Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Super Green" Lake of the Isles Bungalow

Today's Star Tribune has an interesting article about a Lake of the Isles LEED Platinum home. It's an interesting story, and it's an attractive house, but the more I read the more I started to wonder about how "green" we can really consider a project of this sort. First, let me admit that I don't know the details. As of right now all of my information is coming from the Star Tribune article. So please, if you have updates, go ahead and post them. All that said, let's get into the issue. First, some basic points drawn from the article:
  • This is a new home. And more significantly, it's not just a new home: it's a new home sitting on a lot that was, until recently, housing its original 1926 bungalow.
  • Hicks is quoted as saying she had intended to "fix" the original house, but "when she discovered how much it would cost to fix what needed to be fixed, including the foundation, the electricity, the plumbing, and the outdated 6-by 12-foot kitchen with three doorways, Hicks decided it made more sense to build a new house -- one that didn't look new."
  • The original house was "just under" 2000 square feet; the new home is 3,300 square feet, including the finished basement. The new space does, however, cost only one quarter of what the original did to heat.
  • Final quote from the architect: "you should be able to take any style house and make it green."

I tend to be firmly on the side of historic preservation, but at the same time readily acknowledge that not every house can or should be saved. But this article really has me wondering: did the original house REALLY need to be destroyed? Maybe it did; I don't know the extent of what needed to be fixed. And I know it's not fair to start questioning without having all the details. But I'm always wary whenever people start throwing around things like "fixing" a small kitchen. A dangerous foundation or broken plumbing or other serious issues might indeed need fixing, but throw in mention of a small kitchen and my skepticism radar starts going up. Did all of those things really need to be fixed? Was the house in such bad shape that it required demolition? Sometimes houses do, and that's part of a neighborhood's evolution. But it's also true that there's a history of wealthy homeowners out there who want a house that looks old, but they don't really want the older house. They want the big kitchen, the enlarged square footage, and yes, the added energy efficiency and other similar perks. I don't have a problem with that, as long as they're not tearing down existing homes that don't need to be torn down. And by "need" I don't just mean they need to have a kitchen with an island. And if they do unnecessarily tear something down because they want a new house, then they'd better not call label themselves green. (Again, apologies to Jennifer Hicks, as I don't know if this applies to her situation or not.)

This isn't an attack on Jennifer Hicks or her architect; they did a nice job with the house, and it fits in well (although I'd be equally fine with a well-designed modern house, too) and shows that new construction doesn't have to look like a McMansion in Eden Prairie. I would, however, be curious to know just how uninhabitable the previous home was when she bought it. Mostly, I'm tired of reading all of the rah-rah puff pieces on LEED certified buildings and "green" consumerism. Again, not Hicks' fault, but where's the story of the many, many other people who buy existing homes? (rhetorical question: yes, I know, that doesn't make a good story. It's old news.) That's more environmentally friendly than ripping something down and building new, even if the old house was in terrible shape and the new house built to LEED platinum standards. Modern society seems to think that we can all just buy our way into "greenness;" just put up some low-VOC paint, an Energy Star refrigerator, and some bamboo flooring. All of this is great, of course, and new construction should absolutely seek to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. But all this attention on the new stuff distracts from the bigger issues. At risk of looking really grumpy, the article makes me ask: does it really make sense for one person to live in 3,300 square feet of space in the city, for one? (I wouldn't typically bring that up, but it seems a relevant question in the context of an article about a "super-green" project)

Or, when the architect says "you should be able to take any style house and make it green," I'm really not all that interested in how that works for new construction. That's fine, and someone has to be concerned about it, but the environment would be far worse off if everyone in Minneapolis rushed out to demolish their homes and build new "green" historic-looking homes in their places. It would be nice to see a bit more attention paid to existing houses retrofitted to make them as energy efficient as possible, as well as some debate or guidance over which environmental upgrades to existing properties are worth it (from a green perspective -- both the cash and the environmental kind of green) and which ones aren't. Because really, with the large number of houses already standing -- just take a look at all the empty foreclosures around (although admittedly not by Lake of the Isles) -- it's hard to get really excited about the environmental credentials of someone knocking down something old and putting up something new.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Dupont Residents Protest Street Paving

Paved roads: the curse of CARAG? An old photo, obviously (as in: pre-snowbanks), but just imagine what it looked like in 1915!

Did that headline catch your eye? Yes, I know I've fallen behind on posting, but I haven't fallen THAT far behind, "that far" being the year 1915. Still, given that the odds are slim to none that anyone reading this blog was around to remember the debate back the first time around, I thought it would be interesting to give it some second life in 2010.

Highlights from an article in the December 29, 1915 Minneapolis Journal ("Citizens Unite to Fight Dupont Paving"):

"Concerted opposition to the plan to pave Dupont Avenue from Lake Street to Thirty-Sixth Street South was voiced last night at a meeting of about a hundred residents of the Eighth Ward at the Calhoun Commercial Club. They oppose the plan on the ground that the paving of Dupont, which is strictly a residential street, would divert to it most of the traffic which now reaches the Lynnhurst district by way of Lyndale and Hennepin Avenue and parallel avenues, giving Dupont more traffic than should traverse it."

A committee was appointed to report back to the city.

Sort of puts things in perspective, doesn't it? People were complaining about traffic one hundred years ago, and unless things dramatically change they'll still be complaining about it next century. The modern solution of paved roads and regular stop signs seems to work pretty well. I'm not concerned about traffic volume, but definitely don't like the speeders. For more recent Dupont history, the neighborhood fought to put in a stop sign at 34th and Dupont back in the late '70s and early '80s to cut down on the speeding problem. I only remember life post-stop sign, but I do recall a few years ago (2006? 2007?) when the city temporarily removed it. It is now, thank goodness, back in place, and traffic along Dupont moves along at a reasonable speed.

Hmm... do you think we'd be restoring "character" to the neighborhood if we ripped out all the pavement and replaced it with dirt? My son would LOVE it... (or we could just flood it, let it freeze, and strap on skates to get around. Now that's an idea I could get behind...)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Save Lake Calhoun!

No, not from the dangers of tall buildings or even milfoil. Here's a taste of some of the big issues facing local residents in the winter of 1901. From the Minneapolis Journal, January 4, 1901:

"'Save Lake Calhoun' is the watchword of a movement inaugurated this morning.

Residents of the growing community on the east shore of Calhoun have awakened to the fact that two-thirds of the expanse of the lake has been staked off by the ice companies, and ice fifteen inches thick will be cut off in this whole area. The lake is fed only by subterranean springs, and is now sixteen inches than it was ten years ago. Two companies, the Boston Ice Company and the Cedar Lake Ice Company, have been cutting there for several years, but this winter, it is announced, will cut ice on the lake for commercial purposes. They have already staked off more than twice the area taken any previous winter, and the situation is getting serious. Ice boating is practically ruined for this winter, in itself sufficient grievance, but the danger of reducing the city's beauty spot to a marshy pond has aroused the neighborhood."

"Put a stop to the evil."

Outraged residents circulated a petition to put a stop to the excesses. According to Secretary Ridgeway of the Park Board, the ice companies owned property on the shore, and were thus entitled to do as they liked out on the ice. "Our jurisdiction extends only to the shore," he told the Journal, "and we have no rights on the lake."

The scene is set

What did the lake look like when carved up by so many ice cutters? It was quite a different scene than today, certainly. According to the Journal, "each ice company has staked off a tract of ice, planting small evergreens about thirty feet apart to make the limits plain. Then, to prevent ice boats and skaters from crossing, the tract is fenced in with blocks of ice."

Frosty Relations

Approximately fifty ice boats were kept docked up at Ewing's dock; the paper notes that the owners used to "tie them up on the bank wherever they pleased," but ice workers allegedly began to cut their ropes and even "used some of the boats roughly." Meanwhile, the employees of the ice companies depended on their access to the lake for their livelihoods, and presumably weren't always sympathetic to the recreational needs of those lucky enough to own ice boats.

Civil Discourse

One of the things that impresses me most about this story isn't the sheer magnitude of the ice cutting operations, although obviously that's significant. From a more modern perspective, I appreciate that the opponents of the ice cutters generally seemed to be taking the high road when it came to voicing their opposition. A sample quote from one of the local petitioners, Dr. J.W. Penberthy of Calhoun Boulevard:

"It is a downright shame to see one of the beauty spots of Minneapolis so despoiled. It is of the interest of every one in Minneapolis to see that it is preserved. I do not want to see a hardship inflicted on any one, and as the companies have begun their winter's work and have money invested in their plants, it might not be just to stop the work this winter. But eventually the work must come to a stop. The sentiment of the whole community must be aroused against it."

I like this. Short, to the point, doesn't resort to talking about evil outsiders out to destroy the community in the name of commercial gain. It seems a legitimate attempt to balance, or at least acknowledge, the varied needs of the community (the article also cites the many jobs created by the ice cutters), while still standing firm on the proposed ultimate solution. The ability to look at the issue as a whole, and to at least consider the various implications of action, is something that today's residents can take to heart. We might not agree on final solutions (and today's aren't as pressing -- and uncontreversial -- as the obvious dangers of draining a lake), but we should be able to find at least some common ground when talking about the pros and cons of current issues.