Tags:Cities and towns all across Western North Carolina have seen the green light. More and more green-building concepts have become common-place and a regular part of the permitting, designing, planning and other processes that make it a reality.
There are HealthyBuilt Homes initiatives under way in a number of towns, including Cherokee, Asheville and Black Mountain. These three are also actively conducting energy audits of their buildings, as well as implementing green-building standards and stepping up efforts to educate both residents and building professionals. Particularly in the permitting processes, several WNC towns have implemented financial incentives for green builders. And the WNC Green Building Council received a grant from the state energy office to create a model for helping small communities, available to towns throughout North Carolina.
It’s been a collaborative effort and an educational one, says Elizabeth Teague, Black Mountain planning director. “Early on, there was political leadership that was supportive of environmental issues,” she reflects, mentioning the town’s 2004 Master Plan. The shift toward green-building principles had its companion efforts in plans to make the town more pedestrian friendly, improve and protect its water quality, and other goals in the plan. There was also a growing level of interest for preserving the beauty and health of the environment in WNC, she continues.
Similar notions had been at work in Asheville, too: Former Mayor Leni Sitnick’s green initiatives in the mid-1990s, the City Council’s subsequent endorsement of sustainability principles, and the growth of the local “green” industry.
Helping tie it all together with national, state and industry efforts was the 2001 founding of the WNC Green Building Council. The nonprofit helped bridge the gaps between sustainable goals and sustainable practices.
For example, the council secured grants for holding contractor workshops on solar-hot-water systems, tax incentives and more, says Teague. Education was crucial, she argues. “It’s important to get the word out [that] green building isn’t just the ‘cool’ thing to do, but that it also makes economic sense.”
Black Mountain and other local governments can be a resource for eco-friendly builders, contractors and residents who often come to them first for information, she points out. In one initiative, the town set up a collection site at town hall for old incandescent light bulbs, in an effort to educate people and encourage the switch to more efficient fixtures. When a downtown business proposed installing solar panels, town staff realized it interfered with historic-building ordinances: The conundrum led to a revision of the ordinance and a practical way to locate the panels without affecting the building’s historic nature.
“We have to be good stewards ourselves, too,” says Teague. She mentions that the Land-of-Sky-Regional Council’s Waste Reduction Partners program performed energy audits on all town facilities and that town staff installed a solar panel to power the fire and police department’s radio tower. “To be green, you have do a little bit of a lot of things,” says Teague.
That notion may be behind the Cherokee Preservation Foundation's push to fund and assist with sustainability projects. In its short history, the nonprofit hasn’t seen a large number of proposals that focused on environmental issues in and around the Qualla Boundary, so its leaders decided to generate more interest, says Ethan Clapsaddle, program director.
Some of the initiatives include the tribe’s Housing and Community Development Division’s goal of incorporating green-building standards as it redefines its building codes. There’s also a Go Green Team, composed of tribal youth “charged with identifying the critical environmental issues facing the tribe and [developing] action plans aimed at addressing [them],” Clapsaddle reports. The foundation also funded energy audits of 20 tribal facilities, in partnership with Waste Reduction Partners. The Green Building Council has also worked closely with the Cherokee Qualla Generations group to work toward an over-arching requirement that new buildings on the Boundary are built green.
Energy audits are a good place for anyone to start, says the city of Asheville Energy Coordinator Maggie Ullman, adding, “The best way we can help citizens is to clean up our own house first.” In other words, lead by example. When she was hired in 2007, her position was a new one for the city, but there were already signs of green initiatives at work: Several sustainability project were well under way, such as the conversion of some of the city’s vehicle fleet to electric and hybrid models. The project took the additional step of installing one of the region’s first compressed-natural-gas fuel stations, Ullman points out.
Last year, the city stepped up its effort, announcing a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 80 percent by the year 2050, Ullman continues. A first step was increasing efficiency, and the logical place to start was with city buildings and facilities, she says. “They’re a big opportunity, because that’s where we emit 20 percent of our energy,” Ullman mentions. Right off the bat, Ullman called on city staff in all departments to report ways that they were already striving for sustainability -- and to look for new ways to be more efficient and more environmentally friendly. Energy audits of city buildings are also showing other opportunities for saving money and reducing that carbon footprint, says Ullman.
And this summer, when gas prices skyrocketed, 150 employees in the Public Works Department switched to a four-day, 10-hours-per-day work schedule. Ullman says it has been a great morale booster and money saver for employees, as well as for the city and the environment: She estimates that the program reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by about 250 tons annually, along with an estimated 13 percent reduction in the department’s building energy use (worth more than $3,000 during the initiative’s first three months).
Part of the sustainability equation means being practical, too, adds Marcy Onieal, Black Mountain town manager. A few years ago, town leaders determined that they needed more room: Should they build a new town hall or rehab an existing structure? Onieal recalls. The town bought an existing 1970s building that had been a day care and the local headquarters for Carolina Power and Energy (now Progress Energy). Town leaders wanted to follow green-building principles at every step of the renovation process for the 6,700-square-foot building. But there was one catch, Onieal says. “We had a fixed amount of money.”
Early on, that limitation meant preserving as much of the building’s structure and equipment as possible. “The ultimate green idea is re-using what’s already here,” says Onieal. The building had an existing drive-up window, which has been retained, and little has been done to change the exterior, she adds. Despite starting out with the notion of keeping the existing light fixtures, however, they switched to newer, more energy-efficient ones equipped with sensors that turn them off on bright sunny days. The structure was already well insulated, so only a few extra touches were needed to fill some gaps, Onieal continues.
The heating-and-cooling system was another matter. The existing unit wasn’t going to meet town-hall efficiency goals, but it was still useable. It was removed and installed at the Grey Eagle Arena, which had never had air conditioning before, Onieal mentions. The choice for town hall? Install the second commercial geothermal system ever done in Black Mountain. “We looked at solar, but [this shady site] is not a good one, and we won’t be using much hot water,” says Onieal. The geothermal wells were drilled in the parking lot area.
“It’s all about making decisions,” says Teague. Re-using and retrofitting existing structures for sustainability requires a little homework but shows that the principles aren’t limited to new construction or choices that are expensive up front, she argues.
Then there’s an unexpected side benefit. Says Onieal, “The process of asking questions [in our town-hall process] made me question what I’m doing at home.” Her house is already solar passive, but as a result of the town-hall project, she’s ready to install a residential geothermal system.
All these efforts support Ullman’s point. “You don’t have to be a card-carrying environmentalist [to practice sustainability]. It’s important to take little steps,” she says. “The biggest opportunities are in changing human behavior -- turning off the lights when you leave a room, not leaving computers on,” Ullman notes. She emphasizes, “The only way to make changes globally is if everyone finds a place where being green works for them.”
Margaret Williams is contributing editor at Mountain Xpress, and writes a weekly environmental news column for the newspaper called "Green Scene." She can be reached at email@example.com or at (828) 251-1333, ext. 152.
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