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Happy Healthy Housing
 

Background

From Stonehenge to suburban condos, housing developments often have themes. In some cases, they are defined by the surroundings, such as in the case of homes abutting golf courses or greenbelts. In other cases they are defined by physical features of the homes themselves, as is the case with housing tracts built predominantly from bricks, or with a colonial style.

With greater planning toward specific objectives, and collaboration with local government, housing developments could have multiple themes, defined in terms of both the surrounding area and the physical features of the homes, and provide additional benefits to society and the homeowners, as well. The result would be lifestyle enhancing at the same time as it would boost marketability, and reduce the strain on local resources.  By developing communities that are also equipped with advanced telecom systems and coordinated with local employment opportunities, they can mitigate the strain on transportation infrastructure and the resulting pollution, as well as even becoming thought centers of modern society.

Ideas / Solutions

Builders and local government could partner to achieve these multiple objectives by building homes and communities that:

  • are entirely environmentally-friendly,
  • have futuristic features internally,
  • Provide access to state-of-the-art technology,
  • include communal fruit and vegetable gardens,
  • coordinate the homes in the tract to produce a theme-park type of layout with unique features of each home, as if each were a separate ride or station, and
  • generate revenues for the homeowners.

To begin with, environmentally friendly housing has a broad appeal, and has been very successful in developments that have employed these features. Such techniques foster the sustainability of communities, and ease the strain on government services. For example, the use of environmentally friendly building materials reduces construction costs, as many recycled materials are less costly than alternatives. At the same time, use of recycled materials is a boon to local government by diverting wastes of previous construction from the waste stream, which saves money and extends the life of landfills.

Housing can be constructed from a high percentage of post-consumer and other recycled materials. Wooden particle board, gypsum wallboard, bricks, piping, and some types of glass products are all able to be produced by using high percentages of materials that would otherwise find themselves in the waste stream. Recovered materials can also be heavily relied upon in the production of concrete and concrete blocks, and asphalt can be reconstituted and reused through microwave technologies. Chips of recovered rubber, also known as "crumb rubber" can be added to some of these products, such as pavement, and, in so doing, can enhance their quality and durability. Of course, the use of some materials, such as asbestos and lead-based paint, is already strictly prohibited. And, for those who are especially devoted to the truest environmentally oriented surroundings, a builder would probably be willing to provide a thatched roof and leave a dirt floor bereft of wood or marble (for an additional fee, ironically).

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Design choices can emphasize ease of use and resource efficiency, such as in the selection of the homes' systems and appliances. Since these efforts benefit state and local governments by the reduction in demand from utility services, governments and utilities can facilitate such housing by offering accelerated permitting procedures, and providing free consulting services that encourage conformance to efficiency techniques.

For example, the decision of which direction the home faces determines the amount of sun to which the home will be exposed, and hence, can be a big factor in reducing energy needs for heating and cooling. Strategic placement of windows, doors, low and high ceilings, open and narrow spaces, and interior walls can have a major impact on the home's energy consumption and costs. Even the placement of the kitchen, bathrooms, and bedrooms can yield savings.

Using state-of-the-art appliances can ensure that long-term costs would be much lower than those of traditional housing, due to decreases in energy bills, waste disposal fees, and water bills. Heating and cooling systems with high energy-efficiency ratings are readily available on the market today, as well as systems that utilize alternative energy sources. Most notably, solar panels, which harness, store, and dispense solar energy, have proven to be an effective and efficient energy form, especially for homes. Although these systems usually have higher initial costs, the cost savings achieved over a period of years more than compensates for the initial expenditures. Similarly, showerheads, water faucets, toilets, and washing machines that conserve water recoup their costs in an even shorter period of time.

Secondly, the homes should be stocked with the most state-of-the-art future-oriented technological features and conveniences, including:

voice activated lights;

Internet-controlled (including voice controlled by Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol, or VOIP) heating, cooling, and cleaning systems that enable control by hand-held or other computers away from home to operate heaters, air conditioners, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, ovens, and robotic vacuums;

  • computer integrated video scanners for security that can be viewed
    and repositioned from remote computers;

  • built-in "hidden" music systems;

  • self-cleaning carpets, floors, countertops, and windows, if someone would hurry up and invent them; and

  • most importantly, fiber optic wiring instead of copper wiring (a.k.a., "fiber to the home"), for voice, video, and data services. (Building codes and permits for multi-family housing and affordable housing complexes should require fiber to ensure that lower-income families are not excluded from the business, education, telephonic, and entertainment uses which they make possible.)

The homes could even be decorated internally with a futuristic look. The result would combine state-of-the-art and environmentally-sound philosophies.

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Thirdly, housing developments can take it upon themselves to provide a robust, high-bandwidth technology network that brings connectivity into the community. Rather than just waiting for a telephone company, a cable company, an Internet Service Provider, and others to collaborate to serve the community, the developer should provide a network that will satisfy all of the development's communications and information technology needs. It could do so by wiring the neighborhood with fiber, or deploying a wireless system such as a WiFi (short-range wireless) mesh network or even a WiMax (long-range wireless) system.

In so doing, the community's needs for telephony, Internet connectivity (a.k.a., voice, video, and data), and entertainment programming would be satisfied. The system would facilitate use of the Internet-controlled systems and security scanners. It could be designed with a community home page that would keep all residents apprised of local news and information, including a community calendar, utility and emergency contacts, local services, news about local FCECs (as discussed in a previous chapter), and emergency planning updates. The system could be managed by residents or by a contractor, giving the residents greater control over the network. Maintenance could be financed by home owner's association (HOA) dues or by selling ad space on the home page.

Fourthly, the communities could be designed with areas set aside for community gardens which welcome all residents to grow fruits and vegetables to promote self-sufficiency and provide an arena and an activity that brings neighbors together and fosters community familiarity.

Fifthly, the additional integration of an external theme could add to the development's allure, particularly for families with children, for whom there would be a natural appeal and recreation facilities. Unlike most tract housing -- wherein returning home after a long day of work, a resident could get lost amidst all the identical units -- these developments could make each home distinctly different, perhaps with names for each home. There could be a Disneyland-esque segmentation of the development into sections such as Fairy Tale-town, CyberCity, Himalaya Hamlet, and Ice Cream Chill Ville. Within each of these sections, each house would have unique features, in keeping with the theme. Each section could also have a playground or greenbelt area that is designed with an even more pronounced dedication to that area's theme.

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These elements would combine to provide a strong marketing capability, due to their many economic, technological, and environmental advantages, and the additional element of Fun. The popular appeal would be likely to cause the homes to appreciate in value at a significantly faster rate than traditional homes.

Finally, the development could generate ongoing economic benefits, in addition to the prospect of future market value from appreciation. It can produce a revenue stream for homeowners by providing more than just housing. During the design phase, a small portion of the land could be set aside for a strategically placed profit-making enterprise. It would be a new style of mixed-use land allocation, by designating one area for an appropriately chosen, environmentally friendly business that would serve the residents, and also the public at large.

It could be a restaurant that would become a gathering place for residents during Sunday brunch, a movie theatre that would provide entertainment to all, or even a water slide that would be popular among the kids. But it should not be something like a dry cleaner or a gas station, because those could pose environmental risks to the neighborhood.

The best advantage for homeowners is that they would jointly own the businesses that are located there, and regularly receive part of the income stream. The ownership vehicle could be the HOA, which would own the property and perhaps even the business itself, akin to HOA ownership of a greenbelt or swimming pool, but in this case, occasionally paying out dividends to the homeowner shareholders, as well. Or, each homeowner could own a share of it as Tenants In Common, purchase of a share of which would be a required condition for purchase of a home in the community (the home itself would still be owned individually, in fee simple). All homeowners would share the profits, creating another community bond. The TIC share would have to be sold along with the home when a homeowner chooses to sell.

Local governments have many incentives for encouraging developments that provide all of the foregoing features. In light of debates over new housing and its impact, these homes would minimize the societal costs and bring positive attention to the communities. These homes would mitigate the impact on gas, electricity, water, and waste management infrastructures, the expansions of which are costly. The theme park features would bring allure and attract further economic activity. The business located in the community would have an especially direct benefit to the local government by adding to its tax base.

Federal, state, and local governments should be eager to encourage these developments, with the many benefits that they would receive from them. Incentives to builders and buyers could include zoning variances, tax advantages, and preferential home loans, in addition to the accelerated permitting and free consulting services for resource efficiency.

 
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