Going Green

You might be surprised about which homes in the East Bay are actually the greenest.


Photo by iriana88w

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When some people hear the words “green home,” they might think of a house in tune with nature. A home, perhaps, in the East Bay hills or in a leafy neighborhood, with a verdant garden and large windows so that the surrounding plants, flowers, and trees feel as if they’re natural extensions of the house. The home probably has a beautiful backyard, too, with a wooden deck or patio set up for outdoor living and entertaining. A house right out of Sunset Magazine.

But over the past decade or so, environmentalists and eco-conscious residents of the Bay Area have come to realize that, in many cases, these types of “green homes” aren’t really very green. That’s especially true if living in such a home requires you to drive everywhere: to work, to do your shopping, and to ferry the kids to their activities.

Photo by Jim Pruitt

Of course, if you’re a homeowner, there are plenty of things you can do to make your house greener: planting native and drought resistant shrubs, installing energy efficient windows and insulation, adding solar panels, or putting in a rainwater catchment system.

But even if you do all those things, your home won’t truly be “green” if you have to drive to and from it. Why? There’s an overwhelming consensus in the scientific community that the gravest threat, by far, to our environment is climate change. And in California, the single-biggest generator of greenhouse gases is passenger vehicles, according to a 2015 report from the California Air Resources Board.

That’s why there’s a growing acknowledgement that the greenest homes are typically not in nature at all, but instead are often miles from it. Indeed, the greenest of the green is a condominium or apartment in a dense housing development in the heart of an urban area, along a major transit corridor, or near a job center. Planners and environmentalists call these developments “smart growth,” because people who live in them have little use for cars, since they can walk, bike, or take mass transit to work.

“People in urban areas tend to drive much less,” noted Stephanie Reyes, chief operating officer of Greenbelt Alliance, an environmental group dedicated to blocking suburban sprawl. The alliance recently published a report, “At Risk: The Bay Area Greenbelt,” which warned that nearly 300,000 acres of Bay Area open space could be enveloped by sprawl unless the region’s urban centers build more dense housing projects. 

Reyes noted that urban condos and apartments are also eco-friendly because they tend to use much less energy, since they have shared walls and are usually smaller than single-family homes. They also suck up much less water, as much as 35 percent less, on average, because apartments and condos don’t have large gardens.     

UC Berkeley’s carbon calculator offers dramatic evidence that location is the most important factor in determining how green your home is. For example, a middle-class family of four with an income of $120,000 a year living in Oakland’s 94612 zip code, which includes downtown, Uptown, and the Lakeside neighborhood, produces an average of 44 tons of carbon dioxide a year. But if that same family resides in the woodsy North Berkeley hills’ zip code of 94708, it produces more than double the amount of CO2 annually: a whopping 104 tons.

Indeed, a condo or apartment in downtown or along a major transit corridor doesn’t even need green elements like solar panels or LEED certification to be greener than most single-family homes. Moreover, if pricey green extras make smart-growth projects too expensive to build, then they’re not really green at all. According to a recent report in the Los Angeles Times, climate scientists say that the only way California can meet its climate change goals by 2030 is to build much more dense housing in cities.  

If you already own a single-family home and you want to go green and you can afford to add green elements, then by all means, go for it. And think seriously about buying an electric vehicle that can be powered by your new solar panels. Your dream home in nature can become nature-friendly, too.  

But if you haven’t bought a house or are thinking about selling, and you really want to go green, then why not buy a condo or rent an apartment in downtown Oakland or Berkeley or near BART, so you can walk, bike, or take mass transit? Currently, there are some condos and apartments that were built in recent years and are available. And luckily for folks itching to go green, there are thousands more that are either approved or under construction and will be on the market soon.

Robert Gammon

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