What does ‘net zero’ mean? Sprawl by another name?

Lloyd Alter of Treehugger says that the following post by Kaid Benfield of NRDC Switchboard is his favourite of the year:

site of Prairie Ridge Estates (via Google Earth, marking by me)

Prairie Ridge Estates, a single-use, single-family residential subdivision being constructed on farmland 40 miles southwest of Chicago, is billing itself as ‘the nation’s first net zero energy community of custom designed homes.’   The suggestion is that, if you purchase a home here, you’re as green as it gets.  The development’s web site devotes a page to LEED, the green building rating system – featuring the US Green Building Council’s LEED logo, and noting the following:

“In an environment where we face increasing energy costs and have a heightened awareness of environmental responsibility there needs to be an alternative. That alternative is Prairie Ridge Estates, a community of 132 net-zero energy homes in New Lenox, Illinois, that can produce as much energy as a typical family consumes.

“Built using Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs), concrete walls encased in a highly engineered insulating foam extend from the foundation to the peaks of the roofline. The homes begin with a shell that is exponentially more efficient than traditional 2″x4″ framed houses and are then combined with appliances and technologies that squarely focus on efficiency. From electricity to water to air quality, efficiency has driven the careful and deliberate selection of each window, appliance, and infrastructure system. While a Prairie Ridge Estates home will look and feel just like other homes it will perform unlike any other home, producing its own energy with wind turbines and solar panel systems. The homes also use designed systems, such as closed-loop geothermal, that limit energy consumption by as much as 80%. The result is a standard LEED Gold certified home that can easily achieve Platinum certification with minor design modifications.”

So far, so good, I suppose.  Those are laudable elements of green building design.

40 miles from Chicago (via Google Earth, markings by me)

But, um, how can you be net-zero if you have to drive long distances to do anything?  The closest intersection to the construction site that has roads with names in Google’s data base is the intersection of South Gougar Road (Will County highway 52) and West Oak Avenue (79th Street).  That’s two-tenths of a mile from the entrance to the subdivision and a third of a mile from the heart.  The Walk Score for that intersection is, well, ZERO.  I think that’s a different kind of ‘net zero’ than the developer is claiming, though.

Prairie Ridge's stats on Abogo (via Abogo)

Remember Abogo, from last week, the tool that measures likely transportation costs and average transportation emissions from a given location?  I ran Prairie Ridge’s location through Abogo, too:  average transportation costs per household are 24 percent higher than the regional average, and carbon emissions from transportation are nearly twice the regional average.  How green does that sound?  What might happen to the ‘net zero’ claim if the 1.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted every month by households in the Prairie Ridge location – and the energy consumption they represent – were factored into the equation?  And what about the claimed energy cost savings, if you’re shelling out $200 more each month for transportation than the average household in your metro region?

According to the web site, “lots average 1/3 acre in size. Floorplans start at 2,500 square feet. and lots can accomodate homes as large as 6,000 square feet.”

Incidentally, while noodling around Google Earth I found an empty parcel of suburban infill about four miles away in Joliet (below left) of about the same size as Prairie Ridge that would at least bring the Walk Score up to 31, and lower carbon emissions by around 34 percent, compared to Praire Ridge.  A few miles west of that one is another suburban infill parcel (below right) that would raise the Walk Score to 66.  Both of those are still above average in costs and emissions but infill can at least begin to retrofit suburbia to something more sustainable. Shouldn’t alternative sites similar to those be preferred over totally unwalkable farmland?

4 miles away (via Google Earth, marking by me) 9 miles away (via Google Earth, marking by me)

Prairie Ridge’s environmental shortcomings are not emphasized in the mostly glowing article written on the new development in the Chicago Tribune earlier this month by Mary Ellen Podmolik – but the writer, to her credit, does observe that “The homeowner’s commitment to a green philosophy is a question mark, starting with daily commuting practices:  Anyone driving 80 miles round-trip to Chicago in a SUV probably loses the right to claim a green lifestyle.”  You think?

The LEED page on the developer’s web site mentions, after the passage quoted above, that “LEED for Neighborhood Development extends the benefits of LEED beyond the building footprint into the neighborhood it serves.”  Well, yes, if you meet the requirements.  But look where Prairie Ridge is.  This photo was taken right across the county road from the entrance:

across the road from Prairie Ridge Estates (via Google Earth)

This is not true green development but exurban sprawl.  One can earn LEED building certification pretty much in the middle of nowhere, unfortunately, so they may well accomplish that part. The developer seems to be claiming that the homes-to-be already have qualified for LEED-gold and that a builder can make easy adjustments to a building plan to enable the purchaser to aim higher and obtain a LEED-platinum rating.

But there is not a chance in hell that Prairie Ridge is earning LEED-ND certification for smart, green urbanism.  If it does, there is something very wrong with LEED-ND.  And I would add that, if something in this location, with these transportation characteristics, is awarded a LEED-platinum rating under the LEED for Homes criteria, there is something very wrong with that system, too.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.  [JR:  “me” is Kaid.]

— Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog’s home page.

30 Responses to What does ‘net zero’ mean? Sprawl by another name?

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    Your objections are legitimate, but I think you missed the main point. Getting away from leaky and fragile wood two by four construction via ICF is a brave and extremely important step and should be encouraged. Remember, all of this builder’s competitors are putting up houses made from two by fours, formaldehyde laced oriented strand board, and vinyl.

    Big houses far from jobs represent bad urban planning, but as a former developer let me educate you a bit about how the process works. The builder goes to banks and investors for money, who release it when market studies show decent comparable house absorbtion rates. Americans like yards and privacy, and there are many subtle subsidies at work. There is no pricing for car pollution, condemned farmland, and utility transmission. Until all of this changes, we will be stuck with more distant suburbs.

  2. Wit's End says:

    I don’t see why the LEED certification should concern itself with transportation. If we weren’t such idiots, we would use solar power to fuel electric cars, and then the commute wouldn’t be such a big deal. We could also improve public transportation. I don’t like to see new development at all – I think it makes more sense to rehabilitated existing abandoned housing.

    But to judge the footprint of a house on assumptions about the travel habits of its future inhabitants doesn’t seem relevant.

  3. Doug in MN says:

    I’m with the author on this one, far better to infill in the city with low energy housing or better yet, upgrade existing homes to a high level of efficiency. Carving up farmland to build new homes far from mass transit is crazy, you can’t make topsoil, this is not sustainable.

  4. Jeff Green says:

    I live just a few miles from this subdivision in a nearby town. As far as green goes in the area, this is the best around that I know of on a subdivision basis. When building a subdivision, the only place where it can be built is on the edge of town away from the downtown infrastructure. In order to acheive what you are asking this builder to do should be from central planning from the town itself. I would say most towns in this area aren’t thinking that way. This guy is way out ahead of the curve.

  5. Paulm says:

    Good point.

    Anything that distinguishes the average person from the average human is bound to hit constraints.

  6. Paulm says:

    It’s NOT natural!

    Australian flood covering an area larger than France and Germany combined

    BRISBANE, Australia — Military aircraft dropped supplies to towns cut off by floods in northeastern Australia as the prime minister promised new assistance Friday to the 200,000 people affected by waters covering an area larger than France and Germany combined. Residents were stocking up on food or

  7. Bob Lang says:

    Suburban sprawl was caused by cheap oil. When cheap oil goes away, so will suburban sprawl.

    I don’t care how you power your electric vehicle, wind, solar, biofuel, whatever. There is only so much renewable energy that can be squeezed out of each square mile of surface area.

    The same is true for globalization. Every available acre of farmland
    will be needed for local/regional food production.

  8. GFW says:

    I’ll add my voice to those supporting the developer. He’s taken a risk and done a very good thing with what he had control over. What he doesn’t have control over is what we need government to change.

  9. Pat Richards says:

    The empty sites closer in to Chicago would, of course, have cost much more per acre for the developer to purchase. Since the developer was already taking a huge risk (particularly in this very weak housing market) that buyers would be willing to pay for all the additional costs that making this community so energy-neutral requires, if they had tried to build closer into the city the extra cost of the land would have likely prevented the project from being built at all.

    So, given the trade-offs the practical reality require, the developer is to be hailed as a visionary who was willing to *do* something instead of just vision. Developments like this serve as important examples of what can and should be done. Niggling about the drive-time is not quite as bad as those who want to prevent the building of solar base power plants in the California desert for fear of ‘damaging the fragile desert enviornment’ but it’s in the same ballpark.

    This isn’t a perfect world, in case someone out there has not yet noticed.

  10. fj3 says:

    Um, . . . , let’s see . . . , there are 430 million cyclists in China where an additional 120 million use ebikes (giving more speed and range); and cycling is about 3 to 4 times more efficient than walking (range, speed, etc.) making the area improvement something like 9 to 16 times better . . . ; kind of suspect the Chinese could make this into a net-zero or near-net-zero community with some tweaking.

    Of course, net-zero mobility is something else.

  11. Theodore says:

    I lived on the edge of a city for the bulk of my career and hardly ever went all the way downtown. I commuted 5 miles to work. The solution to the urban sprawl commuter problem is to bring business to the country along with the people. Trust me, it’s a good thing.

    This article reminds me of one of the objections frequently raised (mostly by Joe) about hydrogen vehicles – that they have a large carbon footprint because we have to burn all that coal to make the hydrogen. This is a ridiculous argument because it’s but one piece of a larger puzzle. The hydrogen will ultimately come from renewable sources and the footprint will be zero.

    When putting the puzzle together, you should not criticize the puzzle as incomplete after the first piece has been attached to another. It can’t be done all at once. We have to take it one step at a time. This project is a step in the right direction. Don’t criticize it because it isn’t perfect or complete. Praise it for being better than nothing.

  12. Tim says:

    Hydrogen vehicles don’t make sense because in reality (not to be confused with DOE targets), the hydrogen storage problem for vehicles is nowhere close to being solved. Hydrogen is an excellent energy material by mass, but by volume? Let’s put it this way, most of the metal-organic-framework synthesizers are busy hedging their bets with much less ambitious applications in gas separation.

    In my opinion, hydrogen storage was an idea hyped by the Bush administration because the fossil fuel industry saw it as a way to seem green.

  13. K. Nockels says:

    Until we learn to live in houses that are 1) the right size for our needs, meaning if you both work and have two kids in school how much time do you spend at home, how many square feet is enough. 2)are you using that square footage for living or is half of it just storage for all the THINGS you have aquired 3)any commute that is longer than 18 miles is just adding to the problem unless everyone is driving a Hybred. There are millions of homes right now that are empty yet we have thousands in Chicago alone that are homeless, Why in heavens name are we building more houses at all and not retro fitting the ones standing vacant across the country. When we all start thinking in terms of what we need not what we want we might possibly begin to make headway on living stainability.

  14. Not a Lawyer says:

    I thought LEED certification did take into account things like location and planning. Wouldn’t that cover the transportation aspect?

  15. Tim L. says:

    I’m with Mike Roddy on this one. Gotta start somewhere. Better to encourage the good, rather than carp about it not being perfect.

  16. catman306 says:

    Doesn’t every upscale subdivision have a niche market? Less than 10 miles from the 100 year old farmhouse I live in is a gated one with cobblestone streets, golf course, golf cart trails, lots of tennis courts, and other sports facilities.

    Prairie Ridge is greener than most.


  17. Christopher Yaun says:

    Burning Down the House

    We start 500,000 house a month and maybe 10 will meet any rigorous energy standard. We have squandered our wealth so badly.

    We need to cut our CO2 footprint by 90% and fast. We are going to be living in smaller homes, we are going to be growing our food locally, we are not going to be driving cars, we are not going to be flying in jet airplanes and our feet are going to be wet before we figure this out.

    And we are not going to power our electric cars with PV panels. The $30,000 of PV panels on my roof generate 20KWH on a perfect sunny day. That’ll get you about 30 miles in an all electric car. And there are exactly no electric cars on the market that I can afford.

    We are going to live near to where we work and we are going to use mass transit. We have squandered our wealth so badly.

    I own two homes that are 3-5 feet above high tide. It’s going to be about 10 years before we understand the full impact of sea-level rise.

  18. “Big houses far from jobs represent bad urban planning, but as a former developer let me educate you a bit about how the process works. The builder goes to banks and investors for money, who release it when market studies show decent comparable house absorbtion rates. Americans like yards and privacy, and there are many subtle subsidies at work. There is no pricing for car pollution, condemned farmland, and utility transmission. Until all of this changes, we will be stuck with more distant suburbs.”

    Totally untrue. Many developers are building walkable, New Urbanist suburbs. Houses in New Urbanist suburbs sell for about 20% more than comparable houses in sprawl suburbs – proving that there is more demand for New Urbanist suburbs than for sprawl suburbs.

    All the commenters defending this as the “first step” or as “the best we can do now” simply do not know what has been happening in urban design for the last twenty years.

  19. “I don’t see why the LEED certification should concern itself with transportation. If we weren’t such idiots, we would use solar power to fuel electric cars, and then the commute wouldn’t be such a big deal.”

    I don’t see why LEED should concern itself with energy efficiency. If we weren’t such idiots, we would use solar power to run electric heaters and electric air conditioners, and then insulating our houses would not be a big deal.

    (Anyone who has looked at the numbers knows that we need to do two things. 1: shift to cleaner energy. 2: consume less energy. Isn’t it odd that, when we talk about insulating houses, people never come up with this idea that we can keep consuming energy as if there were no tomorrow. It is only when they get to the elephant on the kitchen table, the automobile, that people suddenly become cornucopians about solar energy.)

  20. riverat says:

    Here in Oregon such a subdivision likely couldn’t be built. We passed a statewide zoning law in 1973 (Senate Bill 100) that forces local governments to identify and attempt to preserve good farm land (among other things). It isn’t perfect but I don’t see as much sprawl here as I do in other states.

  21. Steve says:

    It’s not just the SUV commute that makes this site selection a poor candidate for sustainability. The previous land use while classed as farm-land also includes field edges, headlands, wind breaks and road allowances which in this part of the mid-west provide much needed habitat for pollinating insects including the Monarch Butterfly. This area of Illinois is prime breeding habitat for the Monarch. Monarchs are threatened by urban sprawl across their breeding range in the United States and Canada and the use of herbicide resistant crops in their breeding areas which destroy their host plant – the milkweed. According to Chip Taylor, Kansas State University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, “In the United States, sprawl consumes 9.4 square miles of natural habitat per day (or an area the size of Illinois every 16 years).

    The Monarch Butterfly engages in one of the world’s great migrations. Because of habitat loss and extreme weather the numbers of overwintering butterflies at the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in Mexico have plummeted in recent years. The Monarch Butterfly is at a precipice. The Monarch is a unique symbol because it holds such fascination for people and because it is vulnerable it symbolizes what is wrong with society’s present day priorities. The disappearance of this migration phenomenon could one day come to symbolize a deteriorating environment attributable to climate change and habitat loss.

  22. Wit's End says:

    Charles Siegel, apparently you missed this portion of my comment:

    I don’t like to see new development at all – I think it makes more sense to rehabilitated existing abandoned housing.

  23. Jim says:

    It is valid to criticize this project because of its complete failure to have a stratgegy to reduce transportation emissions. It is valid to laud this project for the effort to reduce emissions attributable to the residences themselves.. LEED – ND rates the former and this project fails. LEED – Homes rates rates the latter and this project excels.

    This project is an abject failure on the comunity development side and a glowing success on the structure side. That is the message. And if we solve only one side of this at a time, as this project does, we are guaranteed to fail in reversing the emissions trend of this nation.

  24. riverat says:

    The question that hasn’t been addressed here is how far do they have to drive to the nearest grocery store or shopping center? You can’t ignore that either.

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ecological crisis is the perfect example of where the so-called ‘free market’ falls down, disastrously. ‘Leaving it to the market’ on every level, from global to micro-levels, means, in reality, leaving it to greed and self-interest. Capitalism still means profit maximisation, by any means necessary. I think that a system like that of China is better, where a meritocratic elite, not owned body and soul by the money power, make the overall decisions as to where the economy should head, then the actual putting of these general trends into practise is left to the real market ie workers, consumers, traders and merchants and other dependents such as old people and children, in other words, the whole of humanity, not just the avaricious elite, increasingly dominated in the West by the financial parasites. By this means real democracy, at the only level where it has any true meaning, the local level, will be greatly strengthened, and activities that are detrimental to humanity and the biosphere, but immensely profitable for a tiny elite, will be outlawed. I think the proof of the pudding is there for all to see, in the contrasting trajectories of the USA (towards collapse under a mountain of debt, governed by venal imbeciles, in the pay of amoral plutocrats)and China (growing rapidly, leading in green industries and forging trade and investment links across the world).

  26. LK says:

    Indeed, the builder is making two false claims: (1) that the “net-zero” homes produce as much energy as a family uses. That should be adjusted to read that the homes can create as much energy as is used IN them. The occupants will surely use energy outside the home (e.g., commuting), and the house doesn’t make up for that. (2) It’s not the first in the nation! We here in Austin, Texas have them beat by a few years: And I don’t think even SOL is the “first in the nation.” Beautiful homes, not mansions, in the city limits with nearby public transportation and reasonable biking distance to many services (and downtown Austin).

  27. Bob Lang says:

    The average suburban family owns 2 vehicles and makes an average of 10 vehicle trips a day. Personal transportation fuel concumption is only 1 component of the total resource consumption.

    The total ecological footprint of Americans is 5 times the global average. By the end of this century, total resource consumtion will either by 80-90% below where it is now or there will be no human civilization as we know it.

  28. Flin says:

    This is a classic post from a radical point of view. Where everything less than perfect is bad. In the future we will have homes with a net power production that may balance our emissions from the transportsector and others. For the US, I believe initiatives like these to be highly applaudable. Because the US wastes a lot more energy than comparable states. Mainly due to building standards and emission standards being labeled as an attack on “Freedom”.

  29. Climate Warrior says:

    If the zoning has been approved, there’s not much a locality can do to stop exurban building. So building green on those parcels is better than not. But I agree that location, public transportation, and walkability should be bottom line criteria for deeming buildings “net zero.”

    The green field development and criticism described in this post are exactly why everyone who cares about climate change should get involved with their local government. If we want to stop this kind of exurban development, your local leaders need some serious political backing for an extended amount of time, probably at least five years (and you have to the right people in office.) The developer / builder lobby is very strong and powerful at the local level, and taking away development rights is the ultimate sin in their book.

    Given the traffic issues in most exurban areas and the expense of building schools, roads, $4 gas, etc, it is fairly easy to engage the community, but someone has to take that lead in the press and the local council room in a sustained and strategic campaign to change the zoning. The developers / builders have deep pockets for creative PR to make their case.

    Local government is a huge part of addressing the challenge of climate change, and from what I can see across the nation, those local players are largely ignored, especially in the exurban and rural areas. We need to get engaged in green *local* policies and also support local leaders if we have any hope of more efficient and greener communities.

    I also think we need to continue to reach out to the developers / builders to get them deeply involved in combating climate change. When they make moves in the right direction, they should be praised, and we should engage them in doing even better the next time. They can be powerful allies in truly green development and policies at the local and state level.

    And we need to actively build our local food economy, so people decide to farm their land instead of selling it to developers.