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Nurturing Environment

Fledgling Sustainability Office Starts On Path To Enforce Green Building Practices

Courtesy James Kraft
WHO’S THE GREENEST OF THEM ALL?: City Councilman Jim Kraft sponsored the bill that created the Baltimore Office of Sustainability

By Rebecca Alvania | Posted 10/17/2007

On Aug. 14, Baltimore got one step closer to being cleaner and greener. On that day, the City Council and Mayor Sheila Dixon enacted a series of environmentally friendly laws, one of which formed a new government office aimed at making our little post-industrial corner of the world more eco-friendly: the Office of Sustainability.

The office will be run out of the Department of Planning, and a Sustainability Commission, a 20-member panel appointed by the mayor, along with one councilperson, will act as the office's advisers. The job of the office is to create a long-term environmental strategy for Baltimore, advise the mayor and City Council on green legislation, and ensure that citizens are adhering to any environmental laws that are passed. The commission has not yet been appointed, but the Office of Sustainability is already at work on its first task: reviewing plans for development citywide.

Green building is not a specific practice, but an umbrella term that covers many forms of environmentally friendly building design and construction, such as lights set to turn on only when someone is in a room, or rain collection systems to gather water to flush toilets and water lawns. The new Baltimore focus on green building will require that some of these conservation measures be part of new building construction.

According to Bronwyn Phillips, senior mechanical engineer overseeing Baltimore's green-building program, the city is looking at other municipalities with similar laws in place to see what they require. The goal, she says, is to create a rating system to assess the eco-friendliness of individual building projects and determine what should actually be considered green.

"We'd like to establish minimum thresholds," Phillips says. "We'll have a checklist methodology for the city to ensure plans are followed."

The new laws would not affect private homeowners (although the Office of Sustainability would be available as a resource to individuals interested in green building practices). The green requirements will apply to construction or renovation projects owned or subsidized by the city and to nonresidential or multifamily dwellings of more than 10,000 square feet (for comparison's sake, 10,000 square feet is smaller than the Gap stores in Towson Town Center). Convincing builders to use green technologies is not necessarily easy--in the long run energy-efficient buildings may cost less to operate, but the up-front costs of materials and labor can be higher than those associated with traditional building projects. The city plans to prevent companies that don't want to comply with the regulations from using their nonconforming buildings.

"One of our major tools is denying occupancy," says 1st District Councilman James Kraft, lead sponsor of the green building law. "That's the hammer--that you'll never get into your building. It makes people much more reluctant to avoid these regulations."

Kraft says that, in general, there has not been a lot of opposition to the measure. The bill was introduced in 2006, then passed to various city agencies, such as the Department of Public Works and the Baltimore Development Corp., for review. It met with no objection and was sent back to the City Council in July; on Aug. 13 it was unanimously approved by the council, and the mayor signed it into law the very next day.

Not even private developers, many of whom realize that in today's market just slapping the word "organic" on a box of macaroni and cheese makes it more appealing, have voiced public objection to the notion of environmentally friendly building. In fact, green buildings and living spaces are becoming increasingly attractive to consumers.

"Going green is popular across the country, and it's important in today's marketplace," says Bill Struever, president of local construction and development firm Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse. "Corporate customers, investors, and tenants are all interested. Our aim is to take green to the next level, to go beyond the building and take it to the neighborhood level."

Many developers, including Struever, are already on board with the new regulations, even though the regulations don't go into effect until July 2009. Struever Bros., in fact, employs a director of sustainability and boasts in its green portfolio the Clipper Mill neighborhood project near Hampden. According to the Baltimore chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, there are more than 50 building projects in Maryland that developers hope will be certified as green upon completion.

Although currently funded through the Department of Planning, Kraft says he hopes the Office of Sustainability eventually funds itself through the collection of fines for violations of the new environmental laws. Supporters of the city's new sustainability movement point out that this is an investment in Baltimore's future--the kind of long-range plan that could change the city, literally, from the ground up. In fact, some individuals who study sustainability issues say that investing in the city's environment could eventually have a positive impact on issues such as violence and crime.

"[Sustainability] is a long-term issue," says Davis Bookhart, manager of energy management and environmental stewardship at the Johns Hopkins University. "I think that in effect what [the city government] is doing is not letting the dominant issues crowd out the other important issues. It may be kind of a long connection between throwing trash on the ground and the crime rate, but I think that there is a connection."

In a study conducted at a large public-housing complex in Chicago, for example, researchers found that women who lived around green spaces, like gardens or parks, were less likely to experience domestic abuse. The theory is similar to the broken-window theory, that states that a broken window left unfixed encourages vandalism and crime because it's a sign of apathy in a neighborhood. People are more likely to take root in a neighborhood or city when it's not full of graffiti and broken windows. Likewise, researchers say, encouraging green spaces where people can congregate and healthy environments in which they can thrive will increase the likelihood that people will connect to their neighbors and communities.

"The thing you notice in impoverished areas is that there's very little green space, very few trees," says Bookhart. "I think that's a huge issue. When we start thinking about low-income housing, don't just look for a box where people can live, look for a good, healthy environment."

Kraft sees the new green building law as a small step toward addressing environmental-justice problems, not only because it will create healthier living spaces but also because, once green buildings are constructed, they are cheaper to live in and cheaper to run.

"Green housing . . . is more energy efficient," Kraft says. "Individuals living below the poverty line spend 17 percent of their disposable income on energy costs, and that's if they're even able to pay the bill. A lot of people simply can't meet these costs."

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