My Turn: At Lake Tahoe building green also means thinking blue
February 6, 2008
There is a fair amount of talk lately about going green in Lake Tahoe.Whether it is a simple retrofit with energy-efficient fixtures and a conversion to solar power or a top-to-bottom green building showcase with all the trimmings, property owners in the Tahoe Basin and elsewhere are getting the green message and doing what they can to live in ways that leave a smaller carbon footprint. Improving energy efficiency, using sustainably produced materials and other green building plusses are simply good for the planet. What isn’t simple, however, is the question of how the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency should use incentives to encourage such good deeds, particularly when other facets of green building and its benefits are examined.For example, should living roofs or pervious concrete driveways count as full land coverage considering that they provide some filtration and reduce runoff? Should use of building materials less likely to leach contaminants or habitat friendly site design also be rewarded?The following Qandamp;A explores the green building question as it plays out in the unique Tahoe setting. As you will find, the green building question in Tahoe requires us to balance local environmental concerns with those more global in nature, keeping in mind that both are important.The bottom line, however, is this: In Lake Tahoe, green building means smaller structures that not only use less energy, but also use less land coverage, meaning better infiltration and improved lake clarity. In other words, at Tahoe, blue equals green.Q: How does TRPA encourage and support green building practices in the Tahoe Basin?A: The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency encourages and will continue to encourage green building practices for new construction and rebuild projects around the Basin. For example, we have permitted tree limbing and tree removal to accommodate solar power generation. We are also considering other incentives to encourage green building practices such as streamlined project review and permitting. Our updated regional plan, which is on track to be adopted next year, will address how best to incorporate green building into the Tahoe landscape. Q: Does green building benefit Lake Tahoe?A: Only indirectly. The chief environmental benefits resulting from green building practices are global in nature. These include reduced energy consumption and related reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, use of sustainable forestry products, and reuse of raw materials. Because electricity is generated outside the Tahoe Basin and commercial logging for construction products does not take place locally, direct benefits to the lake are difficult to quantify.Q: Should property owners who employ green building practices be allowed more land coverage?A: At Lake Tahoe, minimizing the footprint of your structure and reducing land coverage is green building. Less coverage and more filtration and control of runoff means fewer contaminants ultimately reaching the lake. To put the question in perspective, consider this analogy: to allow increased land coverage in exchange for green building practices would be like exchanging lake clarity for cleaner air in other places. TRPA is required by federal law to implement policies that benefit the environment at large within the Lake Tahoe Basin, including lake clarity. It’s possible to go green in building practices while still protecting lake clarity – the two are not mutually exclusive. Q: To make green buildings more energy efficient sometimes requires that walls be thicker. Shouldn’t green building projects be given at least enough extra coverage to make up for the interior floor space that is lost?A: It’s not a simple yes or no answer. Limiting and reducing land coverage is one of the primary strategies for restoring Lake Tahoe’s degraded clarity, in fact, it’s federal law. Land coverage is created if soils don’t provide infiltration or support vegetation, which is why pavement and building footprints count as 100 percent coverage. A basic tenet of sustainable living is to use space efficiently, which often calls for a reduction in the size of homes and living space. It’s inconsistent with this tenet to increase coverage in order to maximize interior living space. Additionally, new insulation technologies have been developed that can reduce the thickness of walls while providing similar energy efficiencies or homes can be designed with cantilevered exteriors, negating the need for additional coverage. As TRPA continues to work on the regional plan update throughout the year, let us know your thoughts about green building, lake clarity or other key issues by visiting http://www.trpa.org and clicking on the contact us button. John Singlaub is executive director of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.