Sustainable housing must remain affordable

by Randy Wilde

Spring is here. Let the Craigslist browsing and neighborhood reconnaissance missions begin. The race is on to figure out next year’s housing situation. Price and location are always imperative criteria for this difficult operation. The shiny new Sterling Collwood and Granada on Hardy apartment developments pass the test for proximity to campus and add an interesting element to the mix. Both of these facilities are heavily advertised as “green” living options.

The Granada is situated merely steps from campus and Sterling, while a bit more of a hike, provides a free shuttle service to campus. Both claim “green” legitimacy, from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, which many will recognize from Modern Space student union advertisements. Sterling has achieved LEED Gold certification and The Granada has set its sights on the same target.

To meet these standards, both buildings have some significant measures in place to reduce environmental impact. Sterling boasts solar panel arrays, energy efficient insulation and appliances, a shuttle to campus, on-site recycling centers, storm water treatment, water efficient landscaping and plumbing, and recycled construction materials. The Granada leverages similar construction practices as well as energy and water efficiency toward its goal of attaining LEED certification.

But these convenient and new “green” housing options fail to meet most students’ primary objective: affordability. A single room at Sterling Collwood ranges from $810 to $1025. Not terrible compared to other near-campus apartments, but nothing to get excited about. The Granada will cost you anywhere from $1,000 to $1,250 for a room to yourself. On the other hand, it’s possible to find a house around SDSU where roommates can get their own rooms for $500 to $700 each.

These new developments seem to be a strange mix of luxury and sustainability. For me, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Simpler, smaller apartments are more practical for achieving sustainability, and attract more students with lower prices. The mainstream sustainable building practices may be a little extra, but there is no need for sustainability to be tied to unreasonable rent prices. If each apartment unit is really built less wastefully and residents consume fewer resources, it should cost the operators less, translating into reduced rent prices. In the context of sustainability, bigger is not better. Smaller is better. Simpler is better.

Sterling Collwood and The Granada also remain a clear step behind the most proven sustainable housing models. For example, Sterling claims its specially insulated windows conserve energy for heating and cooling. While that’s a start, it looks like a baby step compared to building techniques that use seasonal sun angles to prevent the need for any additional energy use to control indoor climate. Just looking at the Sterling or Granada buildings, there is nothing obvious to set them apart from your run-of-the-mill apartment block. They are far from revolutionizing the way we build and live. Rather, their goal seems to be making sustainable look average, rather than creating something new, better and more efficient. If we wanted real change we would emulate more complete standards such as Germany’s Passivhaus, instead of shying away from the cutting edge.

Modern Space and other conspicuous “green” projects on campus such as the solar array powering the Aztec Aquaplex reflect a growing drive toward sustainability around campus. Students want and need affordable, environmentally friendly housing. I commend Sterling Collwood and The Granada for their admirable strides toward truly sustainable housing, but there is still a long way to go. While the “green housing” trend is a step in the right direction, I’m concerned such developments will attach a hefty price tag to sustainability in people’s minds. Using more efficient construction methods and building material should cost less. Sustainability should not be priced out of reach for the average student.

—Randy Wilde is an international security and conflict resolution senior.

— The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Daily Aztec.