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Recent wildfires inspire builders to make homes more fire resistant

Matt Villano, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

On a ridge above Geyserville, one new house stands alone in the burn zone.

The home, roughly 80% finished when the Kincade fire roared through the area in late October, is perfectly intact — not a single shingle out of place. Everything around it is black and charred.

Yes, firefighters beat back flames to protect the structure. But the home also saved itself.

Tempered windows withstood extreme temperatures and did not shatter. Fire-retardant siding made with cement stopped flames from overtaking the exterior. A metal roof prevented embers from penetrating the top. On top of this, a total of 100 feet of defensible space around the house minimized the likelihood that the place would catch fire.

In short, teams from Santa Rosa general contractor HybridBuild developed the 2,000-square-foot home to withstand a major wildfire and it did.

“The fire couldn’t take the house because of the upgrades,” said Tony Negri, co-owner of the company. “You could look at what happened and say, ‘They got lucky,’ and they did, but really it was just a case of some of these extra (innovations) working the way they were supposed to work.”

The Geyserville house is a perfect example of how careful construction and an emphasis on fire resilience can put homes in a better position to withstand the onslaught of a raging fire.

Put differently, as climate change and other, naturally occurring factors wreak havoc on Sonoma County ecosystems, the anecdote offers textbook examples for the kinds of features and construction methods that homes of the future likely will need as wildfires become a more regular part of our collective reality.

“Nature (will) always be in charge,” said Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “We can no longer afford to armor our way out of risk with concrete, steel and bunkers. We need to respect nature and work with it.”

As Wick suggested, a key component to making homes more resilient is preparing for the worst.

For many developers, this means abiding by rules and regulations for building in what is known as the Wildland-Urban Interface, or WUI. (Contractors colloquially refer to this as woo-ey.)

These rules are laid out in Chapter 7A of the California Building Code. Currently, at least in Sonoma County, this means all new structures must be “built with exterior construction that will minimize the impact on life and property and help structure to resist the intrusion of flames and burning embers projected by a wildland fire and contributes to a reduction of losses.”

Contractors have responded by implementing several different tools and products to “harden” homes to fire. Negri’s company has turned to tempered glass windows, metal roofs and fiber cement siding. One particular project, a spacious new home under construction in downtown Healdsburg, features fiber cement siding.

Other firms have experimented with rammed earth construction, as well as Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) products such as Rastra blocks, which are made with foam, and Faswall blocks, which are made with wood chips and particles.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/specialsections/rebuildnorthbay/10484149-181/rebuilding-sonoma-county-making-the

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Induction cooktops becoming popular as eco-friendly option

Meg McConahey, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

For technology that has been available since the 1950s, induction cooking sure looks futuristic.

Place a pot on a smooth, glass surface, touch a pad to turn on and watch liquid boil in under a minute. Like an electric glass-top stove, there is no obvious burner. With induction, if you touch the surface, it will feel warm but it won’t burn your fingers. Place paper on it and it won’t catch on fire, or even get hot. Walk away and it will turn itself off.

It all looks like a magic trick. But this form of electrical heat conduction is for real, and finally, after more than 60 years, it’s gaining traction among consumers and builders interested in clean energy and energy-efficient appliances.

“It’s fantastic,” said convert Clio Tarazi of Santa Rosa, who was an early adopter nine years ago. Her husband is from Germany and was familiar with induction. Europe has used it for years.

“I was really tired of those gas cooktops. They’re so hard to clean. And they clog and flare up. When my husband suggested looking at induction, at first I was resistant. But then when I saw how responsive it is, oh, my god. Problem solved. It’s so easy to clean and maintain.”

Like a high-performance engine, induction has a rapid response. It will boil water in a fraction of the time regular electricity or gas requires. Similarly, when you turn it down from boil to simmer, you don’t suffer the messy boilovers while you wait for the liquid to cool down.

While still not the cheapest option, the price of induction ranges and cooktops, once beyond the imagination of most homeowners, has dropped dramatically in the last few years. And with the availability of portable induction burners for under $100 at common retailers, more and more, people are able to test and ultimately turn on to the ease and safety of cooking with a method that doesn’t heat the burner but the pot itself.

Instead of an open flame, an induction cooktop uses an electric current passed though a coil of copper under a glass surface. This creates a magnetic field that wirelessly induces an electrical current in the pot only.

Richard Landen, a salesman for Asien’s Appliance in Santa Rosa, said he used to sell perhaps two induction cooktops a year. Now more customers are asking for them, he said, particularly with all the rebuilds in Sonoma County providing an opportunity for creating greener homes.

Old tech made new

The first patent for an induction cooker was introduced in 1909. It wasn’t until 1933, however, that Frigidaire introduced it to the public at the Chicago World’s Fair. But the timing was off. It was the depths of The Depression, a time when not everyone had even shifted from coal and wood to electric stoves.

Westinghouse tried to market induction in the 1970s with the Cool Top 2 (CT2) Induction range, priced at $1,500 (more than $8,000 in today’s dollars). It included a set of high-quality cookware made of Quadraply, a new laminate of stainless steel, carbon steel, aluminum and another layer of stainless steel. But production was halted after two years when the company merged with White.

The technology continued to simmer on the back burner of the market for several decades. But in recent years, rising interest in clean energy over natural gas has brought new attention to an old technology. And with solar power becoming more commonplace, consumers are finding the price savings of gas over electricity is not so significant anymore.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/lifestyle/10539572-181/induction-cooktops-becoming-popular-as

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To help the environment in 2020, just do less

Nicole Dieker, LIFEHACKER

If you’re still thinking about your New Year’s Resolutions, here’s one suggestion that can benefit not only your own life, but also the state of our planet: do less.

What does that mean? Less travel, especially if it involves flying. Fewer car trips; maybe it’s time to drop a few extracurriculars or social activities and block off one or two nights as “stay-home evenings.” Less time spent chasing novelty and entertainment and more time enjoying what you already have—and if you don’t have it already, you might be able to get it at the library.

At The New York Times, author and environmentalist Paul Greenberg lists a number of climate-related resolutions that we can implement for 2020, many of which are already very familiar: eat less meat (and opt for chicken and fish over pork and beef), avoid buying single-use plastics, unplug appliances when you’re not using them, and so on.

And then he mentions the value of spending more time at home, doing nothing:

Read more at: https://lifehacker.com/to-help-the-environment-in-2020-just-do-less-1840773817

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A New Year’s climate diet

Paul Greenberg, THE NEW YORK TIMES

Most diets fail. They fail mostly because after a period of bingeing (for example, New Year’s Eve) we set unrealistic goals for reforming our bad ways. In time, self-control breaks down and we hunger to throw open the cupboards and binge again.

The same is true of the American carbon diet. After a period of bingeing (say, the last century), the United States is per capita the most prodigious emitter of carbon dioxide among the world’s top 10 economies. The average American generated around 15 metric tons of carbon per year in 2016, according to the International Energy Agency, using what it says is the most recent data available. Svelte France, by comparison, weighed in at 4.5 tons per capita, while Indians put out just 1.6 tons each.

To bring the planet to climate equilibrium would require a global per capita goal that falls halfway between France’s and India’s outputs, three metric tons, by 2050, according to a United Nations report from 2011. All of this may make the conscientious American want to drive the family S.U.V. into the nearest body of water and subsist on locally grown radishes. But I am fairly certain that as with food regimens, an extreme carbon diet will falter, and practitioners will soon retrieve their S.U.V.s and cheat so often with hamburgers that those local radishes will molder in the vegetable crisper.

But some diets do work. They tend to be modest in their goals, incorporating minor changes over long periods. That we need to transform the roots of our economy is unquestionable and something that must be fought for with intense social and political commitment.

Yet inertia abounds. Not every well-meaning American will engage in a protracted political struggle. Fortunately, there are smaller maintainable changes that would allow carbon couch potatoes to go from carbon obese to just carbon overweight.

Here then is something of a grocery list for the politically inert, things that can be done without a whole lot of effort that will lead to a carbon-slimmer 2020:

Have the chicken. Much has been made about the climate benefits of going vegan. If we switched to a vegan diet, we could cut our carbon dioxide emissions by 0.3 to 1.6 metric tons per person per year. I have made this change, but I doubt I could persuade a large portion of the country to choose pea protein over pot roast even when packaged as Beyond or Impossible meat.

For the legume-averse, chicken is relatively low impact. According to a study published by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, beef can require more than 27 kilograms of carbon dioxide per kilogram of meat eaten (much, much more if you compare foods based on protein content per unit of weight). A kilo of chicken, however, costs the planet about 6.9 kilograms of carbon dioxide. True, it’s not tofu (2.0) or lentils (0.9), but most red-blooded Americans know how to cook it.

Or the fish. Fish and shellfish can make for surprisingly carbon-dioxide-light meals, though not everything from the sea shrinks one’s emissions waistline. America’s favorite seafood, shrimp, can far exceed chicken and even rival pork. At the same time, a kilogram of most American-caught finfish, like the Alaska pollock, used for McDonald’s fish sandwich, comes in at a tofu-besting 1.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. And depending on how you adjust for nutrient content, some varieties of farmed mussels can cost us just 0.6 kilograms of carbon per kilogram of mussel meat. Take that, lentil!

Do nothing better. Busy Americans fret about actually having to do something to address the climate crisis in their already hectic lives. But doing nothing better can add up to something. A 2018 study in the journal Nature notes that tourism accounts for about 8 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Just one long-haul flight emits around a half-ton of carbon per person or a full ton of greenhouse effect if one considers other gases a jet puts into the upper atmosphere. Business and first-class air travel generates three to four tons of carbon per long-haul flight because of the extra space those fancier seats take up.

So doing nothing at home for your next vacation is an easy choice. Other better nothings include turning off your car rather than letting the engine idle, which accounts for about 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States a year.

Change the way other things in your life do nothing. Similarly when your appliances do nothing, they are often still burning fossil fuels. Standby power accounts for 4.6 percent of residential carbon emissions. Address this by turning off your internet router at night, shutting down your computer, unplugging your cellphone when it’s fully charged and choosing appliances that have low standby power requirements. To go beyond saving standby power, Karl Coplan, the author of “Live Sustainably Now,” suggests “depriving fossil fuel companies of their sales revenues by switching to a renewable-electricity contract and upgrading to an electric car the next chance you get.”

Be really lazy and drink from the tap. What could be lazier than shuffling to your own sink and pouring yourself a glass of water? And yet nowadays we often replace this most low-effort of American habits with driving to a store and buying a plastic bottle of water. This can end up costing us significantly more in carbon dioxide emissions than drinking water from the tap, according to one 2009 Italian scientific analysis.

Ditch the car one day a week. Collectively Americans drive more than three trillion miles annually. (Over 10 years that would take us all the way to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.) That comes out to about 4.6 tons of carbon per vehicle a year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Transportation is the largest single contributor to American carbon emissions, the agency says. So skipping a day of driving each week would significantly decrease an individual’s contribution to emissions.

Upgrade a forest instead of your phone. A smartphone does not carry a huge carbon burden. Apple reports that a single iPhone 11 results in the emission of about 70 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions over its life cycle. But if you donated the several hundred dollars you typically spent on a phone upgrade to a program managing a carbon-sequestering ecosystem, you could shave a much greater portion of carbon from your budget. For the best possible carbon sequester, consider the mangrove. Mangrove forests are one of the world’s most powerful carbon sinks; those in the Amazon store twice as much carbon per acre as the region’s rain forests.

Divest from fossil fuels. All of us are implicated in the carbon economy through our daily financial transactions. The headline of a recent New Yorker essay by the climate activist Bill McKibben read, “Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warning Burns.” How to address this? “Switching to a fossil-free index fund is a no-brainer: Among other things they’re outperforming the market,” Mr. McKibben wrote me recently.

For those who don’t invest but do own a credit card and a bank account, Mr. McKibben suggested going a step further. “As we approach Earth Day at 50, cut up your Chase card or move your money to a new bank — JPMorgan Chase has become by far the largest funder of the fossil fuel industry.”

Here lies the truly profound global effect of the carbon-obese American economy, according to data compiled in a recently released “fossil fuel finance report card” by a group of environmental organizations. Four of the world’s five largest institutional investors in fossil fuels are banks headquartered here in the U.S.A.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/31/opinion/climate-diet.html?searchResultPosition=3

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Growing number of San Francisco cafes banishing disposable coffee cups

Associated Press, NBCNEWS.COM

A new cafe culture is brewing in the San Francisco area, where a growing number of coffee houses are banishing paper to-go cups and replacing them with everything from glass jars to rental mugs and BYO cup policies.

What started as a small trend among neighborhood cafes to reduce waste is gaining support from some big names in the city’s food and coffee world.

Celebrated chef Dominique Crenn, owner of the three-star Michelin restaurant Atelier Crenn, is opening a San Francisco cafe next year that will have no to-go bags or disposable coffee cups and will use no plastic. Customers who plan to sip and go at Boutique Crenn will be encouraged to bring their own coffee cups, says spokeswoman Kate Bittman.

Blue Bottle is starting small with plans to stop using paper cups at two of its San Francisco area branches in 2020, as part of a pledge to go “zero waste” by the end of next year. Coffee to-go customers will have to bring their own mug or pay a deposit for a reusable cup, which they can keep or return for a refund. The deposit fee will likely be between $3 and $5, the company said.

Read more at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/growing-number-san-francisco-cafes-banishing-disposable-coffee-cups-n1106991

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Over 450,000 people sign petition urging Target to stop using plastic bags

Zack Budryk, THE HILL

More than 455,000 people have signed a petition calling on Target to discontinue the use of plastic bags, according to The Associated Press.

Petition organizer Theresa Carter will lead fellow shoppers in delivering the signatures to the retailer’s Minneapolis headquarters on Thursday, according to the AP.

“I’m a Target shopper. Hundreds of thousands of my petition’s signers are Target customers, and we have one clear message for Target: Please act to end plastic bag pollution,” Carter said in a statement.

“If other retailers like IKEA and Costco can do without plastic bags, I’m convinced Target can too,” she added.

In response, Target spokeswoman Danielle Schumann said the retailer has taken numerous steps to cut down on the use of plastic, including implementing recycling kiosks in stores in 2010, and said the stores’ plastic bags are made with 40 percent recycled materials, according to the AP.

“Target teams across the business are working to eliminate, reduce and find alternatives for plastics in our products, packaging and operations,” she added.

In addition to the other retailers mentioned by Carter, Oregon earlier this year approved a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags, which followed more than a dozen Oregon cities enacting similar bans of their own.

Source: https://thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/475842-over-450000-people-sign-petition-urging-target-to-stop-using

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The world’s first 3D-printed neighborhood is being built in Mexico for families living on $3 a day

Christina Zdanowicz, CNN

The 33-foot printer pipes out a concrete mix that hardens when it dries, building the walls one layer at a time. It takes 24 hours over several days to build two houses at the same time — that’s about two times faster than it takes New Story to build a home with regular construction.

A giant 3D printer built two houses in an impoverished, rural part of Mexico last week, breaking ground on what will be the first 3D-printed neighborhood in the world. The houses aren’t just a prototype. Developers hope to build 50 new houses by the end of 2020, replacing the structures that residents built themselves out of wood, metal and whatever materials they could afford.

The families live in a seismic zone that’s prone to flooding in the state of Tabasco, Mexico. Building something that will withstand an earthquake and keep them dry during heavy rains was a key consideration when it came to the design.

“These families are the most vulnerable, and in the lowest income … and they’re living on about an average of $3 a day,” said Brett Hagler, CEO and co-founder of New Story, the nonprofit building the community. “They’re living in literally a pieced-together shack that during the rainy season, it will rain and it will flood their shack. Some of the women even said that the water will go up to their knees when it rains, sometimes for months,” Hagler told CNN on Wednesday.

New Story is a nonprofit that helps families in need of shelter. It has built more than 2,700 homes in South America and Mexico since it was founded in 2014. This is the first homebuilding project it’s done with 3D printing. The nonprofit paired up with ICON, a construction technology company that developed the 3D-printing robotics being used on the project. ÉCHALE, a nonprofit in Mexico, is helping find local families to live in the homes.

The homes were co-designed with input from the families that will live in them.

The 33-foot printer pipes out a concrete mix that hardens when it dries, building the walls one layer at a time. It takes 24 hours over several days to build two houses at the same time — that’s about two times faster than it takes New Story to build a home with regular construction. The concrete mix is sturdier than traditional concrete, New Story says. The foundation is reinforced to withstand seismic activity.

Read more at https://www.cnn.com/2019/12/12/business/worlds-first-3d-printed-neighborhood-trnd/index.html

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Bay plastic infests Petaluma River

Janet Perry, PETALUMA ARGUS-COURIER

There are plastic particulates in San Francisco Bay, trillions of them. Some come from car tires — those tend to sink to the bottom — and there are tiny fragments floating, many coming from fancy polar fleece jackets and other clothing after the first few washings.

There’s other stuff in there too, like single use plastic container particles, pieces of plastic stir sticks and plastic bags, and it has caught the attention of scientists.

The San Francisco Estuary Institute and the 5 Gyres Institute carried out a study of plastic in the bay.

The Petaluma River flows into the bay and was mentioned in the study, although researchers did not collect data from the river itself. Carolynn Boxx, 5 Gyres science programs director, explained that samples were collected where the Petaluma River flows into the bay but because of the limited number of samples collected, individual sections of the bay were not analyzed separately.

“The project identified recommendations to work towards solutions, with supporting policy that eliminates single use plastic items being one of the top recommendations,” Boxx said. “We encourage Bay Area cities to look to Berkeley’s comprehensive ordinance on disposable plastic food ware as a model ordinance. Maybe Petaluma will be next?”

The Petaluma City Council recently passed a ban on Styrofoam and has considered expanding it to plastic food ware.

Clothing is a big plastic culprit too. The first washing of fleece and other plastics-based fibers can have a big impact, as the particulates tend to be dispersed more during those first washings. Lots of clothing today contain man-made plastics fibers.

Some companies, like Patagonia, are trying to find solutions and encourage the purchase of well-made items that will last longer.

Read more at: https://www.petaluma360.com/news/10353280-181/bay-plastic-infests-petaluma-river?sba=AAS

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Santa Rosa officials to review new plan that envisions more of a ‘big city’ downtown

Will Schmitt, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Santa Rosa planning officials hope a new 12-page document holds the key to unlocking the future for a city center replete with new, taller mixed-use buildings and vibrant ground-floor commercial spaces that draw in foot traffic.

A draft plan for Santa Rosa’s future downtown will go before the City Council and Planning Commission on Tuesday afternoon in a joint meeting at City Hall. It’s predicated on the idea that Santa Rosa’s “suburban downtown” needs to “grow up” to better accommodate its population of roughly 180,000, according to Patrick Streeter, a city planner overseeing the effort.

“The direction that we got from council was that they want to see us go big and go bold with a new idea for downtown,” Streeter said. “That’s what we’re hoping to deliver to them on Tuesday.”

The plan redesign comes as Santa Rosa has fallen well behind the housing growth goals it set more than a decade ago. The city has slashed fees and tried to streamline its development processes, but a large apartment tower — coveted by officials as proof of concept and a precursor to future tall buildings — has yet to materialize.

Santa Rosa’s “big city” downtown would include new apartments for residents and places to work for downtown employees, aided in part by a new method of determining height limits meant to encourage taller buildings near Old Courthouse Square.

This new method, which would replace the more rigid current height caps, involves city-determined ratios of floor area to lot size. In theory, it could allow for much taller buildings than Santa Rosa sees now, including the potential for a 20-story building with more than 600 apartments and some commercial space on the site of the defunct Sears at the downtown mall, according to city documents.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10382760-181/santa-rosa-officials-to-review

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Light pollution is key ‘bringer of insect apocalypse’

Damian Carrington, THE GUARDIAN

Light pollution is a significant but overlooked driver of the rapid decline of insect populations, according to the most comprehensive review of the scientific evidence to date.

Artificial light at night can affect every aspect of insects’ lives, the researchers said, from luring moths to their deaths around bulbs, to spotlighting insect prey for rats and toads, to obscuring the mating signals of fireflies.

“We strongly believe artificial light at night – in combination with habitat loss, chemical pollution, invasive species, and climate change – is driving insect declines,” the scientists concluded after assessing more than 150 studies. “We posit here that artificial light at night is another important – but often overlooked – bringer of the insect apocalypse.”

However, unlike other drivers of decline, light pollution was relatively easy to prevent, the team said, by switching off unnecessary lights and using proper shades. “Doing so could greatly reduce insect losses immediately,” they said.

Brett Seymoure, a behavioural ecologist at Washington University in St Louis and senior author of the review, said: “Artificial light at night is human-caused lighting – ranging from streetlights to gas flares from oil extraction. It can affect insects in pretty much every imaginable part of their lives.”

Read more at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/22/light-pollution-insect-apocalypse