Europe is Ahead at Setting New Standards

As Americans, one of our biggest challenges in steps towards sustainability is surmounting routine and questioning social norms. Acts of repetition, some that have lasted for generations, provide a knee-jerk adversity to progressive change in daily activities even if the resulting changes would be minor. I spent my holiday season in London for ten days and my foreign surroundings seemed to be a testament to how little most would notice a number of positive changes.

When it comes to setting a benchmark for sustainability in daily routine, what I saw in England was what I would hope the American landscape will come to emulate (even if one could argue we should already be there.) Admittedly, my time in Europe is embarrassingly limited and that could explain the intensity with which I noticed some of the encouraging differences from the American culture that I am used to.

In London, efficiency seemed to be a given. Staying in two different flats (read: apartments) while I was abroad and visiting numerous establishments, nearly everywhere I went utilized technology proven to reduce consumption. Incandescent bulbs were rare, traded for either fluorescent varieties or dimmable halogens. In both residences, every toilet had dual-flush capabilities. Every sink was low-flow. Water-heaters were smaller with less capacity and had timers to shut off at night while nearly all appliances were more compact. I was not taking any meter readings, but I have to imagine these flats (not markedly smaller than New York equivalents in terms of square footage) used much less energy and water than their American counterparts.

When faced with all of these differences from our normal surroundings, the adaptation required by myself and those I traveled with was non-existent—as I think it would be for most Americans. One does not reach beneath a low-flow faucet and remark on how much less water they find. We never felt accosted by poor lighting. It is true that not everyone could take a 15 minute shower if we all wanted hot water, but so what? We took quick showers instead.

Americans (including builders, vendors and consumers) have to get over misplaced feelings of sacred comfort and entitlement because these kinds of small changes can make big differences. Every dual-flush toilet can save nearly 25 gallons per week, per person. A low-flow showerhead can knock off another 75 gallons per week, per person. Lighting often makes up a quarter of our energy bills. Moreover, any changes that people make would be forgotten within six weeks and merely accepted as the new standard.

It was reassuring to see a population that operated under the belief that striving for efficiency should be expected. I was reminded of a lecture given by Thom Mayne at Greenbuild 2007 in Chicago where he was talking about how he seldom referred to his buildings as “green” despite them being notably sustainable. To him, it was simply smart design. Why wouldn’t one make a building efficient? Why wouldn’t one try to minimize materials and waste? As he put it, that’s just good architecture.

Given how far America has to go to catch up to such a model, we should be reaching for the “low-hanging fruit” as greenies so often like to say. Once we get over the hump of throwing ourselves into a new routine, progress only gets easier.