Does Development Mean Environmental Destruction?

This showed up in the Galveston County Daily News Letters To Editor.

Editor’s note: After six years, a hurricane, a nationwide housing market crash and a change of principal players, a development that long promised to bring rare, new middle-income houses to the island, Stella Mare Village just west of  7 1/2 Mile Road was officially launched.

Here is what David Dumas had to say:

Development Means Environmental Destruction

“In the Thursday’s Business section, there was a subtitle that read “West End development officially launched” “A long wait,” The Daily News, Dec. 20. It should have read, “ West End environmental destruction officially launched.”

And here is my response

Environmentally responsible development is about the delivery of a better quality of life now and for generations to come. Quality of life is a broad topic that might include affordable housing, education, employment and other things, but it is also about protection of our environment as a whole, sensitive environments such as wetlands, and energy efficient and resilient development.

Although some of my neighbors are opposed to high-density development, if we concede that the urban core has already supplanted the “natural” environment, doesn’t it make sense to develop there, rather than previously undeveloped areas? By increasing the density of development we can create a compact walkable, pedestrian friendly city.

Our biggest environmental problems are air pollution and water pollution.

Much air pollution is a direct result of burning fuel. We should do all we can to reduce emissions from burning fuel. Conserving energy is a way to start, reducing the amount of fuel burned to drive your car or cool your home.

High density development significantly reduces the energy consumption of each dwelling unit. By locating high density development in the urban core we can reduce dependence on automobiles to take us to our destinations. If Galveston’s urban core were to become truly walkable or if we had well planned public transit, such that each family could eliminate one car, the impact on the environment, as well as pocketbooks would be significant.

Water conservation is easy to implement through the use of flow restrictors on faucets and shower heads and low-flow toilets. They are mandated in new construction, but if your home doesn’t have them you should start installing them now.

As for water pollution, the construction of the new sewage treatment facility for the City of Galveston is a step in the right direction. It will reduce the amount of pollutants discharged into the environment from our city.

As individuals, we can find ways to reduce pollutants in the storm water run-off.  The top ten list of steps you can take to reduce storm water pollution:

1.    Maintain cars and trucks. Never dump anything down a storm drain. Always recycle used oil, antifreeze and other fluids. Fix oil leaks.

2.   Wash cars, trucks and equipment at a commercial car wash rather than in the street or in the driveway. If you wash a car at home, wash it on the lawn.

3.   Drive less. Leave the car at home at least one day each week and take a bus, carpool or bike to work. Combine errands. Get vehicle emissions checked and repaired. Buy a low emission vehicle.

4.   Cut down on fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. If used, follow directions and use them sparingly. Don’t fertilize before a rainstorm. Consider using organic fertilizers. Let lawns go brown in the summer months; they will rebound in the fall. Compost or mulch lawn clippings. Preserve existing trees or plant new ones – trees hold rainfall and help manage storm water.

5.   Replace part of your lawn with native, drought-resistant plants. Add compost to planting soil and dress it with mulch to improve plant growth and reduce storm water runoff.

6.   If you are on a septic system, maintain the system. Septic systems require regular inspections, maintenance and pumping, or they will fail, cost a lot of money to fix and pollute the environment. Have a professional inspector check your septic system regularly and have it pumped out when needed.

7.   Pick up after pets. Scoop your dog’s poop and properly dispose of it. Compost manure in a designated area so that it doesn’t wash off into nearby waters.

8.   Reduce impervious surfaces at home and increase the vegetated land cover of your property. Impervious surfaces include the roof, driveway, patios and lawn. Reduce rooftop runoff by directing downspouts to vegetated areas, and not to the storm drain or street. For new driveways and patios, consider putting in permeable paving or patterns of concrete or brick that allow water to filter through.

9.   Support Galveston’s storm water program. Galveston needs to make a serious investment to maintain it’s storm water system, to help prevent flooding and help protect natural resources. Long overlooked, these needed repairs may cost money in the short run but save money for damages to public and private property in the long term.

10.   You’ve already made at least one smart growth choice: choosing to live in Galveston, a compact island community with easy access to shopping, schools, and work. Instead of commuting from the suburbs of Cinco Ranch to downtown Houston, your daily commute is how far?

We owe it to future generations to act responsibly now and preserve the environment through the sound policies on conservation, waste reduction and recycling, total water management and greening. These policies need to identify places to be developed as well as places to remain undeveloped.

One of the world’s greatest environmentally responsible developments is The Woodlands.  Designed by Ian McHarg, who wrote the influential book Design with Nature, and developed by George and Cynthia Mitchell, The Woodlands was designed to work with, rather than against the environment, and is a model for future development to follow.

Ian McHarg

In the end, individuals, business leaders and the various governing bodies need to recognize that they are stakeholders and partners in the protection and improvement of our environment. It is incumbent upon all to cooperate, collaborate, and work together to make the choices and set the policies that will serve us now and in future generations.


I’m not much of a writer, being an Architect, I think it must come from the wrong side of my brain or something.  But I’m going to give it a go and see where it leads. Maybe this will be an outlet that keeps me sane when there is so much craziness around me.

Who knows where this blog will go – certainly not me.

But if you want to go back to my company web page, click here

Building Codes and the Nanny State

Building codes are getting ridiculous. The people who write, or perhaps more correctly edit, the codes every three years have gone over the edge.

In the 1980’s the building code we used in Galveston was a rather small three ring binder.  Seems like it was about 200 or so pages printed on both sides.

Today the library of International Codes fills an entire bookshelf.

Everything from how many air changes per hour there will be in a Nail Salon to tamperproof, arc fault protected electrical outlets is specified.  The Code Council keeps pushing for fire sprinklers in every building.  In Texas, the legislature pushed back by prohibiting cities and counties from requiring them in residential construction. Fire sprinklers are not the last word in protecting property from damage.  I was visiting with a contractor engaged in a big fire damage job – the fire did about $200,000 in direct damage.  Water from the sprinklers added another several million dollars to the repair bill.

The changes made every three years are so numerous and cumbersome that the construction industry hasn’t adjusted to the 2009 code when the 2012 code is published.

Three years is too short a cycle. And every tragedy reported in the newspapers does not need to have a response embodied in the building codes. Most of the tragedies reported are the result of cumulative failures including lack of inspections during construction and after occupancy, numerous violations of the fire codes while the building is occupied, impeded exits and the number of occupants exceeding that which the building was designed to accommodate. Alcohol impaired occupants often figure prominently in these tragedies. There should be some relationship between the societal cost of accidents and the cost of prevention. Accidents will happen.  Some will be tragic.  Should the entire industry change the way we build things? Not necessarily.

Of course, one has to believe that it is also about selling the books and bolstering the bottom line of the International Code Council.

All the changes in the Code do not become apparent until the books have been published, the officials have been trained, and all the seminars attended.  By then, the next round of changes is underway.  At the very least the Council should publish the book describing important changes to the Code long before, and not after, the Code becomes available for adoption.

Any state or local agency that requires compliance with the “most recent edition” should change their enabling legislation and adopt a certain edition. Laziness on the part of regulators is not a good thing.  If a new code is going to be adopted, it should be an affirmative act based on an evaluation of the new code, not a default automatic adoption.

The people who write (edit) the codes need to slow way down, make fewer, more meaningful changes, stop burying requirements in the wrong chapters and be less reactive to isolated events.  Yes, we want safer buildings and the building codes should lead the way – but don’t cripple the construction industry in the process.

The Problem With Palapas

Palapas are those thatch roofed huts that look so great on a tropical island like Galveston.  With a roof made out of palm branches lashed to a wooden frame, they are resistant to windstorms, shed water, rustle ever so softly in the breeze and just generally send us into an immediate state of vacation bliss. And the palapa sales team has hit Galveston in full force.

Up and down the Seawall, at hotels and pools and backyards across the Island, palapas are popping up like so many mushrooms after last month’s monsoon rains.

So what’s the problem? Well, every now and then one of these palapas catches on fire. If not properly treated with flame retardant they burst into flame like a grass fire after a drought.  Should you be unlucky enough to be under one or nearby, the consequences could be tragic if not downright deadly.

Safety regulations require that roof materials meet certain requirements with respect to flammability.  To ensure that the requirements are met, the materials have to be tested and evaluated. Manufacturers of roofing materials send their products to special laboratories to have this work done.  Only palm leaves are not manufactured and there are no tests to determine if a palm leaf, treated with a fire retardant, will meet the minimum requirements for safety.

The sales person will tell you that the leaves are treated with a spray on fire retardant. But how can you be sure that what is coming out of the sprayer is a retardant and not just water?  Fire retardants have to be re-applied to the palm leaves regularly to maintain effectiveness.

What about restaurants and bars?  These types of establishments are required to meet many safety regulations from the number and size of exits required to the type of alarm systems.  Larger ones are required to have fire sprinklers.  Wouldn’t they be safe? Generally, no.  Fire sprinklers spray water, which gravity will pull down to the ground, it is nearly impossible to protect a flammable roof with sprinklers. And fire sprinklers are set off by heat, which rises.  Sprinklers under a fire may not get hot enough to discharge before the fire gets too big. Putting a hundred or so folks under a highly flammable roof just isn’t a good idea. Open flame tiki torches marking the entrance is an even worse idea.

So should palapas be allowed, and if so, under what conditions?

I’ll preface this by saying that I love palapas and one of my favorite vacation spots features a large restaurant under a beautiful palapa.

The conditions which would make a commercial palapa less dangerous are these:

  • The occupancy under the palapa roof is limited to no more than 100 persons
  • The number and size of required exits are doubled
  • No open flames under the palapa or within 25 feet
  • No other buildings within 40 feet

Backyard palapas should either be made from synthetic materials (manufactured to be flame retardant) or kept 25 feet or more from any nearby structure.  Putting your charcoal or gas grille underneath is not a good idea.

Officials having jurisdiction over construction need to work with the community to find ways to incorporate palapas into our Island architecture – but they must ensure that safety  is not compromised.  A tough challenge indeed. And the palapa that catches fire may ignite its neighbors as well.

So if you find yourself enjoying a meal or beverage in a tropical breeze under the palm thatched roof of a palapa, just remember to sit near the exit.