Book Report: Green Metropolis

January is the cruelest month when it comes to reading. Books from both Christmas and my birthday vie for time and attention like so many petulant, raucous children. David Owen’s Green Metropolis has been a source of some amusement and entertainment for me and I recommend it to anyone looking at the green buildings market.

The gist of Owen’s book is simple, the entire world would be better off living in Manhattan. Barring that, they should at least live as those in Manhattan do, stacked on top of each other in high-rise apartments within easy walking distance of shops, offices and restaurants.

Perhaps this is the conclusion any staff writer for The New Yorker might arrive at.

Owen, however, lays out the arguments for urban living as the ultimate in sustainability both persuasively and amusingly. The conclusions are surprising, the writing is smooth and it’s backed up by serious reporting and acerbic insights.

The concise version of his argument is something that will be familiar to those who have done time in the IT industry. The network matters more than any one particular node:

“The crucial fact about sustainability is that it is not a micro phenomenon: there can be no such thing as a “sustainable” house, office building, or household appliance, for the same reason that there can be no such thing as a one-person democracy or a single-company economy. Every house, office building, and appliance, no matter where its power comes from or how many of its parts were made from soybeans, is just a single small element in a civilization-wide network of deeply interdependent relationships, and it’s the network, not the individual constituents, on which our future depends. Sustainability is a context, not a gadget or a technology. This is the reason that dense cities set such a critical example: they prove that it’s possible to arrange large human populations in ways that are inherently less wasteful and destructive.”

That’s a stunning insight to someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about technology will make the next building boom an environmentally friendly one. But when you swim each day in a stream of techno-optimism, it’s easy to get caught up in the current that constantly promises a better tomorrow.

I wrote a story last year on how buildings suck up nearly 40% of generated electricity and the construction industry makes up about 13% of the U.S. economy, according to government statistics. It was about the tech startups that are renovating the business of building from the ground up. Literally.

I reviewed every piece of the green building equation, from a Hycrete foundation (cement manufacturing accounts for as much as 8% of carbon-dioxide emissions worldwide, researchers estimate), to Serious Materials dry-wall (Its EcoRock drywall comes from 80% recycled materials, takes 80% less energy to make and, oh yeah, actually resists mold better than the gypsum drywall that’s likely in your house now) right through to switchable glass windows from Soladigm (which could save up to 20% of a building’s energy costs).

Check out my extensive spreadsheet of green building technology startups: Green Building Startups.

Holland House

But all that gadgetry may take a back seat to living small, simple and close to your neighbors. That’s exactly the opposite of what innovators such as venture capitalist Paul Holland are trying to do.

Holland’s goal is to build “the greenest custom-built home in America” in Portola Valley, Calif. You can see a clip of his plans and a computer model of his modern mansion in the clip below.

His motivation for constructing this green behemoth is to inspire others to live green. He wants to be able to tell his three children that he lived green. “At some point in the future, 30, 40 or 50 years from now, if I have the opportunity to speak to them, I want to be able to look them in the eye and say that I did everything I could to try to solve the major crisis facing my generation,” he says.

Yet one can’t help wondering if such a course of action really solves any problems. Holland might do better to relocate to a reasonably-sized apartment building in San Francisco and work from an office downtown. Admittedly, such frugality of living lacks panache.

Still, I applaud Holland for his work as an investor in innovative companies that will change the way we build. One would hope the technologies pioneered by CalStar, Serious Materials and other startups in his portfolio make their way into everyday use.

As attractive as the thesis behind Green Metropolis is, I can’t help thinking that technology will enable even Manhattanites to live with greater efficiency.

Living LEED in LA

I have been living a veritable case study in green building technology since I moved to Los Angeles 18 months ago. My wife and I have taken up in a building of condos next to the Staples Center in downtown.

The building went up in 2006, the product of the housing boom, and sold out its 200 units the day it opened. It is certified LEED Gold and has its plaque prominently hung in the building vestibule.

You can see the efficiency features throughout the apartment, from the bamboo floors and to the compact fluorescents and low-flow commode. Our favorite feature is the floor-to-ceiling windows that both let in tons of natural light and manage to block out the majority of street sounds.

My reporting showed me there’s plenty of room for tech-inspired improvements, from better monitoring of the internal environment to reduce air-conditioning uses to superior insulation for our pipes and ducts.

But the truth is that I didn’t pick the apartment for its green trappings. The allure was its location—1.2 miles away from my office. More than anything else, I wanted to avoid the hellish commute LA is known for. I walk to work when I can, or drive on a day like today when the heavens threaten to let loose with torrential rains.

I can’t help wondering, after reading Owen’s book, if all those LEED points matter as much as the simple act of living in a modest apartment close to where I work.