In the wake of last fall’s tragic fires in California, a compelling drive emerged in the North Bay region to “build back right”—to create more robust and resilient communities with environmentally responsive housing and transportation, along with clean, reliable local energy and water infrastructure systems.
The Bay Area’s green building community has responded with a variety of recovery initiatives. At USGBC's GreenerBuilder conference in San Francisco, three colleagues and I shared our experiences engaging with the North Bay community in green rebuilding efforts.
Rebuild Green Coalition
Shortly after the fires, I became immersed in organizing the Rebuild Green Coalition, a spontaneous affiliation of about a dozen Bay Area green building practitioners who gathered in response to the imperative of somehow helping out our North Bay neighbors. After a December workshop to identify green rebuilding needs, priorities and resources, we launched into planning the Rebuild Green Expo. Two months later, on February 23, an estimated 2,000 local residents turned out to the Santa Rosa Veterans’ Memorial Building to learn about topics ranging from healthy materials to electric vehicles, 100 percent electric homes to fire-safe landscapes.
The community’s response was overwhelmingly positive, and the rebuilding work will continue far into the future; as a result, the coalition recently committed to bringing the expo back, on February 22, 2019. The coalition—still an informal group—has grown to more than 100 individuals and organizations who contributed to the expo and are engaged in other efforts to rebuild the North Bay to be more resilient and sustainable. Among them are my GreenerBuilder co-presenters—Greg Thomson, of the Clean Coalition; Bob Massaro, of The Healthy Buildings Companies; and Robin Stephani, of 8th Wave.
The Clean Coalition is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and a modern grid through technical, policy and project development expertise. Greg Thomson held a key role in spearheading the Clean Coalition’s North Bay Community Resilience Initiative, working with PG&E to develop a community microgrid approach in the area as a model to demonstrate a modern, resilient, carbon-free energy system.
Their goal is to establish a blueprint for rebuilding disaster-affected areas in a way that is cost-effective; uses local energy resources; and provides reliable, clean electricity to critical sites in the event of area-wide power outages. Current efforts are focused on identifying an optimal area for the demonstration to take place—one that includes a mix of building types and uses, meets the needs of the community to rebuild energy infrastructure and can accommodate renewable electricity production and storage in ways that fully demonstrate the multiple benefits that these local energy solutions deliver to communities.
Healthy Buildings Companies
Working to create green housing in the area, Bob Massaro founded the Napa-based design-build Healthy Buildings Companies almost 20 years ago. All their homes are high-performance and designed to achieve zero net energy. Following the 2017 fires, they were inundated with building requests and distressed to have to decline far too many, whether because of under-insured fire victims or simply because there was too much demand and not enough supply of workers and subcontractors.
Among the challenges they have encountered, labor looms large—the area suffered from a labor shortage before the fires, and afterwards, it was difficult even to attract remote workers who were eager for work, due to the inability to house them. Nevertheless, the Healthy Buildings Companies have 160 units in nine projects under way to address the area’s housing shortage—more than they have ever had in the pipeline at one time. Bob was encouraged to see how many fire victims responded so positively to Healthy Buildings’ approach: steel-framed, fire-resistant construction, coupled with myriad green and healthy features, in a zero net energy design package.
8th Wave is a new, housing-focused B-corp with the goal of leveraging recent policy changes that encourage creation of infill accessory dwelling units, using modular and panelized systems to rapidly create green, affordable, temporary-to-permanent housing for the area’s climate refugees. Their pilot project, for Homes for Sonoma, will welcome five displaced families this October, at the relatively (for the Bay Area) affordable price point of $100,000 per one-bedroom unit.
Robin Stephani shared with GreenerBuilder attendees two painful lessons she and her fellow 8th Wave founders have learned: It’s no quicker to build temporary than permanent housing, and the cause is regulatory constraints that simply can’t be removed quickly or effectively enough under crisis conditions. Her takeaway is perhaps the most important message for all of us: All communities potentially in harm’s way—irrespective of the nature of the disaster risk—should begin planning now for how they will provide housing when the need arises—as it surely will.