Climate Action Now
Relative to the total number of new commercial buildings only built annually in the U.S. more than 100,000 (based on 2003 data) this is a vital, but still ever so tiny, drop in the bucket.
Too High or Too Low?
As urgently as deep overall building reform is needed, it seems difficult to embrace some criticisms that the LEED system sets the performance bar much too low, when only such a tiny percentage of buildings are making it over that bar today.
LEED is a multidimensional environmental performance standard, not simply an energy or carbon standard. It does seem true that the menu-of-points approach of LEED, while entirely laudable in providing flexibility and encouraging creativity, allows some buildings to be certified without dramatic improvements in energy consumption over conventional good practice.
In the U.S. configuration, requiring that buildings meet both U.S. EPA Energy Star standards and LEED standards is a simple way to shore up crucial requirements. As a pure energy standard, Energy Star can allow less low-end compromise on building energy consumption.
And since the consumption level of general-source energy in a building is broadly proportional to its operational greenhouse gas emission impact, we're learning that energy performance is not an acceptable area for menu-type compromises.
As in the LEED program, the greatest results in Energy Star come to the buildings that work through the program while exceeding its minimum standards. According to the EPA, as many as 500 buildings out of the 4,100 or so total commercial buildings that have earned the Energy Star use a full 50 percent less energy than average buildings.
LEED and Energy Star are not only good tools invaluable tools for systematically improving building environmental performance, but used together, they are effective in saving both energy and money.
Building Green is Good Business
A new study by the CoStar Group, a commercial real estate services company, concludes that, "sustainable 'green' buildings outperform their non-green peer assets in key areas such as occupancy, sale price and rental rates, sometimes by wide margins."
According to the CoStar study, "LEED buildings command rent premiums of $11.33 per square foot over their non-LEED peers and have 4.1 percent higher occupancy. Rental rates in Energy Star buildings represent a $2.40 per square foot premium over comparable non-Energy Star buildings and have 3.6 percent higher occupancy."
"The business case for energy efficiency is indisputable," in the words of Stuart Brodsky, national program manager for the Commercial Properties division of Energy Star, as quoted by CoStar. "The business case is so strong that the financial results can be applied to asset value, through increased NOI [net operating income], or leveraged to pursue other aspects of green buildings that do not show as strong of a financial rate of return."
As valuable as LEED and Energy Star are, especially taken together, members of the building community are also pushing farther.
A very important initiative is the 2030 Challenge, anchored by Architecture 2030, founded by Ed Mazria. The charge of the 2030 challenge is that "all new buildings and major renovations reduce their fossil-fuel GHG-emitting consumption by 50 percent by 2010, incrementally increasing the reduction for new buildings to carbon neutral by 2030."
The impressive list of endorsers of the challenge include the U.S. Conference of Mayors (Resolution #50), American Institute of Architects (AIA), Union Internationale des Architectes (UIA), USGBC LEED, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA/Target Finder), Royal Architecture Institute of Canada (RAIC), International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD).
The 2030 Blueprint (PDF) also documents a powerful case for the cost-effectiveness of energy savings through buildings, compared to other climate-response alternatives. It concludes, "Of the energy and climate change solutions proposed today, building energy efficiency is the one that can be implemented immediately, costs the least and offers the greatest benefits to both the planet and the economy."
The AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) has engaged ongoing professional organizing, awareness, and education projects, including its much-watched Top Ten Green Projects national awards program.
The "Living Building Challenge" (PDF) developed by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council works to elevate green standards further, with the tag line, "No credits, just prerequisites." The sixteen prerequisites start appropriately with "responsible site selection."
The UK government, as part of its Code for Sustainable Homes has established a requirement that all new homes built from 2016 onward shall be "zero-carbon".
Such a target sounds severe but technically, realistically, it is sensible enough, given that there is simply no carbon budget available for new buildings to come along with new emissions. Nonetheless, the goal has been met with a certain amount of push back from sectors of the UK housing industry, architecture firms included.
Even as the more stringent standards are still targets of controversy, all this is not yet enough. At this point, we are still losing ground, with carbon emissions increasing year over year.
A Need to Do Better...
With a major emissions reduction target just 12 years out, and emissions still increasing, we must find a way to do better.
Despite structural impediments, we must start now to include location issues among the criteria for building design especially location impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and also including walkable access to frequent transit service, as well biodiversity impacts and their attendant carbon emissions that are not yet well-accounted for in any major building standard.
We must also confront the difficult size issue. We must go beyond measuring building performance improvements on a unit area basis.
Carbon and other environmental impacts must be accounted for on a per-occupant basis, as well as a per-area basis, or all the other reforms can fail as witnessed in a generation of energy performance experience in California, where decades of steady gains in per-area building energy performance have led to little or no absolute system-wide reductions in total energy consumption, as the size-per-person of buildings has ballooned.
LEED and Energy Star (and their international equivalents), location standards, and size standards, all taken together, probably will define an adequate level of carbon emissions reductions for buildings a level of emissions reductions that provides for the possibility of success.
That leaves the more general problem of raising rapidly the percentage of buildings that are built (and rebuilt) to meet this four-leaf standard.
The only aim that has a chance of correcting our carbon excesses is that all new building construction must meet this kind of four-leaf standard by 2020. Seriously.
Four Leaf Green
The "Four Leaf Standard™" refers to this simple formulation of a full-spectrum climate-stabilizing and environmentally-responsible building standard, defined in four recognizable parts:
One - Maximum Overall Sustainability
As in LEED and comparable international overall sustainable building standards.
Two - Minimum Carbon Footprint
As in Energy Star and the UK Zero-Carbon Housing standard, and other increasingly strict prerequisite standards for limiting building carbon-equivalent footprints, and general energy consumption, over the full design-build-occupy cycle.
Three - Effective Location
Buildings are built in locations that reduce VMT by regional geography and by walkable access to frequent transit. Buildings are built on brownfield sites or otherwise in such a way as to maintain existing natural carbon storage, ecosystem services, and biodiversity.
Four - Appropriate Size
Buildings are measured and evaluated to standards that account for climate and environmental impacts on a per-occupant basis, as well as on a per-building-area basis. Size matters, as well as efficiency.
To recap from last week, suppose we consider as our target emissions levels 20% below 1990 levels by 2020, a current midrange goal. What share of emissions can be practically assigned to a new building, in conformance with meeting the target? Realistically, the answer is: none.
There is no share of new carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions which can realistically be allocated to new buildings, if we are to meet emissions targets.
First, since our emissions have already increased nearly 40% above 1990 levels, a 20% reduction in emissions below 1990 levels means a 60% reduction below current levels.
If there are no emissions whatsoever from new buildings, starting now, that leaves an enormous challenge. With no emissions from new buildings, 60 to 70% savings below current levels needs to be wrung out of existing building stock and associated systems in the next 12 years.
That's an enormous challenge. And it's not going to be even that easy, because in truth, buildings that contribute to greenhouse pollution (i.e., buildings with positive CO2-equivalent emissions) are still being built and commissioned daily.
In the words of climate physicist Michael Tobis, "The idea of business as usual is terrifying, and after twenty years of perfectly clear warnings, some of which have already come to fruition, there is little sign that business has any intent of being conducted in any unusual way."
A Call to Action
Buildings are long-term investments, with long-lasting impacts, and we can't keep adding more conventional buildings to the existing building stock if we're going to meet emissions targets. More calculations on this need to be done and published, but we're confident that's what they will continue to show.
While there is really no time left for hesitation, we do hesitate to create a new organization or duplicate an exisiting call to action.
Yet, while new and established bodies alike, in the U.S. and internationally, are doing so much, still the sum to date pales beside what needs to be done. The green planning and building movement needs to accelerate. Hard.
And in such a crisis, what is the point of aiming too low? We must at least aim for success to have a chance of actually succeeding in stabilizing the climate of this planet's biosphere.
The fundamental need for shelter is non-partisan, and clients come in all parties. Architects are traditionally loathe to make building a highly political issue.
Yet is there any other way for our profession, together with our allied professions in planning, engineering, development, construction, and finance, to deliver what our species and all living species need from us?
As Ed Mazria wrote in Architecture No. 269, "We are in a race against time. Global warming, caused by a human-made blanket of greenhouse gasses mainly carbon dioxide that surrounds the earth and traps in heat, is well underway. If allowed to intensify over the coming years, it will seriously threaten our planet.
"Unknowingly, we in the architecture, planning, and building community are chiefly responsible for these gases, and we have a unique and historic opportunity to reverse the warming trend for which we are responsible."
So what is missing? With these and many other sustainable building and carbon reduction initiatives underway around the world, we don't think the answer is yet another. What is needed is to actually, urgently, aggressively implement these many initiatives already underway.
Planet Partners Build Only Green
We have twelve years until 2020. The cost of missing targets would be severe. The time to mobilize is now.
What we're proposing to help is a kind of global architecture strike-and-teach-in in action. We invite you, your design firm, and all other building-associated organizations, to join our Planet Earth Partners, and make this pledge:
The month of April, Earth Month 2009, will be observed as a Climate Action Month, during which Planet Partners will work only on strictly green projects.
For that month, non-green or ambiguous projects will simply have to wait!
Then going forward, the Planet Partnership pledge has two simple parts:
For an additional Climate Action Month each year, Planet Partners will work only on strictly green building projects.
And, to live what we practice, Planet Partners will reduce their own total operating carbon footprint by 10 percent each year.
If you're already doing this, then you deserve special recognition for the leadership you're providing. If you're not, you deserve support to make the transition. Both of those are what Planet Partners is about.
Planet Earth Partners
"Planet Earth Partners™" are the architecture firms and other building industry partners who register and fulfill their pledge to observe annual Climate Action Months, beginning with the single month of April in 2009, and adding another additional month each subsequent year, during which they will work only on projects being built to a four leaf green standard.
"Partners" are all the architecture firms and design professionals who stand shoulder to shoulder to "build only green" during climate action months. "Partners" are also our clients, suppliers, contractors, owners, and occupants, who work with us leading up to and during each climate action month to collectively make "build only green" a reality.
Especially for firms with large projects and conventional (not green) projects, observation of the climate action month will be a significant challenge. Ideas for stepping up successfully include:
Commit to the Planet Partners challenge soon, so you can warn your clients far in advance of any service delays. By working ahead in 2009 and catching up after, you can minimize damage to ongoing accounts, while still significantly advancing the culture and expectations of both your firm and its industry associates.
Take time early-on to educate your clients about why you are committed to climate change.
Invite your partners to join in the climate stabilization response by committing to four leaf green for their own projects.
Share your concerns and solutions in ArchitectureWeek discussion forums.
In the (not-so) long run, the whole building industry complex needs to change. If design professionals get the ball rolling and invest deliberately in mutual education and support with our own immediate industry partners we can own up to ethical necessity, and enrich key working relationships at the same time.
Why make this call for a year from now, and not right away? The pledge needs to be taken seriously, and for a firm with large projects and legal duties, a year is not too long to plan ahead. Yet even so, a year from now, participation will be disruptive.
Join us and participate with the awareness that a bit of disruptive leadership next year will help to save much greater planetary disruption in years to come.
As the program develops over time, each partner will be asked to publish a concise online report on their climate action activities, including verifiable facts.
ArchitectureWeek will help to make the Planet Partnership rewarding for all participants, with special recognition of partners online, and with ongoing special coverage of the projects, activities, reports, and challenges of planet partners.
We will fully commit the resources of the ArchitectureWeek world architecture network, with more than a million monthly visitors, to supporting the success of this initiative. As a paperless publisher, with offices powered by 100% wind energy, we already provide industry information with a relatively low carbon footprint. To further contribute, during each year's Climate Action Months, ArchitectureWeek will only accept advertising for strictly green products and projects.
Architects have been known, on occasion, to lament the level of standing of their own profession in terms of cultural leadership, even relative to other established professions like law and medicine. Now we have come into a time when great leadership from architects is actually required. And what are we going to do about it?
We are going to step up and help lead this grand, multifacted transition of the building industry. The level of threat is great, and we will aim to match it with our level of mobilization.
Twelve years from now, in 2020, let's actually meet some targets. Let's aim to see all architects working as planet partners, building to a four-leaf standard, all 12 months of the year.
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Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek.