A recent commentary by Chip Halbeck, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, asks: what is infrastructure?
Halbeck's piece suggests a new federal stimulus package that would fund local government grants to make low-income housing safe and more energy-efficient. He argues that such rehab work would also provide more low-skilled and entry-level jobs in more places than would large scale infrastructure projects. (Architecture 2030 has proposed a similar national stimulus buy-down program for residential buildings and an accelerated-depreciation program for commercial buildings.)
Whatever you think of his proposal, the larger point is apt.
The nation's financial woes are rooted in a housing catastrophe that has dumped thousands of foreclosed homes on the Twin Cities market alone. Vacancies and abandonments threaten the fabric of neighborhoods. Yet, instead of recognizing this impact, there's a transportation-centric coloring to our view of infrastructure spending. Roads, bridges, transit and auto companies dominate the discussions.
Moving people and goods more efficiently from place to place is a worthy economic goal — but we cannot ignore the condition of those places. And we know that more lanes and extensions into exurbia can ultimately increase energy use and environmental impact.
What's more, transportation only consumes 29 percent of the nation's energy, while more than 51 percent goes to electricity generation and residential and commercial heat and power. Increasing the energy efficiency of our building infrastructure could provide long-term paybacks for building owners, renters and the environment.
It can also provide long-term savings for the public.
One recent example is the recently built Schaar's Bluff Gathering Center in Dakota County’s Spring Lake Park Reserve. The structure is 90-95 percent more energy efficient than comparable parks facilities, and ranks within the top 1 percent of all sustainable structures as compared to the U.S. Green Building Council's registered buildings.
The building is designed to react to current weather conditions. Its HVAC system is linked to operable windows so that the two don’t work against each other; automated shading devices react to the sun’s path. It even feeds local animals with its edible landscaping.
[design: MS&R photos: Andrea Rugg]
The designer, Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, was the first Minnesota architecture firm to sign on to Architecture 2030's standards for meeting fossil fuel, greenhouse gas emission and energy consumption goals.
The project began as a conventional building, but evolved through a design process that tapped an inspiring site, a parks manager's passion for sustainability and the County Board's openness to a non-traditional approach.
Conventional procurement would have focused on managing the design/build budget and been leery of innovation. The major difference at Schaar's Bluff was a county staff dedicated to the environment who felt secure enough to encourage the unconventional and take it to the public for their input.
Starting from a carbon neutral "energy budget" helped lead to a building that stayed within the fiscal limits while delivering a long-term a balance of economic, aesthetic, environmental and social values.
In the desire to create economic stimulus, we should not labor only to lay rebar and concrete. Dakota County has shown how visionary government can render enduring beauty and public utility in difficult times.
— Charlie Quimby