Can Better Design Save the World?

We all know that huge changes in the way buildings are built will be required in the future. What’s often obscure is the question of how much of our efforts we should spend on repairing, maintaining and “retrofitting” older structures, versus tearing them down and starting over. I recently found some helpful statistics from Architecture 2030 that offers a sort of roadmap to the future.

2035 a historic opportunity

First, they point out that the entire building stock in the U.S. totals about 275 billion square feet. In a typical year, about 1.75 billion sq. ft. are torn down, 5 billion sq. ft. are renovated and 5 billion sq. ft. are built new. This includes both commercial and residential properties. If these numbers hold true, they note that by 2035, more than 75% of ALL building space in the U.S. will be new or renovated.

Let’s assume that’s true. How much difference will it make if we build those structures as “carbon neutral” versus traditional models? What’s the environmental payback? Essentially, we might be able to take the building sector’s footprint completely o the table. Sure, buildings will still incur an environmental cost during the construction phase, but careful selection of materials might reduce that embodied energy. The figure we usually toss around (based on some old NAHB research) is that about 6% of a conventional home’s ecological impact results from the construction phase. The rest is from maintenance and operation over its lifespan.

Architecture 2030 zeroes in on coal-based energy as a major global warming threat. They note that “in 2010, 75.7% of all the electricity produced at power plants in the U.S. was used to operate buildings.” Given that 40% of that CO2 emissions produced by the U.S. occur in the production of electricity (a coal-dominated process), buildings represent a huge opportunity to clean up our act.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed. If India and China continue to use polluting technologies, our best efforts might not tip the balance toward climate stability—China already burns more coal than Europe and the U.S. combined—But we can’t afford to think that way. At the worst, we might reduce the severity of impending climate shifts. At best, we might inspire other countries to follow our lead. The economic benefits of building self-sufficient homes and offices have an extrinsic value—not just an intrinsic one. Every fossil fuel plant that doesn’t have to be built saves millions of dollars in polluting subsidies that could instead be invested in public rail, renewables or better grids.

That said, we looked for some special projects for this issue, to inspire and inform—living spaces that raise the bar, and move us forward in the direction that organizations such as Architecture 2030 are pointing. There’s no time to waste, and no excuse good enough for not building (or renovating) every home to the very best energy standards. The future hangs in the balance. Isn’t it nice to think that we might be able to impact that future in a positive way, simply by doing what we already do--and raising the bar on building performance?