Memories, Chopsticks, and McMansions

Nov. 30, 2005

“Could it be that it was all so simple then, or has time rewritten every line? If we had to do it all again, tell me, would we? Could we?

Barbra Streisand’s words from “The Way We Were” ring true for me this month as we turn our focus to residential building. 

A few weeks ago, I read a very interesting piece in the New York Times by
Op-Ed Columnist Thomas Friedman. In this particular piece, Friedman actually
was commenting on an essay written by another columnist - Zou Hanru of The China Daily.

In his essay, Mr. Zou made the shocking recommendation that the Chinese forgo the centuries-old tradition of eating with chopsticks and start using their hands. Why? The debilitating affect on China’s natural environment caused by disposable wooden chopsticks.

“We no longer have abundant forest cover, our land is no longer that green, our water tables are depleting, and our numbers are expanding faster than ever,” Mr. Zou wrote.  “China itself uses 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, or 1.66 million cubic meters of timber, or 25 million full-grown trees.” He carried the thought further, stating that the more affluent the Chinese become today, “the more the demand for bigger homes and a wide range of furniture.”

Sound like anyone you know?

But the discussion didn’t end there. Picking up on Mr. Zou’s theme, Mr. Friedman wrote about the affect of China’s capitalism on China’s environment, and vice versa:

Can anything stop Chinese capitalism? Yes, Chinese capitalism. Other than political breakdown, the biggest threat to China’s growth is now the environment. One Sam’s Club, part of Wal-Mart, in the Chinese city of Shenzhen, sold 1,100 air-conditioners in one hot weekend last year. There is a limit to how long you can do that.

In fairness, Mr. Friedman went on to say that Chinese leaders are aware of their predicament and are taking steps to reverse deforestation, as well as seeking alternatives to coal-fired electricity plants. But, the problem extends far beyond China’s borders:

Tighter regulation alone won’t save China’s environment, or the world’s. Since logging in most natural forests was banned here in 1998, China’s appetite for imported wood has led to stripped forests in Russia, Africa, Burma, and Brazil. China outsourced its environmental degradation.

That is why you need an integrated solution. And that is why the most important strategy the United States and China need to pursue, in concert, is one that brings business, government, and NGOs together to produce a more sustainable form of development - so China can create a model for itself and others on how to do more things with less stuff and fewer emissions. That is the economic, environmental, and national security issue of our day. Nothing else is even close.

Pretty powerful stuff, no? And, by the way, a friend returned from a trip to Shanghai in September in awe of the amount of commercial building taking place. Cranes everywhere you turn. Brand new mega-apartment complexes sitting idle, waiting for new workers to arrive. And 2,000 more skyscrapers planned for in that city alone. Two thousand! The numbers are staggering.

At this point, you’re probably saying to yourselves, “Yeah, Rick, we get it ... taking advantage of our natural environment is a bad thing.” But, that’s not really my point here. It’s just my introduction to another thought.

The points made by Mr. Friedman and Mr. Zou were still with me a few days later when I read an article about Toll Brothers, the mega-developers who brought us “the McMansion” - or, rather, what the Tolls prefer to call “the estate home.” (This piece was actually the cover story of The New York Times Magazine that came out 10 days earlier, but I hadn’t gotten to it yet.)

Anyway, I was fascinated by many of the “numbers” that appeared in the article:

  • Right now, Toll Brothers owns enough land on which 80,000 homes can be built. And they’re not even the leader of the pack. The article quotes K. Hovnanian as having land for 100,000 homes; Pulte Homes for 350,000; and others such as Lennar, Centex Homes, and KB Home having tracts for hundreds of thousands of homes as well.
  • Roughly 13.5 million single-family homes have been built since the mid-1990s - with a record high of 1.6 million homes built last year and 1.58 million predicted for next year.
  • Toll Brothers expects their production of 8,600 homes in 2005 to grow to 15,000 homes built for the year 2010.
  • The average Toll Brothers customer spends $103,000 on “extras,” such as additional bathrooms.

First, I’m thinking, “How do people have the money for these homes?” And, then, I thought about the power a company like Toll Brothers or any of these other mega-developers wields. If we’re to have a strategy of sustainable development that brings “business, government, and NGOs together,” as Mr. Friedman suggests, then wouldn’t this be an amazing place to start?

Imagine if solar-hot water systems were standard in every Toll Brothers home ... or renewable building materials ... or dual-flush toilets ... or even just top-of-the-line Energy Star®-rated appliances? How much energy, water, or forest cover could we save then?

In the course of the article, one Toll Brothers executive is quoted as saying, “We’re really a marketing company that happens to build houses.” That’s marketing the American Dream of owning a home. Imagine the effect if some of the boys (and girls) upstairs used their marketing prowess to promote sustainable development?

Of course, the responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the developers. There’s lots of education that remains to be done on the part of buyers. The article, when talking about an “extra” of higher-grade insulation offered by Toll Brothers during the energy crisis of the late 1970s, the company’s president, Zvi Barzilay, said, “No one bought it. Everyone spent their extra money on mouldings.”

Imagine, though, if some elements of sustainable design moved out of the “extra” or “options” column and found their way to the “standard features” column? The effect would be amazing.

Speaking of amazing, the recently concluded Greenbuild 2005, the annual conference of the U.S. Green Building Council, drew in excess of 10,000 people and 600 exhibitors to the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. The conference has grown nearly tenfold since 2002. You can accuse me of being a slow learner, but I think we’re onto something here! While the traditional focus has been on commercial buildings, we’re starting to see an increase in the residential sector. 

So, I guess this is as good a time as any to plug LEED-H. The LEED for Homes program is presently under development with input from local and national stakeholder groups. It is a voluntary initiative promoting the transformation of the mainstream home-building industry toward more sustainable practices. It will provide a much-needed tool for homebuilders, homeowners, and local governments for building environmentally sound, healthy, and resource-efficient places to live.

Makes me think back to the early 1990s, when I was a marketing director for the world’s largest HVAC manufacturer and we were using push-pull techniques to get homebuilders to offer 2-4 zone systems with programmable thermostats because they could help homeowners save up to 30 percent on their monthly energy bills. Most homebuilders turned a deaf ear. “Our customers want granite countertops and cathedral ceilings,” they said. 

Now consider the little note at the bottom of my energy bill this month, letting me know to expect a 32-percent increase for natural gas service beginning with my next bill. I wonder how many homeowners with 15-year-old, scratched-up granite countertops and cathedral ceilings that cost a fortune to heat wish they had that zoning system now? Funny how things come full circle. So, with respect to Barbra, tell me, Toll Brothers, Pulte, Lennar, Centex, and the rest of you ... if we had to do it all again, would we?  Let’s find a way to offer the sizzle and the steak. Let’s not build another generation of oversized, energy-guzzling homes. Or 15 years from now we might need all those chopsticks to heat our homes, because fossil fuels will be too expensive!

Rick Fedrizzi is a principal with the Global Environment & Technology Foundation, the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions and president of Green-Think Inc., an environmentally focused marketing and communications consulting firm providing services for the residential and commercial built environments. He also serves as president and CEO of the U.S. Green Building Council, of which he also is founding chairman, and president of the World Green Building Council. Contact by e-mail: ([email protected]).

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