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Go Vertical, Young Green

Photo by Debra DiPaoloWith each passing hour in the United States, 365 acres of open space — wilderness, countryside, farmland and native habitat — disappear under the foundations of brand-new houses. Sited far from the urban centers where people do their work, every development creates a new class of people addicted to cars that pollute, lawns that suck water and air that requires conditioning. Their construction paves over wetlands, interferes with the migratory patterns of wildlife and uproots the old oaks lucky enough to attract activists to sit in them (the unlucky ones just get cut down).

Plus, they’re butt ugly.

Unlike so many other ecological nightmares these days, however, this one has a solution: apartment life. Where once the nature-lover’s imperative was to carve out a space in the wilderness and get off the grid, many now realize that polluting the air on long commutes and paving over open space so you can live on it is fast becoming unhip: The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club now hand out pamphlets and fliers on "smart-growth" and "transit-oriented" housing; New York City is heralded as a haven of greenness.

"It’s an organic community," says Lois Arkin, founder of the Los Angeles Eco-Village, L.A.’s own sustainable-living trend-setter. Sustainability is fashionable; city living, the radical new trend.

"Sustainability," wrote Grist magazine founder Chip Giller in an Earth Day editorial, "is the new bling."

And density is the new Rocky Mountain high. "At a certain density you have many more opportunities for the kind of shared infrastructure that saves resources," says Ted Bardacke of Global Green USA, an affiliate of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Green Cross International, with offices in D.C. and Santa Monica. "Whether it’s heating or cooling or composting or [wastewater] recycling, as you get closer together and start linking apartments up it gets cheaper to do everything." Because apartments share walls, they also share heat in the winter and insulation from the heat in the summer. And unless you’re on the top floor, you don’t have a roof. In terms of maintaining a comfortable indoor temperature efficiently, he says, "that’s a major difference."

Bardacke notes that not every apartment building squanders less than a single-family home: "From an energy standpoint," he says, "a well-constructed single-family home is better than a poorly constructed multifamily building." But in the larger context of traffic, climate change and sprawl, the multifamily unit wins every time. "There’s that real, positive linkage between our air quality and building up within the city," says Bardacke. "Unless you get to a certain density, mass transit doesn’t work."

To the city’s credit, Los Angeles has included the density-equals-fewer-cars equation in its building codes: A single-family home requires two parking spaces per bedroom; an apartment building only requires one. And real estate development has begun to embrace multifamily buildings near transit hubs. Gold Line–connected downtown Pasadena, for instance, is a transit-oriented community, as is the maturing loft-conversion movement in downtown Los Angeles. Even Santa Monica has its transit-oriented side: You can get from the Third Street Promenade to UCLA or downtown Los Angeles on an express bus.

By this logic, even Playa Vista, the hotly contested 111-acre housing development environmentalists have long fought on the city’s Westside, is more environmentally sound than a riverside ranch in Ojai: 90 percent of Playa Vista’s units are condominiums or apartments. No local environmentalist I know will touch this, but it’s true: There are far more wasteful ways to live. Half of L.A.’s water gets dumped onto those live green carpets called lawns, flushing fertilizer and dog feces down into the city’s storm drains, where they’ll eventually sicken surfers and poison marine life. A high-density environment with shared open space, then, might rank low on the city’s worries.

As much as apartment life benefits the planet, however, it may take a toll on residents’ lungs: Last month, the California Air Resources Board issued an ominous report more than 300 pages long claiming that indoor air pollution is rising from cigarette smoke, gas stoves and manufacturing chemicals such as formaldehyde, which is present in composite wood products. Apartment dwellers are likely to suffer worse than homeowners from bad air for the same reason multi-unit dwellings save energy: Apartment units have less ventilation than houses, and renters have less individual control over their air quality. Many carpets "off gas" (emit toxic fumes for years after manufacture), as does paint high in volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. Air purifiers don’t help: They work by generating ozone to kill germs and neutralize chemicals, but ozone itself irritates lung tissue and triggers asthma.

To Bardacke, whose own Santa Monica condominium is included on the city’s Green Home Tour — it has bamboo floors (bamboo is a fast-growing grass, not a tree), for example, and a dual-flush toilet — the impact of the indoor environment on the tenant is no less important than the impact of the tenant on the planet. You may not get your landlord to bring your building up to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards, but you can at least improve your own unit.

If you’re moving into a new apartment with a carpet, ask that it be replaced with a Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) "Green Label" air-quality standard carpet. They’re not hard to find: "Every fourth carpet you see at Home Depot meets that standard," Bardacke says. Have your landlord paint your walls every two years with low-VOC paint, which is easy to come by as long as you don’t mind pastels: With darker colors come deeper tints that raise the VOC quotient. Almost every major paint company has a low-VOC line. Bardacke used Frazee Envirocoat. Like DutchBoy’s Clarity and ICI’s Lifemaster, it costs no more than standard paint.

Beyond the matter of one’s own lungs, a renter can exert pressure on a landlord to make the already environmentally friendly apartment house still more sustainable. Green homebuilders love dual-flush toilets, which replace the traditional flush handle with two buttons, one for the liquid waste and another for solid waste. Solid waste goes down with the whole 1.6 gallons; liquid waste uses just half that. "If you think about the ratio of liquid to solid flushes," Bardacke says, "it’s an incredible water saver."

When I expressed doubt that a landlord could be persuaded to replace a large building’s traditional toilets with the dual-flush kind, Bardacke reminded me that it’s building owners who pay the water bills.

With enough lobbying, you might even get a building owner to go solar. Solar requires a hefty capital outlay, but it costs almost nothing to run and little to maintain, meaning its time-tested technology pays back over years of reduced electric bills. "In a rental property where the [landlord] is going to own the building for a long time," Bardacke says, "[he or she] might tolerate spending more money if there’s a payback in the end."

If you need help making the case, you can visit Global Green USA’s Green Building Resource Center at 2218 Main Street in Santa Monica, a free community resource for sustainable design. Just this week, Global Green received a grant from the California Energy Commission to put its principles to work on two affordable, multifamily housing projects whose goal is to produce at least 70 percent of their annual electricity with solar photo-voltaic (PV) technology. One of the buildings is in Poway, California, and will begin construction later this year; the other, on Hartford Avenue between downtown Los Angeles and MacArthur Park, has begun to be designed with a nonprofit developer, A Community of Friends.

There are challenges: "One of the issues that we face is that as we build up, the amount of roof space that we have to put solar per dwelling unit decreases. That shouldn’t matter if we’re just trying to get 50 percent of the electricity use or 25 percent from PV, but as you get higher your available roof space for solar panels decreases." He looks forward to the day, "five or 10 years from now," when you can install solar right into the building skin with building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). "It’s really the next solar frontier," says Bardacke. "Roof shingles with solar in them; glass that you can see through but has solar collectors built into it." The technology is already on the market, but it’s expensive and untested, and getting developers to use it will be another frontier entirely.

"In the real estate market and the construction industry old habits die hard," says Bardacke. "And to try to get people to take a really big bite is sometimes difficult. We try to encourage people to go little by little. Do what you can do, and do what’s appropriate."

And start with your own breath and happiness: "We focus first on what’s best for the tenant," he says. "Then, if you can protect forests in British Columbia at the same time, well, that’s great, too."