses overlooking the ravines as well as with streets abutting them. That pattern also prevents pedestrian ways from crossing the open areas providing continuity between the neighborhoods on both sides. While the TransCanada Highway west of the project acts as a more absolute barrier to wildlife, it appears that more should be done on site, such as wildlife corridor "bypasses" of neighborhood centers, to permit successful coexistence within the community.
* What about people participation in the development of the community?
Questions were raised at the critique about people participation in the planning of their town as it develops. The proposed development plan calls for a twenty year growth cycle for the town, and for selling of individual lots rather than prebuilt houses. Participation before an on-site community exists has been attempted with neighboring communities, with good but less than complete success. I don't know if more than that should have been expected. I'm not aware what plans, if any, exist for participation of on-site community members in later stages of the project.
* How well are the issues of transportation and sustainability handled?
External: Transportation is a fundamental issue relative to sustainability. Offsite transportation impact issues and potentials are complex and major. The provincial transportation authority (MOTH) is currently proposing expansion of the road connecting Bamberton to Victoria to 4-lane, through a beautiful provincial park. Bamberton and other growth is cited as the justification. Bamberton rightly hopes to cause 60% less transportation impact than equivalent growth which would occur otherwise. Compounding the situation, a passenger rail line parallels the highway on higher ground. With a shuttle connection to Bamberton, even greater reduction in transportation impact could be achieved. Current passenger train schedules (morning away from Victoria, evening towards Victoria) appear almost to have been planned to discourage passenger travel.
Internal: Several related issues exist. Politics has determined that Bamberton will not initially be an independent community. As such, its road standards are being set by an agency whose primary responsibility is rural through traffic roads rather than community streets. This is causing excessive standards, costs, impact on the terrain, and difficulty in providing effective access within neighborhoods.
The automobile still dominates the planning and layout of Bamberton. On-site parking for only one vehicle per residence is being required, which is a step in the right direction, but little assurance exists that additional vehicles won't appear. The real benefits of non-auto-dependent communities can't be achieved until significant inroads are made into the land use and ownership costs of auto ownership. And that requires closer access to community services than Bamberton appears to provide in its current plan configuration. Narrower street frontage on individual lots, and greater availability of cluster or partywall housing of various types could provide that density.
Better connection of pedestrian and bicycle routes across ravines near the inlet would appear to provide beneficial alternative routes to access the downtown, the high school, and other parts of this "linear" community. Details of proposed transit systems were not yet available for review. The inclusion of neighborhood-owned vehicle rental facilities (Rent-alls) at most transit stops (village centers) should be considered to provide flexibility for arriving visitors and to provide an alternative vehicle access structure with more vehicle types which could reduce secondary and primary car ownership.
* What about the nutrient cycle?
Under the spotlight of public scrutiny, I can only assume that the sewage treatment will be of the highest standard. What is less clear is whether anything is being done to encourage recycling of the nutrients into local food production. Bamberton makes no attempt at on site food production, purposefully locating off of agricultural land to preserve its use.
In an area of relatively low rainfall, the centralized "limnionic marsh" tertiary sewage treatment appears to be overkill and of questionable appropriateness. Modular subdivision-sized biological treatment systems can achieve the same goals, yet also allow modular growth and decentralized release of greywater or secondary-treated sewage to soils application for landscaping, gardening, or forestry. Even a centralized treatment system could potentially use direct soils application in forestry areas to provide beneficial use of soluble nutrients and water in place of the "artificial marsh" treatment. Soper's work at Penn State shows a long history of successful demonstration of this procedure.
* What about resource efficiency and materials recycling?
This will presumably be handled under the architectural guidelines which are not yet completed. They hopefully will give equal weight to the use of local materials, durability, and elimination of the practices that generate waste rather than just recycling which makes it "ok" to continue currently wasteful practices. Source separation should be considered in place of materials separation at a recycling center.
* Is the use of the quarries appropriate?
The two limestone quarries on the site at the town center are immense, and dwarf in scale the proposed structures adjoining them. Even with artificial "marshes" on their floors, they remain overpowering and disturbing presences hovering over the town center. It seems that an adequate solution to them has not yet been achieved, and further study of possible uses desirable. Ten stories of manufacturing space, car parking, or solid waste disposal could be accommodated with room to spare.
* Are the proposed architectural styles appropriate?
The architectural styles suggested in sketches to date are often pleasing. What is of concern to me, however, is the concept of going back to the past for either "traditional neighborhood design" or "traditional architecture", rather than seeking appropriate expression and identity specific to the site, time and current culture. The past is always a reservoir of good and tested patterns, but however well we may mimic visually the appearances of a community of an earlier period, our culture, society, and technology are far different.
Any attempt to recreate "tradition" creates a false facade. It also says that we feel incapable of creating a worthy architectural and planning expression of our current society. It asks potential residents to buy into a community that doesn't acknowledge and express its true nature and significance. There is beauty, power, and meaning in the patterns sustainability encompasses, and the ability to create surroundings that can move our hearts deeply and without falsehood. The project should seek, through design competitions or other means, to encourage the emergence of that depth and power of architectural appropriateness.
* What about accessible community open space?
A significant portion of the site (37%) is remaining undeveloped. That does not, however, necessarily mean usable open space. Part is environmental or highway buffers, part an old-growth forest reserve, part is reserved for a possible golf course, part is unusable because of steep slopes. Virtually all usable land is otherwise developed into private lot parcels, with a few small public parks. Significantly more shared open space within residential blocks, within neighborhoods, or as community-wide open space could occur with other site layout patterns that achieve more clustering of residence densities and aggregating of open space. A third development option concerning wildlife ravines, which maintain houses between the streets and the ravines but puts the ravines themselves in public ownership, should be considered.
* Are the energy performance goals for the project any significant improvement over conventional construction?
The goals for residential energy performance in the project are stated as equaling or exceeding the Canadian R-2000 standard. That standard is approximately 40% reduction of "conventional" construction. That "conventional" construction baseline does not reflect current conventional practice. It is merely a benchmark from when energy efficiency efforts began 20 years ago. The R-2000 standard is less energy stringent than current codes and conventional construction required in Oregon and elsewhere, and hardly an appropriate basis for "sustainable" housing construction. Canadian "Advanced" energy demonstration houses, among many others, now cut the R-2000 energy use in half. Even that performance level can be cut again in half with currently available means, and within realistic construction cost restraints. This suggests that Bamberton's goals in this important area fall far short of what should be sought and expected. The projected energy use in the community could, and should, be reduced by 75% beyond its stated goal. The achieveability of that level of energy efficiency has been well documented by Rocky Mountain Institute and others.
* What's missing?
A major element of sustainability which seems to be missing from most projects is the spiritual dimensions of our surroundings. Most of our worst social ills, as well as the misapplication of our technologies, are "diseases of the spirit" arising out of lack of self esteem, mutual respect, and being of value to family and community. The resolving of these "diseases of the spirit" is a key dimension of sustainability, and has significant impacts on physical planning and architecture as well as the cultural dimension of the community. Providing touchstones for our spirits throughout the community, guidelines for design elements in individual house construction, incorporation of "1% for heart" for builder creativity in construction, review of directionality of "resource efficiency", integrated prototype designs, and guidelines for "round number" pricing in retail products are some specific elements that can begin to address this issue. This is distinct from the community aspects of the project, which appear to be well addressed to date. The actions needed to address these problems are not major, but need to be incorporated in the overall as well as specific design of the project.
Another element not reviewed was the economic development aspect of the project - how the project will support or compete with the existing economic base on the island, use local resources, small businesses, etc. Are high-efficiency windows to be made there or imported? Is Island timber being used or high-tech engineered products imported, etc. It is obvious that the project is working on this, but not apparent without further study how well.
* What is the "tummy test" reaction?
Whenever we try something new, it's important to step back, look it over, and ask that non-analytic question "Does it feel different? Does it feel right?" In this case my own reaction is mixed. The basic locational, planning, and town center decisions feel right. Much of the neighborhood layout does not.
* What can be done to help Bamberton demonstrate the best we can practically achieve in terms of sustainable design today?
1. The marketing study should be supplemented to examine the "sustainability" market and verify potential for more compact planning patterns. The investors need to have confidence in the marketability of sustainable patterns in order to support those more compact patterns. Public interest indicates it exists, but a proper market analysis for the project has yet to address that and provide a basis of investor support for different site patterns.
2. The province and the local communities should be given support and assistance to work with Bamberton and the rail and highway transportation jurisdictions to transfer transportation capacity development on the TransCanada Highway to Victoria from the highway to the rail line. With the facilities already in place and operable, this would provide major economic savings, reduction in environmental impact, energy savings, and achieve a convincing demonstration of effective multi-modal transportation planning.
3. The transportation authority (MOTH) should be helped to obtain and adopt design and construction standards for onsite circulation appropriate to this kind of community development. It is unfortunate that they have been saddled with dealing with a kind of design which is outside their normal charge. It is in their interest, the interest of surrounding communities, and of all of us to have new design parameters demonstrated and tested which can potentially provide significant savings in both local and through traffic needs, while retaining safety through lower design speeds.
4. Initial development design - residential, community, and commercial - should be done on demonstration or competition basis to develop public interest and achieve a "state of the art" "Street of Greens".
5. Assistance should be given to address spiritual dimensions of sustainability and resolution of "diseases of the spirit" in both the process and physical development.
6. The physical site layout should be reexamined with new marketing and street parameters to evaluate possible improvements and alternatives to reduce site improvement costs and improve sustainability.
7. The concept of wildlife corridors should be reviewed and expanded to a plan for ensuring the health and well-being of the on-site natural community.
8. Alternative proposals for the quarries should be studied.
9. Patterns which provide more accessible community open space should be strongly considered.
10. Energy performance goals and standards should be significantly upgraded.
11. The issue of architectural styles should be further examined.
12. The developers and planners of Bamberton should be applauded for taking on the full complexity of a major shift in community design and operation, for achieving what they already have to this point, and for expressing a willingness and openness to evolve the process to its maximum.
38755 Reed Rd.
Nehalem OR 97131 USA
© December 1993