Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Green Washing in Chapel Hill

I was recently visiting friends who moved into a newly built home in Chapel Hill NC. Mostly they've been pleased with what they got. The development was touted as exceptionally energy efficient—a major selling point, for which they paid a premium—and the construction seems solid.

They were shocked, however, when they installed solar panels on the their roof to take the energy efficiency to another level and promptly earned a visit from the neighborhood Architectural Review Committee (comprised of a single person, who happens to work for the developer) insisting that they take those ugly things down. Huh?

It seems the developer was concerned about maintaining a uniform exterior look to the homes he'd built, in the belief that that would help sell units and support property values. While that basic attitude is nothing new, it's novel to simultaneously tout innovative energy features while indulging in bullying tactics in defense of a rather arbitrary sense of aesthetics (who says solar panels are ugly?). Apparently, in this instance, the commitment to a better environment was only skin deep, which had the reverse twist of meaning that energy initiatives couldn't be visible on the skin of the buildings. It's an interesting line to walk—building houses with a old style colonial look while operating with high efficiency under the hood. Kind of like putting a 5.7 liter V-8 Hemi engine into a restored 1972 Dodge Dart, and then marketing the car on the basis of its appeal as a retro icon.

(I was wondering what argument the developer would advance in defense of his commitment to energy efficiency while objecting strenuously to my friends' installation of solar panels. Talk about trying to thread the eye of a needle with a camel! I further wondered how much squirming the developer would experience if a story about this "happened" to appear in the local paper.)

When my friends did not capitulate to threats (including the developer's lackey insisting that if my friends didn't remove the panels voluntarily within 30 days that the developer would unilaterally remove them and charge the homeowners for the expense), the developer agreed to meet face to face. This set up a classic good cop/bad cop scenario, with the bulldog assistant as the fall guy. The developer was all placating and reasonable while his gofer foamed at the mouth. If this were presented as a television show it would strain credulity—nobody's that blatantly hypocritical and manipulative, are they?

While the developer has backed off from the 30-day deadline and the cops have not been called in (yet), my friends have consulted a lawyer and it's not clear how this will all end. The homeowners are amenable to having the panels moved to another part of their roof that is less visible from the front, so long as the solar orientation maintains high panel output. As the house faces east, it's possible they can be rotated toward the south and behind the peak such that everyone will be happy, but it's not yet clear that this suggestion will be given enough oxygen to be seriously considered. We'll see.

The issue here is not so much that the developer saw things differently than the homeowners—either on the matter of aesthetics or the best way to be energy efficient—as that the way they went about conveying their concern was so little evolved from mafia strong-armed tactics. There was essentially a complete disconnect between environmental sustainability and social sustainability. The developer does not appear to understand that if we don't solve problems differently, it isn't going to make much difference what you have on the roof.

If you stand for ecological, energy efficient housing, you can't very well not stand for solar panels as an option. If you want to make a credible statement about caring for the environment, you better make sure that your statements about how to resolve developer/homeowner tensions are expressed in a caring environment—because unhappy homeowners who feel that they've been subjected to bait and switch greenwashing are never going to be good for marketing.

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