Thursday, September 18, 2008

Speaking of outstanding ideas, if Berkeley can do it, why can't we?

Onward Oregon asks the same question here. Berkeley, California is way ahead in this.

Height limits, yes or no?

Definitely an important question as we think about a carbon-constrained future with much more expensive energy:

Height limits needed for downtown buildings

September 18, 2008

I believe it is important to maintain a strong visual connection between downtown Salem and the riverfront.

Several structures currently under construction along Front and Commercial streets form a wall of separation, especially the eight-story condo across from Riverfront Park.

I would like the council to enact height restrictions on new construction along Front and Commercial streets, including the area recently vacated by Boise Cascade, so that new buildings conform to the height of older, existing structures.

— Pat Simila, Salem

James Howard Kunstler (author of The Long Emergency and The Geography of Nowhere) argues that buildings over six stories don't have much of a future, extrapolating from the days before elevators and high-energy heating and cooling systems.

"Build up, not out" sounds good when you are thinking only about reducing sprawl, and there's definitely an important benefit there, particularly in terms of reducing the paved surface area (important if we plan on continuing to eat, something that figures prominently in many peoples' plans for the future).

But unless you design the "up" so that it reduces the building energy demand (just occupying our buildings consume about 40% of our primary energy use), you've merely traded one unsustainable form of living for another. It's clear that we can't emulate Portland or Seattle or other places where skyscrapers make it impossible for people to live without consuming prodigious amounts of energy just to maintain their habitation.

The emblem of "planning" in our time seems to be a complete lack of recognition of fundamental physical limits --- such as water adamantly refusing to flow uphill, to take just one example. The height of a building cannot exceed the height you are willing to pump water, and pumping water is one helluva an energy-consumptive practice. Put a typical bunch of profligate water-using folks up high and figure out how much energy is required to supply them with potable water -- there's not enough solar panels in the whole wide world to do it. Water's not optional -- unless you have the energy to pump that water to them, your skyscrapers are going to be pretty empty.

When people in Cuba and Baghdad and places like that have had their power problems, they've had to learn to hoist water up high on ropes and pulleys -- and they had buildings with windows that open! It's truly backbreaking, brutal labor, and it consumes enough calories that you can quickly find yourself losing more energy than you can supply without draft animals.

And that's just water. Now add heating and cooling, just to make the space livable, and you quickly see why there's a practical limit to height. I'm not sure it's six stories, maybe it's five, maybe it's seven, but I'm willing to bet it's less than eight for sure.

It's nice that someone opened the discussion about height limits in the Statesman-Journal; what we need now is some awareness that the same forces that are driving us to reduce energy consumption in cars are also going to exert pressure to reduce energy consumption in our shelter. A country with a broken economy (resulting in large part from unwise energy choices) doesn't get to simply decree tall buildings vs. sprawl. Tall buildings are a sign of wealth precisely because they require so much wealth to build and maintain. As our descent into a low-energy future continues, we won't have to worry too much about new buildings exceeding height limits -- we'll only have to worry about how to make the best use of uninhabitable space in existing ones.