Friday, October 1, 2010

We Need a Revolution in How We Build

"Occasionally the tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of Patriots and Tyrants."—Thomas Jefferson

Those who know me know the irony of including a quote that suggests violence as I am a steadfast advocate of nonviolence. Of course, I’m not talking about a political revolution and certainly not anything remotely violent—on the contrary, I’m speaking of more of a green velvet revolution.

However, we need something of historic proportions and we need it soon. The unfortunate condition of our planet and the swiftness of the dramatic climatic shift taking place leads us to the necessity of a radical change in how we integrate with the natural environment.

The built environment is responsible for about 40 percent of worldwide energy consumption, and accounts for 38.9% (2006 figure) in the US. As a result, the built environment currently contributes more to carbon emissions than even the transportation sector—in fact, according to Architecture 2030, buildings account for 46.9% of CO2 emissions in the US. Our built environment, is therefore a critical area in dire need of radical change. In short, we need a revolution in how we build and we need it now.

We need to rethink our relationship to buildings and transportation and how where we live relates to the places with which we connect—where we work, shop, recreate, and socialize. We need to re-think cities, and suburbs and transportation systems, and our homes and offices shopping centers. At the very least, we need to be employing the best available approaches for new construction and renovations that use dramatically less energy and therefore contribute dramatically less to the overall pollution and climate change cycle we are in.

According to the International Energy Agency, energy waste from buildings
can be curbed by 75% across the globe. A recent McKinsey Report (Unlocking Energy Efficiency in the U.S. Economy, 2009) identifies energy efficiency—especially within the building sector—as having the ability to cost-effectively bring dramatic reductions in energy use (and CO2 emissions), but only if it is made a priority: “Energy efficiency offers a vast, low-cost energy resource for the U.S. economy—but only if the nation can craft a comprehensive and innovative approach to unlock it.”

“We already have the technology today to cut the horrendous waste of CO2 and expensive energy in buildings. Many of the investments to save energy in buildings are not only cost-effective; they are even more profitable than many pension schemes that you and I so willingly invest in,” according to IEA policy analyst, Jens Laustsen.

…And it needs to happen with good design, and in a financial context that supports it and with a consumer interest that demands it.

There are approaches currently being used in Europe and recently launched in the U.S. that create buildings that use 70-90% less energy than typical new buildings. There are over fifteen thousand such buildings in Europe and there have been discussions within European countries and the European Union as a whole to make that standard the minimum code standard for all new construction there.

While I am a big fan of LEED, Energy Star, and other efforts to green the current building industry and I see their evolution and widening acceptance as critical to the overall transformation of our building industry in the US, we also need to be dramatically increasing the efficiency of new and existing buildings—far beyond what those standards currently require. Although our U.S. building industry has been moving toward more green approaches, the casual stroll must change to a sprint and the bar must be raised dramatically higher, as the higher bar is within our reach if we just put our intention there rather than at our knees as is currently the case.

Look for more on this topic as I believe it is one that warrants significant focus.

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