Building Green

Jonathan Rose Companies LLC is one of America's largest green developers of affordable housing and other ventures, with more than one billion dollars worth of projects under management. Prospect co-editor Robert Kuttner spoke with CEO Jonathan Rose.

Kuttner: What makes a building “green”?

Rose: For affordable housing, we recommend a level we call “practical green,” which is wonderfully described in the Enterprise Foundation's Green Communities program. The U.S. Green Building Council has established the widely used LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) system that rates buildings Certified, Silver, Gold or Platinum. A “certified” building has basic green characteristics: more energy efficiency, fresh air, ample daylight, and low use of toxic materials. When you get into a car, the new car smell comes from volatile organic chemicals (VOCs), which are not good for you. That's the same thing you smell when you live in an apartment with a new carpet or a house that's been repainted. A basic green building won't have VOCs or other toxic materials.

Going up the scale, a “silver” building will be better at water saving, and will include more materials from recycled or rapidly renewable sources, such as bamboo. A “gold” building might incorporate a raised floor system, filtered air or solar panels. A “platinum” building might include more active systems such as purifying and recycling the building's wastewater.

Kuttner: Isn't a lot of the payoff ultimately not just in how you build, but in the whole spatial pattern of development?

Rose: Yes, the most green thing one can do is to locate a building or home or shopping space or school in a walkable community close to mass transportation. The biggest impact on the environment comes from cars. A building “uses” three times as much energy in transporting people to and from the building as is used by the building itself. So if you can locate that building in a downtown, near mass transit, you systemically save huge amounts of energy.

Kuttner: That's plausible in dense cities like Boston, but how do you retro-plan sprawl-America?

Rose: Well, cities across America are now adding light rail. There is tremendous consumer demand to live near light rail stops. Every city that has added light rail in the last 20 years has found that the consumer use has been two or three times the original projections. Los Angeles is densifying, adding heavy rail and light rail, and tremendous higher density development is happening at the rail stops. So if Los Angeles can do it, any community can do it.

Kuttner: What are the main obstacles and inducements to this path generally?

Rose: One challenge used to be putting together a team of architects and particularly mechanical engineers who really understand green building. But the field is growing rapidly. A green building is a much cheaper building to operate and so we are seeing rapid adoption of green buildings in the affordable housing area. Churches and synagogues and mosques see greening as a way to express caring for creation. Hospitals and health-care centers rapidly becoming green, because why should healing environments be intrinsically unhealthy? Studies actually show that the more access patients have to fresh air and daylight, the quicker they heal. As these different elements of society go green, the effect is cumulative. As we get more architects and contractors who know how to build green, they create a demand for green materials, the cost of materials comes down and investment in green material development goes up. So we're in the middle of a rapidly accelerating positive trend. We're also seeing shifts in consumer preference. Some people want suburban sprawl, but more and more want compact, walkable, mixed-use communities.

Kuttner: Isn't federal policy still a story of the starvation of housing and mass transit, the continued subsidizing of gas-guzzling automobiles, and hostility to planning?

Rose: We have never really had a thoughtful national infrastructure policy and we certainly do not have one now. We really need a comprehensive planning approach for water, sewer, gas, electric, telephone, power, data, transportation, education, housing, libraries, and hospitals, that ties them all together in a comprehensive way. We currently have an administration that is trying to de-fund those essential aspects of community.

The current administration is also cutting back on all the affordable housing subsidies and community development block grants that provide basic infrastructure to cities and communities. Unfortunately, the huge federal deficit and declining federal resources to the states are putting pressure on state and local budgets to make up the gap. And the American citizen somehow doesn't yet tie the rise in local taxes to the reduction in federal resources.

Kuttner: Your company is involved in the rebuilding of New Orleans, isn't it?

Rose: Our company is part of the Louisiana Recovery Authority's (LRA) master planning team that is looking at rebuilding all of southern Louisiana post-Katrina/Rita. We're working on both affordable housing issues and the green building issues. If the LRA uses the money well, the results could be extraordinarily exciting. Louisiana and Mississippi, with the inflow of federal funds and the need for comprehensive planning, could actually change the way that regional environmentally based planning is done.