I live on a ridge top in the Curtis Pike Intentional Community in Madison County Kentucky. For the past year and a half, we have been working with our county planning and zoning board to encourage the development and expansion of sustainable building projects in Madison County. Currently, zoning and building regulations are created to keep unscrupulous commercial builders from ripping off new homeowners and to minimize liability of the planning and zoning employees and board. This is good in some respects because we don’t want a bunch of shoddy housing, poorly graded roadways and subdivisions with no sidewalks. But it makes doing anything experimental in green design difficult because there isn’t a code that covers houses that use experimental building materials like cob or a small home like a yurt.
Current codes respond to questions of how the next homeowner will view this home and if they would hold the county liable for approving something that is sub-standard. Some account is taken into environmental impact but they are not locally driven but rather have been implemented to be in compliance with state or national regulations. Codes that address problems like loss of habitat or global climate change are harder to justify because there is inconsistent regulation on the state and national level.
When there is a negative environmental impact found solutions are addressed in traditional ways with increased centralization and larger facilities. For instance, several waterways in Madison County were showing chronic elevated nutrient loads from failing septic systems, overloaded neighborhood package treatment plants and aging municipal sewage treatment. In response, the county built a new sewage treatment plant and is requiring all residents within 500 feet of new sewer lines to hook on. This is good protection for our neighboring creeks, rivers and lakes unless a sewer line breaks or we have a power outage like during the ice storm of 2008, or unusually heavy rain like the flood in May 2010. Then raw sewage dumps into the nearby creek or river at a volume and a rate far surpassing a failure of one on-site water treatment system. We have composting toilets and grey water gardens and so hooking onto municipal sewer is not only unnecessary but detrimental to our vegetable garden that is dependent on the irrigation.
Green building is addressed in codes by requiring particular elements which may or may not decrease the carbon footprint. A 5000 square foot home could have excellent insulation and high-efficiency appliances but, because of the electricity needed to run the larger dwelling and the use of new materials, have a higher carbon footprint than a 50-year-old 1000 square foot home . There is a new subdivision planned in Southern Madison County that despite including 2000 units and large homes, is labeling itself as a green development. This is not how we want green building to be defined!