"When a house is demolished, more than the home is lost": On North America's demolition derby

Smashed up. Image: Getty.

In 2013 alone, more than 500 houses were demolished in Nashville, Tennessee, a sharp increase from previous years. And hundreds of additional teardowns are expected in a city that’s projected to add a million residents over the next two decades.

Nashville is hardly the only North American city to experience a recent wave of teardowns. In Vancouver, a housing and real estate expert reports that the city issued more than 1,000 demolition permits in 2013. She points out that most of the demolitions are of single-family homes, and each sends “more than 50 tonnes of waste to landfills”.

While preservationists have long decried the loss of historic fabric and cultural capital through teardowns, the environmental costs of demolition are increasingly coming to the fore.

The negative environmental consequences of teardowns are manifest. According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), demolition and construction now account for 25 per cent of the solid waste that ends up in US landfills each year. Further, when a building comes down and its materials are hauled off to the dump, all the energy embedded in them is also lost. This consists of all that was expended in the original production and transportation of the materials, as well as the manpower used to assemble the building.

As CMAP explains, “Examining embodied energy helps to get at the true costs of teardowns and links it to issues of air pollution and climate change (from the transport of materials and labor), natural resource depletion (forests, metals, gravel) and the environmental consequences of extracting materials.”

Often, a more environmentally friendly, quaint home is “replaced by a very expensive, much larger house, which is frequently left vacant”. Meanwhile, in the most desirable cities, in their tony suburbs, and in popular resorts, investors park their assets in “McMansions” that are sporadically occupied.

Additionally, bigger houses necessarily encroach upon open space. Not only does expansion entail the uprooting of mature plantings – which benefit air quality – but it also eliminates trees that can provide shade and minimize energy required to cool buildings in warmer months.

In the wake of the US housing crisis, many McMansions remain unoccupied. Image: Michael McCullough/flickr, CC BY-NC.

Urban facelifts erase more than crumbling buildings

In city neighborhoods, opponents of demolition will often cite the loss of historic character.

Advocates for development, on the other hand, frequently argue that demolition rids cities of decrepit, obsolete houses, paving the way for multi-unit developments. In this sense, cities can become more efficient with their limited space, avoiding suburban sprawl while alleviating the long, traffic-snarled commutes of those who travel to the city.

In many cities, however, new construction on the sites of torn-down houses is aimed at attracting relatively affluent young or middle-aged professionals – the demographic that appreciates urban amenities like shops, restaurants and museums.

Time was that a “walking world” – that is, an environment in which services and amenities are available within walking distance of one’s home – was possible for all city-dwellers, regardless of class. Today, in many urban areas, housing in the dense central core is the purview of the rich, and the less affluent are pushed to the outskirts.

As a result, formerly diverse neighborhoods become economically monolithic. Longtime residents scatter as home values – and taxes – are driven up by new construction.


Teardowns also have negative cultural implications.

All houses tell a story: they’re evidence of how earlier generations thought about domestic life and designed spaces to reflect their daily needs. When we demolish them, we lose those crucial traces of the past.

Of course, older houses often cannot satisfy contemporary demands for amenities, and were frequently built on a smaller scale. Modestly scaled houses from the 19th and early 20th centuries – which represent a wide range of architectural styles – are sometimes built out or renovated. But often developers and homeowners opt to (as a “For Sale” sign in my neighbourhood recently put it) “scrape the lot.”

For whatever reason, high square footage has become a prerequisite for new homes in the United States, where the average size of a house built since 2003 is more than double that in England. The United States Census Bureau reports that between 1973 and 2008 the average square footage of new houses soared from 1,660 to 2,519, only dipping after the Great Recession.

Small houses aren’t alone in falling victim to the wrecking ball. The Los Angeles Times recently reported on the demolition of mansions in desirable LA neighborhoods that had sold for as much as $35m.

Actress Jennifer Aniston has taken a stand against her mega mansion-inhabiting peers, arguing that, “The very idea that a building of 90,000 square feet can be called a home seems at the least a significant distortion of building code.”

Even in less supercharged real estate markets, large and well-built homes fall victim to rising land prices that make them more valuable as dirt.

One example is Georgia’s Glenridge Hall, an historic Tudor Revival mansion, which The Georgia Trust, a statewide historic preservation organization, designated a “place in peril” earlier this year.

Featured in films and providing some of the setting for the first season of The Vampire Diaries, Glenridge Hall had been preserved, until recently, by descendants of the original owner. But the architecture and planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company – darlings of the New Urbanism movement, which advocates for the revival of traditional town planning and walkable mixed-use developments – demolished the building to make way for a new mixed residential and commercial “English Village”.

Richmond, Virginia’s Agecroft Hall is built in the Tudor style. Image: Phoebe Reid/flickr, CC BY.

As I pointed out in my recent book, the builders of Tudor mansions like Glenridge Hall in the 1920s and 1930s attached a great deal of significance to the historic feel of their homes: in famous Tudors like the Virginia House and Agecroft Hall, they went so far as to import materials from actual English Tudors.

Unfortunately, for today’s wealthy builders and buyers, the past carries little cachet. For many, older homes are considered an obstacle rather than a badge of distinction. And when these radical presentists are given free rein to tear down the remains of the past, we all lose.The Conversation

Kevin D Murphy is Andrew W Mellon chair in the humanities and professor and chair of history of art at Vanderbilt University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Study: Evacuating after a nuclear disaster is normally a waste of time and money

Japanese evacuation centre. Image: Dai Kurokawa/EPA.

Over 110,000 people were moved from their homes following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011. Another 50,000 left of their own will, and 85,000 had still not returned four-and-a-half years later.

While this might seem like an obvious way of keeping people safe, my colleagues and I have just completed research that shows this kind of mass evacuation is unnecessary, and can even do more harm than good. We calculated that the Fukushima evacuation extended the population’s average life expectancy by less than three months.

To do this, we had to estimate how such a nuclear meltdown could affect the average remaining life expectancy of a population from the date of the event. The radiation would cause some people to get cancer and so die younger than they otherwise would have (other health effects are very unlikely because the radiation exposure is so limited). This brings down the average life expectancy of the whole group.

But the average radiation cancer victim will still live into their 60s or 70s. The loss of life expectancy from a radiation cancer will always be less than from an immediately fatal accident such as a train or car crash. These victims have their lives cut short by an average of 40 years, double the 20 years that the average sufferer of cancer caused by radiation exposure. So if you could choose your way of dying from the two, radiation exposure and cancer would on average leave you with a much longer lifespan.

How do you know if evacuation is worthwhile?

To work out how much a specific nuclear accident will affect life expectancy, we can use something called the CLEARE (Change of life expectancy from averting a radiation exposure) Programme. This tells us how much a specific dose of radiation will shorten your remaining lifespan by on average.

Yet knowing how a nuclear meltdown will affect average life expectancy isn’t enough to work out whether it is worth evacuating people. You also need to measure it against the costs of the evacuation. To do this, we have developed a method known as the judgement or J-value. This can effectively tell us how much quality of life people are willing to sacrifice to increase their remaining life expectancy, and at what point they are no longer willing to pay.

You can work out the J-value for a specific country using a measure of the average amount of money people in that country have (GDP per head) and a measure of how averse to risk they are, based on data about their work-life balance. When you put this data through the J-value model, you can effectively find the maximum amount people will on average be willing to pay for longer life expectancy.

After applying the J-value to the Fukushima scenario, we found that the amount of life expectancy preserved by moving people away was too low to justify it. If no one had been evacuated, the local population’s average life expectancy would have fallen by less than three months. The J-value data tells us that three months isn’t enough of a gain for people to be willing to sacrifice the quality of life lost through paying their share of the cost of an evacuation, which can run into billions of dollars (although the bill would actually be settled by the power company or government).

The three month average loss suggests the number of people who will actually die from radiation-induced cancer is very small. Compare it to the average of 20 years lost when you look at all radiation cancer sufferers. In another comparison, the average inhabitant of London loses 4.5 months of life expectancy because of the city’s air pollution. Yet no one has suggested evacuating that city.


We also used the J-value to examine the decisions made after the world’s worst nuclear accident, which occurred 25 years before Fukushima at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. In that case, 116,000 people were moved out in 1986, never to return, and a further 220,000 followed in 1990.

By calculating the J-value using data on people in Ukraine and Belarus in the late 1980s and early 1990s, we can work out the minimum amount of life expectancy people would have been willing to evacuate for. In this instance, people should only have been moved if their lifetime radiation exposure would have reduced their life expectancy by nine months or more.

This applied to just 31,000 people. If we took a more cautious approach and said that if one in 20 of a town’s inhabitants lost this much life expectancy, then the whole settlement should be moved, it would still only mean the evacuation of 72,500 people. The 220,000 people in the second relocation lost at most three months’ life expectancy and so none of them should have been moved. In total, only between 10 and 20 per cent of the number relocated needed to move away.

To support our research, colleagues at the University of Manchester analysed hundreds of possible large nuclear reactor accidents across the world. They found relocation was not a sensible policy in any of the expected case scenarios they examined.

More harm than good

Some might argue that people have the right to be evacuated if their life expectancy is threatened at all. But overspending on extremely expensive evacuation can actually harm the people it is supposed to help. For example, the World Heath Organisation has documented the psychological damage done to the Chernobyl evacuees, including their conviction that they are doomed to die young.

From their perspective, this belief is entirely logical. Nuclear refugees can’t be expected to understand exactly how radiation works, but they know when huge amounts of money are being spent. These payments can come to be seen as compensation, suggesting the radiation must have left them in an awful state of health. Their governments have never lavished such amounts of money on them before, so they believe their situation must be dire.

The ConversationBut the reality is that, in most cases, the risk from radiation exposure if they stay in their homes is minimal. It is important that the precedents of Chernobyl and Fukushima do not establish mass relocation as the prime policy choice in the future, because this will benefit nobody.

Philip Thomas, Professor of Risk Management, University of Bristol.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.