Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thirsday Thursday Linkages

The Elm Place building in Dallas, Texas

One more skyscraper goes dark in Dallas. This one makes national news and it is distressing to say the least (depression only underscored by this tweet from DallasProgress). As the headline suggests, is it the end of an era or is it just a story of too much homogeneity of product type?
Commercial realtor Jack Gosnell recalls many empty buildings during the 1980s savings and loan crisis. But this time is different. Even when the economy does rebound, Gosnell is doubtful that much of this real estate will be reopened. Gosnell: Technology is moving at such a clip that a building can become functionally obsolete in 40 years easily. It can be too expensive to operate without stripping it down and completely converting it to green.
Seems to me like the "culs-de-sac" in the sky by nature provide too much similarity of product, inhibiting flexibility and adaptability. Meaning it is anti-resilient and anything so overscaled might very well be doomed to limited lifespan. Given that it lacks the complex high-tech wiring for the modern office, is it too much building space to renovate as something else? Is its highest and best use now little more than storage? What happens when our current high-tech office towers become "obsolete?" Will we be saddled with several more millions of unleasable square footage? I think we're seeing the end of the argument "efficiency of scale," at least as it is currently understood.
Not coincidentally is this post by Steve Mouzon at his blog the Original Green, discussing "The Long Tail" of the housing market.
Chris Anderson’s excellent book The Long Tail describes the discovery of a powerful phenomenon of our aggregated age: The curve of available products begins with the “big head” of blockbusters and superstars on the left, but then drops off “sickeningly.” See how the curve seems to go quickly to zero? Before Amazon, everything after the big drop-off was invisible because no bricks-and-mortar store could afford to carry stuff with sales so low. Amazon was the first to aggregate these low sellers (books, to begin with) online, and what they discovered was that the sales curve extends further out to the right than anyone previously imagined. If companies are able to provide a nimble way of searching so that you can short-cut to the niche you want, the “long tail” of the sales curve extends almost forever. In many markets, there may actually be more sales in the long tail than in the short head of super-sellers and greatest hits, just as more light reaches your eye on a clear night from the billions of stars too faint to see than from the thousand or so that are actually bright enough to see.
What he's talking about here is the overshoot in delivery of a singular product type (sound familiar?) in the housing market and the long tail represents the demand for niche housing types. The high point in the graph represents the supply of the most conventional housing type, the large lot single family housing type.

With some projections estimated that there could be as much 25 million of these vacant by 2020, 1/4th of American mortgages under water, and other reports suggesting that their is a "shadow" housing market of possibly 8 million homes that banks are sitting on to inflate the housing prices for the existing 4 million vacant ones, that is an awful lot of supply to absorb.
The home types were so varied because the people were so varied... but today, the American population is more varied than ever before, even while our housing choices have become more bland. Nielsen Claritas has identified 66 market segments
The biggest problem comes from the lenders. Because they are sitting on so much supply, they can't lend, particularly to something they don't understand, which are all the niche markets that make up the missing 25-40% of demand for more walkable urbanism.

It's worth the read, especially when nearly all of the walkable developments we do produce are still of a similar market segment/building prototype. Considering how fragmented parcelization is in many locations in need of densification, we need to figure out how to finance the fine-grained infill. I think this starts with the overhauling the standardization of products that state and federal affordable housing agencies will help underwrite.
Since I haven't seen this in American media, we have to go the Telegraph for perhaps the most important news of the day. China rattling its economic sabre by selling US bonds. As the article points out, the two economies are so intertwined at this point, that this really doesn't make much sense. Unless you think that China thinks we can't remain as the consumer of what it produces, which we probably can't.
Lastly, a new localized and potentially affordable fuel-cell technology? It could potentially decentralize energy production from large, potentially dangerous power plants (ie melt downs or terrorist attacks). It has buy-in from Walmart and Google so the science must make some sense, but it is proprietary and therefore secret. Remember when Jonas Salk invented a polio vaccine and donated it "open source" for the public good? Neither do I.
"We want to move this product forward to the point where we can put it in an African village ... and they can have power, they can have light," said former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who sits on Bloom's board of directors. "Think of the potential."
With that said, let's do a little math to see how much energy each of these produce and how many households that supports at a cost of $700,000 per unit. First, the founder of the company says their fuel cell consisting of sand rather than precious metals produces energy at a rate approximately 60% of the grid. Furthermore, it can be inferred that less energy is lost due to transmission inefficiencies (I don't know if that is where the savings come from however).

If each Bloom fuel cell generates 100 kilowatts (I have to assume that is kilowatt/hrs) and the average American household uses 10,000 kilowatts per year, which works out to a little more than 1 kilowatt per hour per household. That means one fuel cell can support 100 households, or spreading the cost of one fuel cell over those hundred households to $7,000 per household, which is the size of some mid-sized residential buildings.

If a 200 unit building costs approximately $20 million, adding two of these would cost 7% of the hard costs, which is pretty significant. This could make sense for some condominiums, neighborhood associations, or even apartment buildings that cover the costs in rent - with the caveat that there are no utility bills.

While Bloom says that the fuel cells pay off in five years, it remains to be seen how long and at what rate the cells continue to produce energy or what kind of outputs other than electricity there are. Either way, household energy efficiency needs to be improved and the cost of these fuel cells could come down with increased productivity. The combination of the two could really transform our cities. Imagine a world with no power lines...