High Flying

A few years ago, we found ourselves floating high in a hot air balloon just after dawn. I’m not really one for heights, but the view was impressive. Our journey was accompanied by the distant barking of dogs far below, unnerved by the balloon’s shadow crossing their suburban territories.

Melbourne, Australia Source: Robert Kerton/CSIRO

Melbourne, Australia
Source: Robert Kerton/CSIRO

Urban sprawl is nothing new, but I still find the images mesmerizing in their geometry and human lines.

Low density urban development brings with it a host of environmental issues – loss of wilderness and farmland, water supply challenges, over-extended services and infrastructure, increased consumption of fuels, and so on. Still, I understand the financial necessity of living outside of large cities but within commuting distance, as well as the desire to live close – but not too close – to urban hubs.

Las Vegas, Nevada Source: Ecoflight

Las Vegas, Nevada
Source: Ecoflight

There are methods of developing large-scale housing and urban areas which plan for more sustainable use of limited resources and require less driving, but these are still the exception rather than the rule. For the most part, urban sprawl seems to grow whenever local economies permit – only to have all that newly developed land become a financial and maintenance burden when an economy contracts.

Back to our balloon trip, which took us far above the high desert of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The city spread in all directions, and at the edges, it went further in the form of empty roads, a skeletal outline of charted territory, ready to be filled with more homes.

Room to grow Albuquerque, New Mexico Source: Ecoflight

Room to grow
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Source: Ecoflight

It was a great and picturesque ride, until our landing, which somehow went very wrong. What had looked safe, planned and controlled turned out to be none of those things.

A powerful gust of wind, a whoop of controlled panic from the pilot, the earth coming up at the wrong angle. Then the basket with us inside, skidding horizontally along a dusty field, our pilot hanging on from the outside, trying to right the sideways basket before anyone got hurt. A miscalculation in flight, ending in a crash by any definition.

That time, though, there was no permanent damage. We were able to right the basket, get up, and walk away.

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.

More:

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.