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Jeff Myhre: The Unsustainable Truth

November 19th 2012

Many of us have been indoctrinated by our society to wholeheartedly believe in, and even fight and die for, the right to use and consume whatever products, services and materials we choose.

We call it Liberty and Freedom. As Americans, we have spent trillions of dollars and decades of time exporting this concept around the globe because it's good for our growth and expansion, good for the world's reserve currency (ironically the U.S. dollar), and good for our ability to make more money and consume more products, services and materials than our neighbors, The Jones, do.

This is partially due to the planned obsolescence of many products and is a critical component to a consumer-based economy like we have throughout the Western world today, representing 70 percent of America's economic activity alone.

Since its inception in 1993, the United States Green Building Council has promoted the concept of 'sustainability' with regard to how buildings are designed, built and operated. Because of its name, the USGBC is sometimes confused for a government agency or entity, but it is not. It is a nonprofit privately traded 501(c)(3).

By definition, the word sustainability fundamentally means "to maintain", but to maintain what?

As Albert Einstein discovered, all things that are measured are only measured relative to the perspective of the observer. So, what does "sustainability" really mean to us?

America is a mixed economy with both free-market and closed-market components. It requires continued growth and expansion to survive and thrive. This is why we've historically had a very open and enticing immigration policy that allows our population to grow more quickly than through natural births, and why our tax code is generally structured for the reinvestment and spending of profits into new ventures, products and materials, rather than into maintaining savings, as in most developed countries.

When it comes to buildings, they are quite expensive and often cumbersome to maintain.

Most buildings eventually lose their economic useful life and value as they age, which is why building owners can deduct initial building depreciation on their tax returns.

Historically, real estate generally appreciates, especially as result of increased growth, expansion and demand for quality property within an urban environment like Portland. As a property appreciates in value, and a building sitting on the property depreciates in value, the equation will eventually reach a point where the land is worth more than the building is worth, especially with increased density goals and more flexible zoning standards aimed at preventing sprawl and promoting transit.

This is when buildings are either renovated and improved through significant new investment, or razed completely to make room for new buildings of entirely new construction.

The faster a city grows and expands, the faster the property values appreciate within the city limits, and the faster the built buildings within the city lose their economic useful life and overall value compared to the property they occupy.

As a result, most commercial buildings in America that are built through private speculative real estate development are designed and built to be temporary or disposable, which is certainly not sustainable, nor something that can be maintained over the long haul if we intend to reduce pollution, global warming and our carbon footprint on the planet.

With changing building codes that reflect ever-increasing energy efficiency, fire and life safety requirements, Americans With Disabilities Act requirements, and structural and seismic requirements, the economic useful life of most buildings is being reduced further and further by our regulatory agencies.

For some buildings, such as big box retail stores, stand-alone restaurants, commercial tenant improvements and suburban hotels, their useful life is now generally under 20 years.

This is why most of the commercial buildings in the suburbs are designed to be very simple, cheap and efficient, and why most jurisdictions are fighting harder for increased design quality through new regulatory controls and design requirements. As we've seen locally, these opposing forces lead to significant conflicts among the market conditions to which developers, building owners, banks and investors must respond.

These opposing forces also lead to significant conflicts in the design, planning and aesthetic desires of the greater community and governing public agencies that guide and oversee the design and development of all buildings in Portland.

Most people who believe in and endorse the sustainability movement will eventually end up debating the value of a building's overall life-cycle costs. It's really the only way to justify the increased time required, as well as design and construction costs of attempting to be "green" or "sustainable", as defined by the USGBC and the LEED (Leaders in Energy Efficient Design) ratings system.

But, as outlined above, this argument doesn't answer America's consumption, growth and expansion goals, which have been in place for over 230 years. This issue has been vehemently fought for through many hot and cold wars, trade embargoes and sanctions, and does not appear to be wavering in the least.

For whatever reasons, the discussion is no longer about protecting the environment from the negative impacts of mankind, but much more about putting plaques on buildings, patting ourselves on the back for "doing the right thing", and pretending that our current path of existence on planet Earth is somehow something that we can sustain over time at our current standards of living and overall societal expectations.

Without a significant change in our global economic structure, our overall way of American life cannot be maintained.

No LEED plaque, government accolade, green design award or sustainable building certification will change this fact, nor will more windmills, bio-fuels or carbon credits.

While the concept of achieving sustainability with regard to the design of buildings is a noble and respectable goal, sadly, it may merely be just another unattainable illusion.