The Project is Going Down...
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What is to become of the thousands and thousands of much more typical buildings, including some you might be designing and building today, that merely meet current code requirements — or "merely" exceed them by 20% or 30%?
How much more building stock are we going to put in place, knowing that it will need drastic retrofits within its expected service lifetime?
In addition to the obvious practical and ethical liabilities... could there be professional, financial liabilities?
Should A/E/C professionals today be requiring their clients for buildings built to current code to sign performance disclaimers?
Maybe that would help get the clients' attention.
Architecture 2030 is one model program that is working hard to address these realities.
To meet the Architecture 2030 Challenge, firms pledge to design buildings to meet stringent energy consumption standards, stepping down to the requirement of zero-carbon at 2030.
And it seems that the Challenge is making headway.
"As of July 2010, 73% of the 30 largest U.S. Architecture / Engineering firms, responsible for over $100 billion in construction annually, have adopted and are implementing the 2030 Challenge. In total, approximately 41% of all U.S. architecture firms have adopted the Challenge. This indicates that a dramatic transformation of the Building Sector is underway in the U.S. Since many of our top A/E firms practice and have offices all over the world, this is a dramatic transformation with global implications."6
It is useful to note the distinction between the "zero carbon" target of the 2030 Challenge, and the "net-zero energy" target of some current building projects reaching toward environmental leadership.
Net-zero energy turns out to be a much squishier target. For instance, a building with an efficient natural gas boiler could in theory install enough photovoltaic generating capacity to offset the natural gas burned. As a result, it would be generating as much energy as it used, achieving "net-zero energy" overall. However, the building would still be producing a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions from its normal operations. In addition, the doubled infrastructure in such a case might represent additional GHG cost from embodied energy in the system components.
Even building to meet the 2030 Challenge, most of the next decade's buildings would be constructed at levels that will predictably still demand major efficiency retrofits within their service lifetimes.
But getting to where we need to be now, by 2030, still represents a vast and decisive improvement over business as usual.
In contrast, the trend line for business as usual is to probably never get there at all.
Passive House is perhaps the one well-known technically specific program that guides and certifies buildings today to something approximating the performance we'll need from all buildings in 2050.
As such, it deserves enormous support and participation from professionals and firms in the U.S. and worldwide, from professional organizations like the AIA, RIBA, and UIA, and from government and standards bodies.
In addition to direct participation in Passive House where feasible and appropriate, A/E/C professionals and firms should insist that other green-building and energy-efficiency programs, such as LEED and Energy Star, be improved rapidly to similar levels, so that Passive House is not the only real option for a future-proof building evaluation system.
By 2050, existing buildings in the U.S. will have to operate on something like 10% of the current typical building carbon footprint.
By 2050, to save 90% in total carbon-equivalent footprint over current consumption, new buildings will be bucking hard against embodied energy limits to meet carbon performance standards — even if their operating energy were to become 100% carbon-free (which it probably never can, when the embodied energy in the generating infrastructure is taken into account).
The world has big issues to work out in terms of the remaining 565 GtCO2 of carbon capacity. Like who gets to spend it.
Clearly the really big stinkers, including the U.S., Canada, and Australia on a per-capita basis, will have to cut our emissions drastically. Having already used up so much of the original endowment — far more than our share, by any measure short of "might makes right" — our imperative must be to reduce as quickly as physically feasible.
That's why ArchitectureWeek, along with many close observers, thinks the U.S. should already be in a degree of emergency social mobilization for carbon reduction comparable to the U.S. home-front adaptations during World War II.
If we do something like that, then saving the project also requires that the rapidly growing industrial economies of the rest of the world, particularly China and India — heavily intertwined with the U.S. and Europe — plan and adapt to grow within the remaining share of the capital carbon budget.
What will the various national carbon budgets look like if countries are allocated equal shares of the allowable (i.e. survivable) global carbon budget on a per-capita basis? Is there really any other fair basis for allocation, over the long term?
From another angle, we won't be able to reduce the carbon intensity of our developed-world lifestyles if the embodied energy of the goods we consume is not also deeply reduced. Off-shoring carbon-intensive production is truly a dead-end.
In fact, straightforward honest calculations show that we probably can't afford to continue the perpetual growth which our current worldwide economic system is founded on.
Having received a huge energy grant in the form of fossil fuels from Mother Nature, and having spent it on rapid growth over a couple of hectic centuries, achieving an energy-expensive kind of prosperity in the developed world, we are now collectively facing a choice between finding the key to prosperity without growth, or having no prosperity at all, for most people.
The good news is that extensive research shows that an intermediate level of gross consumption is sufficient to provide the best parts of a high-consumption life style.
Architecture has a crucial, central, and inspiring place in the realignment of values and economy that we face over the next 40 years. Great design, beautiful places, and deep lasting value will be prized more than ever in a world where quality of life and experience are properly understood to be infinitely more important than quantity of consumption.
However, the expansive pleasure palaces for the very wealthy that seem to still fill much of the high-touch shelter monthlies, and the daily design blogs alike — while fueling the current hopes of many an aspiring design professional — will increasingly be seen as the painfully sparkling anachronisms that they already are.
Better, deeper, richer, and ultimately much more satisfying inspiration can be found in a more conscious architecture, serving a wider and more numerous clientele, less aligned to fashion, more aligned to stretching out for elegant, efficient, and lasting beauty.
The Project is Going Down...
Right now, as we are headed today — as we are building today nearly everywhere in the U.S. — we are building our way toward disaster.
This is our time, and our project. Are we going to set things straight?
Are we going to keep building structures that we know will fail to meet requirements within their service lifetime?
Would you design and manufacture a car with defective brakes — even if it had perfect airbags to keep its occupants safe? Would you build a car that you know would very likely kill people, even if those people are not your direct customers?
Would you build a building that you know would very likely kill people, indirectly and over time, if not directly?
It is time now, as architects, engineers, builders, and as investors, to do our jobs for society, not just for our immediate clients.
It is time to declare the emergency, or at the least, to mobilize and act as if we have.
The alternative is a thousand years of torture for the people, and all the other species, of Earth.
This is the context of design and building today, and as best we can understand it now, for the rest of our lives.
Kevin Matthews is Editor in Chief of ArchitectureWeek. More by Kevin Matthews
- Joe Romm. Crossing the Line as Civilization Implodes. Climate Progress. 21 February 2012.
- Glen P. Peters, Gregg Marland, Corinne Le Quéré, Thomas Boden, Josep G. Canadell, and Michael R. Raupach. Rapid growth in CO2 emissions after the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Nature Climate Change 2, 2-4 (2012) doi:10.1038/nclimate1332. Published online 04 December 2011. See Figure 1: Global CO2 emissions and carbon intensity.
- John Vidal. Civilisation faces 'perfect storm of ecological and social problems'. The Guardian. 20 February 2012.
- Malte Meinshausen, Bill Hare, Tom M. M. Wigley, Detlef Van Vuuren, Michel G. J. Den Elzen, and Rob Swart. Multi-gas Emissions Pathways to Meet Climate Targets. Climatic Change 75: 151-194 (2006) doi: 10.1007/s10584-005-9013-2.
- James Leaton. Unburnable Carbon: Are the world's financial markets carrying a carbon bubble? (PDF). Carbon Tracker Initiative. 11 July 2011.
- Architecture 2030: A Historic Opportunity Architecture2030.org. Accessed 09 March 2012.
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