Butterfly House

Mission Blue Butterfly Source: California Academy of Sciences

Mission Blue Butterfly
Source: California Academy of Sciences

There’s a new building going up in San Francisco, just a block or so from where I used to live when I was right out of college.

It’s got all the bells and whistles of the kind of green, sustainable, fashionable and expensive development one might expect from that city, up to and including the rooftop biosphere and a habitat for endangered butterflies.

The building will have 81 apartments, with one-bedroom rental units listed at between $2950 – $4500/month. Amenities include a rooftop herb garden, an on-site car share program, living walls, rainwater harvesting and solar heating systems.

Okay, I admit that the presence on the ground floor of a Whole Foods store, the notoriously green but pricey organic supermarket, is a bit gratuitously over-the-top. And it looks like I, for one, would never have been able to afford living in this neighborhood when I was a recent graduate.

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly Source: Wikipedia

San Bruno Elfin Butterfly
Source: Wikipedia

The 38 Dolores complex has come in for some criticism – its combination of high prices and all-round green gentrification (and that downstairs Whole Foods market) make it look like an over-the-top enviro-indulgence for the wealthy.

It’s fair enough to say that particular building probably only appeals to a certain socio-economic demographic. And it’s true that this young, wealthy demographic is changing the nature of many San Francisco neighborhoods, especially the Mission.

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Bay Checkerspot Butterfly
Photo: Leslie Gonzales / WWU

Where the media eye-rolling does actual harm, however, is in making it seem like the upscale nature of this development is reflected in its rainwater harvesting, rooftop gardens or solar heating systems. As if these building aspects are an indulgence alllowed only to the rich.

For modern urban buildings, it could be argued that it is the lack of good building water use, some form of renewable heating and/or power, or the potential for car sharing which should be considered an outdated indulgence.

And sometimes, it’s all in the marketing. Yes, an ‘urban butterfly habitat for endangered butterfly species’ sounds a bit precious. But when we know that a ‘butterfly habitat’ can be as easy as planting a few select flowers, it’s not really all that glamorous, expensive, or difficult to maintain.

I have a ‘butterfly and bee habitat’ in my garden. I call it lavender plants and bee balm flowers.

There are around 30-40 bumblebees in my lavender bushes this year - most colonies only number 50 or less, so I'm assuming an entire nest has taken up residence nearby. Photo: PK Read

My butterfly and bee habitat
Photo: PK Read

*All the endangered butterflies above are among those listed as protected by the 38 Dolores habitat.

Backwards Boom

Our region has been in the midst of a large-scale building boom for many years now, a result of the success of the Lake Geneva area in attracting business. There are apartment complexes and large suburban tracts under development at every turn.

Over the past decade, the land prices for this area of France surrounding Geneva has seen some of the highest prices in the country, rivalling prime areas of the French Riviera and Paris.

The dream - A screenshot from the web sales site of a nearby development underway. A multitude of vague green promises are made on the sales prospect.

The dream – A screenshot from the web sales site of a nearby development underway. A multitude of vague green promises are made on the sales prospect.

And yet – the area is covered with concrete and cinder-block construction with little insulation, thin plastic window frames, a lack of solar panels, and so on and so forth. The French mountain villages and towns on both sides of Lake Geneva are all subject to long, cold winters, and very hot summers, i.e. a climate in which energy efficient construction would be of particular benefit.

When I look at the concrete buildings that abound in my adopted home – all of which will stand for at least another 20-40 years – I can’t help but think that they will all need expensive retrofitting at some point, or will become woefully expensive to maintain as temperatures fluctuate and fuel prices rise. By that time, the original developers of the projects will have long made their profits and the cost will fall to the current homeowners to comply with future, more stringent energy and carbon footprint regulations.

The current reality.  Photo: PK Read

The current reality of the same development.
Photo: PK Read

Yes, France does already have some good energy regulations on the books, but I’ve watched the buildings go up and seen how they are made – and I’ve read how they are presented by the various development companies online. The gaps between the two are sometimes as askew as a badly-hung door, even if I assume that, at the very least, they must be in minimal regulatory compliance. They stand in stark contrast to the few, very distinctly green developments, which look different even during the construction phase.

Green building regulations and their implementation and enforcing compliance are works in progress all over the world. As a native Californian, I grew up with ever-increasing building regulations when it comes to energy efficiency, and I know that many homeowners consider them onerous.

But in light of the massive construction boom here and in so many other places, the lack of more intensive, forward-looking building regulations and their enforcement just seems short-sighted.


The Atlantic article on the challenges of green building regulations – Green Building’s Growing Pains by Jeffrey Spivak 

A listing of building energy codes in France from the very informative Sustainable Buildings Centre.