October 25, 2010 | General

Trading Superblocks For Ecoblocks In Tianjin (China)

BioCycle October 2010, Vol. 51, No. 10, p. 34
Environmental design pioneer Harrison Fraker discusses the challenges in Asia and at home to building sustainable communities.
Dan Sullivan

WITH the most rapidly growing economy in the world and the carbon footprint to match, China has captured the attention of planners and architects seeking more environmentally responsible ways to design the dwellings and neighborhoods we call home. Harrison Fraker, Dean of the University of California Berkeley College of Environmental Design, and his graduate students have been working with the port city of Tianjin on the BoHai Bay to develop an antidote to the gated “superblocks” that help account for the staggering 20,000 new residences and 160 miles of roadway constructed in the country daily. Their prescription? Open and wholly integrated bicycle and pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that provide for their own energy and water needs and that link seamlessly to public transportation. These would include buildings designed for maximum shade and ventilation, passive solar, photovoltaic and wind power on rooftops, and biogas for cooking, heat and hot water coming from the processing of sewage, food residuals and green waste.
The team’s plan met with enthusiasm in China and dollars in America but was ultimately derailed – at least for the moment – by entrenched bureaucracy. BioCycle caught up with Harrison Fraker fresh from a recent trip to China, where he is now talking to a major university about building a demonstrable self-sufficient community. He’s also collaborating on at least one ecoblock project back home.
BC: How did you become involved in the idea of self-sufficient neighborhoods?
HF: About five years ago the Tianjin Planning and Design Institute asked Berkeley faculty and students to work with them to develop principles and prototypes for designing transit-oriented, high-density neighborhoods near the new light rail. We wanted to see if we could make them self-sufficient. Utilizing passive solar and photovoltaics and wind – on top of energy efficiency – we found that we could almost get there, but the key is the waste. If you included waste to energy – biogas – you could get to zero carbon. That was the real discovery. We took the idea to the Gordon Moore [of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation]. He grasped the concept immediately, and gave us money to see if we could get a prototype built in China. So that’s how it all started.
BC: How does a self-sufficient neighborhood stay off the energy grid? Deal with waste? Recycling? Food production? Transportation?
HF: The key concept here is a whole systems approach that integrates all the various public services. You look at conservation through good building design, high-efficiency appliances and lighting, passive solar and good shading – all good climate-response moves. But you have to start with transportation – a walkable, bikeable community connected to public transit. Then you look at energy, water and waste. Buildings become platforms for wind and solar – PV for electricity and evacuated tubes for domestic hot water.* Garbage from the kitchen, sludge from sewage treatment and green waste from the urban landscape produce biogas for cooking and a little bit of backup heating as needed. In this manner the waste stream becomes an additional energy stream. Food turns into garbage turns into biomass – and green waste from growing food in the urban landscape is also part of that biomass stream. It’s about the whole system; you start with conservation, and then you integrate all the rest.
BC: In your experience, what are the greatest economic, cultural and social barriers to creating high-functioning self-sufficient communities? How has that played out in China?
HF: In China, the problem is that the economic inertia is powerful and so it’s very hard to do anything different with the development process. That’s because China is developing so fast and has a certain way of doing it. They build power plants and sewage treatment plants as fast as they can, put roads in, and then as fast as they can, get these super blocks built around them. The cities sell the development rights and don’t want to do anything different.
BC: But we hear so much about China being innovators in the field of new green technologies.
HF: That possibility is there at the top sector of government, the Ministry of Construction, but the bulk of what’s happening is still at the local level, and that development just moves along at an unbelievable rate. All they would have to do is change the rules and everybody would have to conform, but they haven’t done that yet. There is huge inertia, especially at the local level where cities have to generate money.
A web of laws and regulations related to recycling sewage are part of all of this, and that certainly is the case in this country. You can’t recycle sewage water to be potable, you need to do something with it first – like put it in the ground and take it out again!
BC: Do you perceive any major differences in the U.S. approach to building utility infrastructure?
HF: What is different in the U.S. is that some utility areas are maxed out and have to buy peak power. Some sewage treatment facilities are maxed out as well. Utilities can do micro plants at the neighborhood scale, like Duke Power is doing, and can get approved without having to build a new huge power plant. The type of new development you have depends on what type of infrastructure is in place or available.
BC: When energy and waste treatment systems are decentralized, who becomes responsible for managing/maintaining them?
HF: In all the examples in Europe, the utilities have taken on the local systems as part of their own. They sit around with designers from the get go and understand how it all works and they take it on. There are third-party possibilities. Seimens can come in and build and operate the neighborhood system on behalf of the utility and charges homeowners a [combined] utility rate, or they can operate the system on behalf of the utility and that utility charges homeowners and reimburses Seimens for the service they provide. It would be great if [U.S.] utilities did not insist on buying back [renewably generated] power at the wholesale rate rather than paying closer to the retail price consumers pay. In many ways what is being produced [by consumers and sent back to the grid] is helping them with their issues with peak power, which is the most expensive to purchase. It’s critical to have fair and equitable policies in place.
BC: In an article in The Economist, you were quoted as saying that good environmental design combines the empirical with the inspired. What did you mean?
HF: You’ve got to be able to show that numbers work using existing technologies, empirical performance efficiencies and real data. People get the concepts, but you have to be able to show how it will work and save money using real performance data.
BC: One common critique of Western thinking, and of modern academia in particular, is that we have become such reductionists that we have lost our ability to see, or even to imagine, the whole picture. Do you agree, and is this reflected in the way we have designed our communities?
HF: Yes. The biggest problem is the extent to which this generalization about academia is mirrored in the professional departments in cities. The professional disciplines mirror that compartmentalization. The water people don’t talk to the energy people don’t talk to the waste removal people. They all have their own set of goals, motives and agendas, and they never get to talking across these silos. In Europe the cities have forced the water people to collaborate with the energy and waste people to come up with an integrated system.
BC: If you could piece together what you’ve seen work as individual components toward building self-reliant communities or neighborhoods, what examples or technologies that are commercially available today would you identify to create a whole system?
HF: The photovoltaics (PV) industry is making great progress in terms of economic feasibility. In places in California, where the utility buys back at time-of-day pricing and with just a few tax incentives, PV is already a good deal for homeowners. You now have these companies that install the system and then lease it to the homeowner, who pays for it via the utility bill throughout the life of the system, so the residents have no upfront costs. In China, evacuated tube hot water is very cost-effective now. Another example is the Living Machine**, which has performance data. I know of two specific applications where recycling water is both cost-effective and technologically feasible. Converting sludge and food waste and green waste to biogas – there are multiple examples of single-phase and two-phase systems – all the technologies do exist.
BC: Movements such as permaculture and Transition Towns suggest taking our cues from nature as we deal with challenges such as peak oil and global warming. Does this make sense?
HF: There are a lot of examples of small communities around the world, for example in places like Israel and Latin America, that are self-sufficient in all these ways, quietly going about it on their own. These are more part of the counterculture and not well published in the literature that I typically see. I’m running a thesis seminar this semester, and a couple of graduate students have been uncovering all these examples of projects and communities. These systems are working, recycling waste to resources and building a kind of local economy.
BC: What do you consider the two or three biggest wasted resources on a local, national and global scale?
HF: Garbage and sewage – those are two huge resources. Right now they’re a throwaway, and they are a gold mine.
BC: What is the greatest barrier to creating self-sufficient neighborhoods?
HF: Here’s the thing, and Lord Stern said this at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference: The obvious web of incentives and inertia in the existing development process makes it hard to do things differently. Why would you change? It’s too high of a risk for a developer. This could be overcome if there were built examples that we knew worked. We have example, we need to get out and prove them.
BC: What kind of incentives – e.g. policy, economic – can be put in place to facilitate sustainable planned communities?
HF: The biggest one would be to look at how utilities are set up. If they could buy back at the real cost of supplying energy instead of some hypothetical wholesale rate, that would make a big difference. Standards and methods of rating things make a huge difference.
BC: What’s the outlook for “built examples” of sustainable communities in the region you’ve been focusing on in China?
HF: I’m talking to the chancellor of Tianjin University about a zero carbon campus to facilitate both research and education. The university is a better client because they own and operate all of their systems. The campus is really the logical place to do this – many of our U.S. campuses already have cogeneration.

*Evacuated tube hot water is a system whereby the sun heats water in glass tubes before it is delivered for home use. **The Living Machine is a food production and biological wastewater treatment system developed by biologist John Todd.

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