THE VIEW FROM 35,000 FEET
We the People
The design-build community can and should be doing more to mitigate the overall problems of CO2 emissions, greenhouse gases and waste from building materials.
BY Eric Schwartz
LET’S FACE IT. The government – make that global governments – are not coming to the rescue as it relates to the devastating reality of how our climate has changed in the fossil fuel age. I don’t have to list the litany of events that have shaken most sectors of the globe to its core. Fire, heat, floods – the list is long and as varied as the landscapes where these impacts are being realized in real time.
But we the people – and in this case I refer to the design-build community, developers and homeowners who are aware of the situation and have the power and will to effect change – can and should be doing more since our contribution to the overall problems of CO2 emissions, greenhouse gases and waste (from building materials to design samples) can have an immediate impact with little if any need for government regulatory concerns, oversight or compensation.
And it's profitable! For everyone!
Let’s take healthier environments as a starting point. Healthy homes have increasingly been in demand by homebuyers, especially during and post-pandemic. So what does that look like and how can we reduce CO2 emissions by giving the people what they want? Passive designs with heavy insulation and electrify everything.
Because changes in how we build homes shouldn’t come from government regulation, it should be organic in nature and led by the very industries that are engaging in the commerce of home building.
“At the highest level, any realistic plan for total decarbonization is simple: electrify everything. We have the technology we need, today, to solve climate change. And when we electrify everything, we will cut our energy need in half,” states Griffith. He builds his case by looking at energy production efficiencies.
“We can eliminate almost a quarter of the energy we think we need if we stop burning fossil fuels to generate electricity. In a power plant today, fossil fuels are burned to generate heat, which is used to make steam, which is used to spin a turbine, which is used to create electricity. Physics tells us that using heat to generate electricity is subject to inescapable limits on efficiency. Under most real-world circumstances, fossil fuel-burning machines are 20-60 percent efficient.
“Carbon-free, non-thermal sources like solar and wind – while also subject to the laws of physics – don’t involve as many conversions from one type of energy to another. Because of this, generating electricity with renewables would eliminate approximately 15 percent of the primary fossil energy we currently think we need to run the economy.”
Griffith goes on to make his case for electrifying our homes and buildings – in a move away from natural gas — and this is where our architects and builders can play a significant role in changing the dynamics and mind-sets of homeowners embarking on new builds and major remodels. Because changes in how we build homes shouldn’t come from government regulation, it should be organic in nature and led by the very industries that are engaging in the commerce of home building.
And then builders can certainly incorporate a passive design with super insulation, coupled with air purification technologies that require less energy to run and deliver on a healthier environment. Getting rid of our gas stovetops (again, electrify everything) and moving to convection products eliminates indoor pollution and further reduces our reliance on fossil fuels. Take these two together coupled with solar capture and you not only get a healthier home but reduce homeowner costs at the same time.
This is what we the people are asking for. Even if we do want comfort along with efficiency, such as air conditioning.
So let’s talk AC, because it’s part of the big picture. You might not know this, but air conditioning accounts for about a fifth of the total electricity used in buildings around the world. Much of that electricity comes from power stations giving off greenhouse gases, and to make matters worse, air conditioners can also leak hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants, greenhouse gases thousands of times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
A more efficient air conditioner is a heat pump that does away with conventional refrigerants and uses solid materials to release or absorb heat at different pressures as they change volume. The materials are more efficient than liquid refrigerants, are cheap and non-toxic, and the heat pumps can be used for either cooling or heating, helping solve two needs in one go. Again, long-term savings and healthier indoor environments.
Another impact climate change has had and most of you reading this are acutely aware of this, are perennial droughts that are impacting the globe. Here again, developers and builders can take the lead with sensitive site landscaping as the central component of Low Impact Development. Ecological landscaping strategies seek to minimize the amount of lawn area and enhance the property with native, drought-resistant species; as a result, property owners use less water, pesticides and fertilizers. Better for the planet, less out of pocket money for the homeowner.
The list goes on and on how builders and developers can deliver healthy environments that save homeowners money and improve and encourage healthier living. We the people just need the will power to divest of old building strategies and begin moving away from traditional steel, concrete, fiberglass and other materials that unfortunately end up in landfills and whose production continues to release ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
From hempcrete to cross-laminated timber, from heat pumps to solar capture, we have been covering and reporting on improvements in product development, sustainable and resilient practices and methodologies, and it has become abundantly clear that the only thing lacking from constructing performance homes on a production level is the unwillingness to listen to the market. This is what the people want – this is what our planet deserves. And it's profitable. And it's sustainable.
And you know what ties all of these strategies together? Technology. Incorporating a properly wired and cabled infrastructure not only supports automating energy saving concepts, but is also the cornerstone for a complete home monitoring system so homeowners get to know, understand and better plan their energy and water usages.
I predict that those designers, architects, builders and developers who are embracing some of these strategies and partnering with technology design firms will rise to the top of the marketplace and be rewarded with increased sales and more loyal customers. We the people understand that it is up to us if we want a better home. Let’s give the people what they want!