green, or ‘Green?’ Part Two

Public ecological policy is less driven by science or need, in my opinion, than by political will and public perception.  This has led to the rise of a new class of Pharisee, named by someone smarter than I the ‘political ecologist.’ Our local Politicologists, as I shall call them, have given us Built Green , a program whereby homes can be certified as ‘green’ based on the number of “sustainable” products used to construct the home.  This in turn has begat the concept of the 4,900 square foot ‘green’ home (MORE sustainable products!) and even a luxurious subdivision of  ‘Green’ mansions, torched by the Earth Liberation Front and then rebuilt–thereby using even more building products.  Brilliant. Not too long ago there was an effusive article in the local paper about a

“We just love our new Green home. We combined a ‘living roof’ with a ‘living room!’ It IS pretty expensive to heat, though.”

couple who tore down their 1930’s bungalow and built an ‘eco-modern’ home in its place, because they wanted to live more ‘Green.’  Just FYI: the old-growth trees used to build the bungalow were already dead.  Using ‘eco-products’ to build the new home just created empty shelf space at the lumber yard that will need to be filled with more building products.   When I built my own home, the contractor asked me if I wanted it certified Built-Green or LEED; I told him I wasn’t going to market it, I was going to live in it; that to me, ‘sustainability’ means the long-term costs of living there be as low as possible.  Neither Built-Green nor LEED ratings account for the sustainability impact of product replacement schedules or operational cost of home ownership.  Instead of building a rigorously- and expensively sourced and certified ‘Eco’ home, I have a rigorously- and just slightly more expensively (well offset by many affordable choices in fixture and finish) constructed ‘sustainable’ home: one that will have a greatly lessened need for product replacement over its life, and one with drastically reduced lifetime energy and resource demands as well.

But I had no say in the Mitigation Plan.  The Politicologists and the the Mitigation

This is, perhaps, my favorite sample of the Mitigation Planner’s handiwork–which cost over $4,000 not including plants. You CAN see them, can’t you? There is 289 of them there.

Planner who drove this bus chose the plants from a list and directed their planting (at my expense), and the result–rows of twiggy scrub on 5 foot centers, what would one day be massive trees planted short feet from the home–might have been ‘Green’ in THEIR view, but sustainable? Better than 75% of the plants were dead within six months, because no attention whatsoever was paid to site hydrology, soils assesment, wildlife pressures, or even the exposures of sunlight and shade.  ‘Green’ and eco-friendly, maybe, but as different from sustainable as patent leather from pig iron.  Demonstrable failure on the part of the Planner and the Plan, and my belief that no government entity can force you to pay a third party for anything (don’t believe me? Seems like the Attorneys General of a number of states think so, too) have led me down my current path of Mitigation Plan Rebellion.  While this rebellion undoubtably makes me far more attractive to the ladies and some of the fellas, it also puts me at risk: of losing my $5,000 Survival Bond and other possible penalties, of giving wild offense to the Politicologists and other eco-nosepunchers, of putting my do-over in danger of a do-over, and of course, permanent damage to my back.

NEXT, Part Three: green, or ‘Green?’  Nature and the Native vs. non-Native plant debate

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19 Responses to green, or ‘Green?’ Part Two

  1. Corene says:

    The green police are just lucky you bought this property – because even though you express your concern about it (in a very fair, interesting way of course) you make it beautiful, sustainable and ‘green’ like nobody’s bid-ness!!!

  2. Heather says:

    Kind of like that Highline kids magazine, eh? How many plants ‘indians’ can you find?

  3. It feels like you live in an alternate reality to me. Here in the wilds of Kansas, you can’t find ‘green’ or LEEDS-certified products/builders even if you want to…and as to the local building codes specifying something like that? Ha! “That’s an abridgement of our property rights, by God!” So developers and builders merrily go on filling in and paving over wetlands to put up big box stores and subdivisions, all of which are then landscaped with plants from every where on Earth EXCEPT the prairie/Great Plains. Farmers go on plowing up their fields on the windiest days possible (because the soil is dry) so that we can watch our topsoil blowing to Timbuktu, herbicides and pesticides are used by the truckload in both town and countryside, the roadside ditches are kept mowed and sprayed because we sure wouldn’t want any “weedy” wildflowers growing there, and people happily exert their “God-given right” to have sterile, bright green lawns bordered by evergreen lollipops without anyone telling them otherwise.

    I wish I had a magic answer for finding the right balance between the individual right to do what they want with their property and the collective need to start taking care of the environment more carefully.

    Of course, it would be a HUGE help if your local government would hire people who know what they’re doing…which it certainly doesn’t sound like they did, in your case. Rather than mandating what you should plant and where, why not just make up a list of native plants from a variety of habitats in the area and let the homeowner design their own landscape?

    • calvincaley says:

      I know little of the prairie landscape other than wildflowers and grasses on undulating land, which is probably imaginary. I might be thinking of the title sequences of “Little House on the Prairie,” too. I do have a relative who lives in the middle west, and it DOES sound like bizarro world compared to here. Seems like the over-working of the land in your region caused some problems a while back…maybe in the ’30’s? The mindset you describe is hard to believe, given history and what seems to be happening in the rest of the nation. I absolutely agree with you about balance. There must be a middle ground between the WalDepotBestBuyification of the land and the urge to make every tree a living museum, and the ground around them a shrine.

      I don’t blame my City entirely: when I speak of political expedience, part of what I mean is a ‘we have to do SOMETHING’ mentality. The result is partly symptomatic of not knowing WHAT to do. The Mitigation Planner I so gleefully deride worked for a company that does commercial and residential landscape architecture and provides a full spectrum of landscape and horticultural services. The photos of standard residential and commercial landscapes on their website are very fine, some even interesting and beautiful (this is why I have never identified them–this isn’t a Yelp review, and I don’t want to damage their reputation). The HABITAT RESTORATION portions of their photo galleries are just awful, however. Most of them look very similar to what they did on my property: evenly spaced, bedraggled rows of twiggy, weedy looking native plants. No matter the horticultural, biological, or design expertise, no one knows how to create ‘nature.’ Plus, any gardener knows that if your soil stinks, lay on the compost, layer up with mulch, feed your dirt to feed your plants. When it comes to ‘nature,’ you are not supposed to dig–that disturbs the dirt. Just plain dumb.

      I appreciate very much you saying there could be a better way. I can think of about 23, one or two of which I’ll touch on further along in this series. Thank you so much for visiting, I hope you’ll come back regularly or subscribe–I am not always eco-political, sometimes I just take pretty pictures of what I plant and occasionally I do some other garden-related things too. Best, Calvin

  4. Chad B says:

    Calvin, I’m enjoying this series. While reading through your comments I thought of something that always bemused me. I have a friend who is a landscape architect. Figuring that he went to school for such things, I once asked him what I could plant in an area of my yard that had some drainage problems. He looked at me blankly and his response was something along the lines of “some plants that don’t mind extra water.” When pressed to name such a plant he was totally unable to think of a single one. He later admitted that his education focused more on how to grade a plot of land for proper drainage or how parks should be designed to be visible for at least three different sides so the police can inspect a park at night without having to get out of their car. When it comes to choosing plants for their designs they either picked them from a list without having much knowledge of the plant itself or they left the selection up to the “installers”. That sounds an awful lot like your experience with the Mitigation Planner.

    • Landscape architects are mainly trained about hardscape, drainage and other “built” environment sort of issues. They generally get very little training about plants other than as generic “plant material.” Horticulturalists are the ones who have the training about plants, but little training about the built environment. Specialization rules. Neither are usually trained about using native plants – the individual has to seek that knowledge out on their own.

      • calvincaley says:

        Certainly, many in the landscape professions carve out their fiefdoms, and a great number hold those outside their castle walls in a fair amount of disdain…there is quite a bit of digital real estate given over to these discussions, and also criticism of them. For myself, I think that since the Mitigation Planner worked for a firm that provides a complete range of these services that an expectation on my part for some amount of integrated planning was legitimate. After all, the original Mitigation Plan had to be submitted with the overall construction and site plan, indicating someone must have visited the site before the home was built. Also, as a general consumer, I think that $4,000+ for ‘planning’ ought to include something more than a shopping list for plants. The planner herself claimed multiple advanced degrees in horticulture, botany, and forest biology–when I questioned the wisdom in placing 10 Bigleaf maples (90 feet high and wide at maturity) less than 5 feet from the foundation and 8 Pacific crabapple (35 feet high and wide when grown, also bearing 4″ spines) encroaching on the patio, her superior education was her justification (and she also told me she ‘worked for the city,’ despite cashing checks from my construction draw). These are exactly the reasons why I am now my own landscape architect, designer, horticulturist, Native Plant specialist, and city ordinance rogue. My services come cheap, and I have an advanced ability to read a nursery tag and/or field guides and texts!

    • calvincaley says:

      Chad, Shhhh! Here I am, being all mildly controversial about green-ness and sustainability and sh*t, and you are going to bring the whole designer vs. plantsperson vs. certified whatever vs. highly educated so-and-so turf war here! Oh, man. Gonna have to overturn some couches and coffee tables for cover. But if I have to put my two cents in THERE…your certification, your degree, your association or affiliation…they don’t mean anything here. This is about BREAK DANCE FIGHTING.

  5. croftgarden says:

    Hi, I’m fascinated and horrified at the same time. I though you guys lived in the “land of the free”. I considered our planners to be bureaucratic but in comparison they’re downright irresponsible. My land is in an “environmentally sensitive special protection area” and borders a RAMSAR site and site of special scientific interest but there are very few regulations concerning how I manage it. I had no problems getting permission to build a “sustainable” house, infact I could have probably built any sort of house (provided it met the building regs) and under our economic zoning could probably build a tourist caravan park and get a government grant to cover 50% of the cost!
    I do see the requirement for regulations to prevent irresponsible development and land use, but unfortunately it seems that most of our legislators do not live in the real world and are totally devoid of common sense.
    As for consultants of any species or variety I don’t think I’d better get started.
    Thanks for the opportunity to share your rant.
    Christine

    • calvincaley says:

      Christine! You have a Sensitive Area! NO THISTLES! It might interest you to know that when in discussion with the City immediately after the implementation of the Mitigation Plan, I remarked that it was as if they ‘didn’t think anyone was going to build a house when they issued the permit to build it, or live in it after it was built.’ Their reply? “You wouldn’t have been able to build at all if the person who owned the land in 1996 hadn’t applied for a zoning exception. Consider yourself lucky.” I spend a lot of time looking for black helicopters.

  6. Nice piece, Calvin.
    Here’s a link that most landscape architects use to help refine their concepts:
    http://www.ruderal.com/bullshit/bullshit.htm

    • calvincaley says:

      Thank you-I love that. It is almost more true than funny. The best way, perhaps, to trigger the architecture B.S. generator is to meet with one. Years before we even thought of doing what we are now, my wife and I met with an architect whose work we admired greatly. We told him our budget, and that we wanted a home with lots of open space and just slightly larger than the one we were living in–no more rooms, just a little bit bigger ones because we are big people. We also said we’d like to have room for an 8- to 10 person dining room table, because my wife loves to cook and host dinner parties. He asked if we wanted to certify LEED or BuiltGreen and I told him much of my theory on the subject. It was an interesting discussion and he told me he had never considered many of my ideas.

      A couple weeks later he came back with some rough sketches for a house LESS THAN HALF the size of the one we were living in at the time, and the only place to eat was at a four-person built in banquette–you couldn’t even add a couple chairs for company. He told me ‘you don’t really want a table like that–they are just places people store their junk mail and stuff.’ The construction budget was almost $400 per square foot. I didn’t even reply. Two years later, he sent me an email with the text of a speech he had given to an international architects’ symposium on the need to change from a sustainable-products construction model toward the long-term sustainability of the home itself. I guess he thought I’d be flattered…but it felt like intellectual property theft, but with a lot of ‘programs’ ‘models’ ‘paradigms’ and such.

  7. rainyleaf says:

    Hi Calvin,
    I see there is a city planning commission meeting this week with discussion on environmentally sensitive areas….are you going? Do you need back-up? Let me know, I’ll be there! It could be entertaining. Thanks for giving us all this stuff to photosynthesize….it’s been a great discussion.

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