Greening the ‘American Dream’

It wasn’t long ago that “green building” was waved off by skeptics as an impossible marriage of opposing worlds. Or, it simply referred to a building that was actually green.

Back then, people were leaders, not LEEDers. Solar panel meant a seminar about the sun. Greenhouse gases were confined to greenhouses. Sprinklers watered lawns, sidewalks and half the street. Home air conditioning was an open window and a box fan.

Today’s American building industry is no longer the spirited band of self-taught pioneers who built the post-War suburbs with lumber and sweat equity and nary a thought of yet-to-be-born phrases like “sustainable development,” “carbon footprint” or “Zero Net Energy.”

Instead, we are an industry advocating and embracing sustainability and Green Building with end-to-end sustainable development strategies that are economically viable, ecologically responsible, and socially valuable. We’ve proven that building for profit and environmental sustainability are perfectly compatible principles that resonate with consumers and create long-term value.

Salem Afeworki, ULI member and founder of Value Sustainability, a CA-based consulting group that provides advisory services in sustainable design, calls the greening of the American Dream an important demonstration of the industry’s progressive thinking about sustainable development.

“What we see happening is private- and public-sector development interests recognizing need for sustainability development that advances environmental stewardship and economic success,” said Salem. “The good news is they’re reaching out to their colleagues and sustainability experts to develop integrated sustainability strategies on an increasing scale.”

Indeed, developers and industry associates across the nation are collaborating to advance a green-from-the-ground-up revolution in home design, land planning, and community development that’s proving to be good for people, the planet, and profits.

California is ground zero in the green revolution. The “big bold” goals included in the California Long Term Energy Efficiency Strategic Plan coupled with the California Green Building Standard’s Code (CALGreen) and visionary executive orders such as Governor Brown’s commitment to Zero Emission Vehicles are driving innovation in mainstream community development, producing some of the most transformative buildings and communities on the planet.

At UC Davis, a groundbreaking public-private partnership has produced the nation’s largest Zero Net Energy community called West Village. Home to more than 2,000 students, faculty, and staff, West Village is a thoughtful blend of mixed uses, multi-modal transportation amenities, bikeway connections, recreation, and open space in a master plan that promotes educational and social partnership.

But the headline achievement is its economic and environmental sustainability. Thanks to the research efforts of the UC Davis faculty and the green-minded commitment of the developer, West Village’s more than 1,100 apartments and homes and nearly 43,000 square feet of commercial space achieve net zero energy demand through on-site renewable energy generation and breakthrough efficiencies in energy consumption.

A few miles east in West Sacramento is one of our projects that recently received a Gold Nugget for the Best on the Boards Land Plan. Liberty is a mixed-use “zero net energy community” of 1,503 residential units, K-8 school, clubhouse, with retail and office, showcasing how green-thinking and sustainable development goals drive conceptual land planning that integrates land-use elements, orientation, resource management, and connectivity to meet ambitious objectives for energy efficiency, water quality, and clean transportation. Circadian sensitive LED lighting is integrated throughout the community, both indoors and outdoors, to enhance health, wellness, and energy efficiency.

Homebuilders are now creating home environments that are delivering unprecedented levels of home-based energy efficiency, water conservation, and interior air quality. From net-zero solar panel arrays and battery storage features to layered LED lighting design, gray water recycling, and new HVAC technologies that are achieving new standards in interior air quality, the industry is embracing the costs of sustainable development as a long-term value proposition.

The good news is consumers are on the industry’s side and see green building as socially responsible and economically attractive to protect the value of their home investment. More than 80 percent of homebuyers want energy-saving features in their homes, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

The decades long depletion of natural resources sends a clear message that building for today without regard to a sustainable future carries a great cost.

Judi Schweitzer is President & Chief Sustainability Advisor of Schweitzer + Associates, Inc. She may be reached at

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