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Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2006 | Like many Ocean Beach residents, Charles Roberts loves the sun. But unlike some Obecians, Roberts loves it for more than its mood-lifting, hair-bleaching, skin-darkening effects – his house is powered almost entirely by the photovoltaic cells on the south side of his roof.
Roberts, an architect, studied energy-efficient development in his graduate work at the University of Oregon. Not one to preach a message of “green” building without practicing it himself, Roberts has spent the last few years incorporating alternative energies in his grey-and-white cottage on the corner of Sunset Cliffs Boulevard and Long Branch Street. His roof is made out of recycled tennis balls with a latex acrylic component.
Roberts is one of several homeowners in San Diego who’ve reacted to evidence of global warming, escalating energy prices and environmental concerns by applying some micro-strategies close to home. But San Diego resident Chuck Angyal, who was on the founding board of directors for the United States Green Building Council, said the region has a long way to go before it catches up with some other metropolitan areas.
“We’re way behind the curve as far as I’m concerned,” Angyal said. “It hasn’t reached any sort of critical mass here.”
Stephan Vance, senior regional planner for the San Diego Association of Governments, said the region has “just scratched the surface” in terms of its green development.
“We don’t have a specific policy on green building,” Vance said. “We haven’t done nearly what we could.”
San Diego EarthWorks puts on an annual self-guided tour of homes and businesses utilizing sustainable features like alternative energy and recycled materials. There are 14 stops on this year’s tour, coming in September, and organizers say there are many more green-tinged buildings in the county that aren’t on the tour.
Ken Morgan is a developer focusing on green concepts. He said his development company is unlike traditional developers, who, in his opinion, bring in bulldozers and tear up more land than is necessary.
“We like to take a little gentler approach,” he said. “We try to design homes in such a way as to be in harmony with nature.”
Morgan said that includes the use of alternative energy processes, water re-use systems, recycled or renewable materials and non-toxic, natural or organic paints and coatings. He takes issue with developers “green-washing” their projects – claiming green status simply by installing solar panels.
Morgan said there’s only a handful of like-minded developers in town. He thinks that may be because developers with new ideas encounter a lot of obstacles when they present their plans to city overseers.
“San Diego’s been a tough nut to crack,” Morgan said. “They say, ‘We’re very pro-green.’ But their actions speak differently. It’s really tough to get alternative ideas approved.”
Vance said it will take the planning committees time to get used to some of these new ideas. “I’m not surprised that people have run into problems with permits,” he said. “These things are new.”
Planners are not equipped to easily address these sorts of innovations and designs, Vance said, but SANDAG’s working on a set of guidelines for urban design that will examine some of the issues.
But Angyal said the city needs to act quickly to make building green more of a priority. He said San Diego’s status as a “Navy, border town” likely takes some of the focus away from implementing these policies.
“It’s not high on people’s radar,” he said. “The environment’s not a priority here. ‘Surf’s up’ is more of a priority.”
But Carolyn Chase, founder of EarthWorks, sees some encouraging signs in San Diego, signs that the region is “going green.”
“A lot of people are realizing, ‘These environmentalists aren’t just wackos; some of this stuff makes sense,’” she said. Chase said a few hundred people go on the GreenBuilt Tour each year.
And the concepts resonate with affordable housing activists as well, said Craig Woods of the San Diego chapter of the USGBC. Implementing these “evidence-based construction” principles – a term Woods prefers over “green” – means that the month-to-month utilities costs faced by affordable housing tenants would be significantly less.
“It doesn’t mean much for us to build affordable housing, if the people who need it can’t afford to stay there,” he said.
Many of these experts believe that part of the reason green building is not more widespread is because it is difficult to find builders to build the projects. Morgan, the developer, said he’s encountered significant opposition from contractors, many of whom are not willing to learn new practices.
Chris Klein at San Diego EarthWorks agrees.
“[The builders have] been building with two-by-fours for 150 years,” he said. “They don’t have to do anything else.”
But with the slowdown in real estate in San Diego, coupled with the attractiveness of a home that saves money on utilities when energy prices are rising, Morgan said there are some builders warming up to the concept.
Concerns over increased costs are often the largest source of opposition to projects like this. Roberts estimates that the cost of his alternative energy features, including solar cells, a solar water-heating process and a space-heating design called “radiant heat” where heated water runs in pipes beneath the floor, was about $25,000. He said the reason homeowners are reluctant to implement these concepts is because they’re not planning to stay in the house very long.
“These things will pay for themselves if you stick around long enough,” Roberts said. “The way we value property, where people buy homes not so much as homes, but as investments, needs to change for this to make more sense.”
One problem Roberts has encountered is that there aren’t many qualified electricians or plumbers in San Diego to take care of the alternative systems in his homes. As a result, Roberts has to take care of the systems himself.
Like the musical instruments Roberts used to make and repair, he’s very much attuned to the intricacies of his home. Recently, simple change in the “ticking” sounds made by thermal expansion in his water pipes was enough to alert him to some air pressure problems in the system. He thinks that when these concepts start spreading, there will be more technicians who learn the proper care for these systems.
Roberts said before people start looking to implement alternative energy sources in their homes, they need to first figure out how to use less electricity.
“I think air conditioning in San Diego is a silly idea,” he said. “People just need to open a window.”
Chase thinks people just need to be more creative, in general.
“There’s a way to do almost everything that goes into a house that’s better for the environment,” she said. Of the evidence she sees that San Diegans are starting to adopt these ideas, she said, “It’s a little bright light in the system, I suppose. It always cheers me up.”