William Stewart

When I first moved to Tampa, 32 years ago, the drive south along Interstate 75 across the Florida state line was largely through orange groves, farmland, and endless swaths of oak and palmetto. Interchanges were relatively empty except for the occasional gas station and fast-food stop.

Today, a drive down I-75 is a jumble of commercial development at most off-ramps. Car-oriented services are on all sides, with acres of single-family residential developments nearby, many marketed with the words “Cypress,” “Lagoon,” and, of course, “Palmetto.” Leisure and the good life have been the selling points. Lately, however, I’ve noticed a new message: The good life is starting to go green. There was a time when a subtropical location was enough for most buyers; now words about energy efficiency and sustainable design are slipping in. The more aggressive developers are even pursuing LEED certification. Admirable as that seems, I have to wonder about the claims in the absence of any truly comprehensive cost-benefit analysis.

In theory, at least, what happens between a roof and four walls can be designed to consume no energy. Yet, if you have to take a ride in a car to go to work, eat at a restaurant, or even pick up a quart of milk, how does that support a low-carbon or carbon-neutral lifestyle?

Related to this is the question of land use. Our nation’s older settlements were sited near productive agricultural economies. New Jersey, Georgia, and, yes, central Florida come to mind. That’s changed. In statistics compiled by the National Resources Inventory between 2002 and 2007, just over 4 million acres of agricultural land were developed. So nowadays, those fresh raspberries in your local grocery store were probably flown in from across the country or even from another country. The problem with all of this isn’t growth; it’s a failure of holistic thinking.

But those whose work is in residential design are uniquely positioned to make a positive difference. After all, our homes are where our values as a society are shaped and where our sustainable ethics take root. True sustainability is more than energy-efficient add-ons or the checking of boxes. True sustainability must factor in land use and transportation as well as health, productivity, safety, resilience, and, yes, energy. If we can do this, we’ll be leaders not only in providing quality shelter, we’ll also be transforming this nation’s cultural lifestyle.

Mickey Jacob, FAIA, 2013 President