The Project is Going Down...
by Kevin Matthews
What will you do to save our vital project?
You are the project manager for the most important project in the history of your firm, and you see the project heading into serious trouble. What do you do?
You can see that a combination of well-intentioned overall design flaws, interacting with localized construction defects, are likely over time to create a serious health and safety risk for the project, as well as exterior aesthetic flaws that will eventually become disfiguring.
The economy is tough and jobs like this (the project for the firm; the position at the firm for you) are few and far between.
There's a good chance that the choices you make now could significantly impact the lives of hundreds of residents and workers in the large mixed-use complex you're building.
There's a good chance that the choices you make now will shape your own career, and life path, for years and even decades to come.
If you go 20 years into the future in your mind's eye, and look back at this moment from that vantage point, what do you wish that you had done now — today, this week, this month — as you sat in the hot seat, pressed with the weight of your sound professional insight that this great project was starting to slowly, silently go very, very wrong?
Of course, this is actually happening. Right now.
However, it is not just happening at the scale of a single large project. It is happening at the scale of the whole U.S. building industry, and beyond.
Even with our painfully slow construction economy, even in the aftermath of a global financial crisis, greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 set new records.
"Humanity is putting its foot on the accelerator even though the world's top scientists and governments have repeatedly explained that we are headed over a cliff," in the words of Joe Romm at Climate Progress.1
Evidence continues to mount that anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, due to the rapidly increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, is not only happening, but happening even more rapidly than predicted by previous, cautious scientific estimates, such as the IPCC reports to date, which were based on the less-complete evidence that was available at the time they were drafted.
As Ed Mazria, founder of Architecture 2030, wrote accurately in ArchitectureWeek No. 269, back in 2006:
"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...
"The scientific consensus is that we must limit the rise in global average surface temperature to less than 2 degrees Centigrade (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels to avoid disastrous effects.
"At a 2-degree C. increase, it is likely that millions of people will be displaced from their homes. Food production will decline, rivers will become too warm for trout and salmon, weather will become more extreme, sea level will rise and inundate coastal areas, the world's coral reefs — home to 25 percent of all marine species — will be destroyed, a quarter of all plant and animal species on earth will become extinct, and the Greenland ice sheet will begin to melt away."
Since that summary of the situation in 2006, and since the publication of the historic, and still most-recent IPCC Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, further scientific research shows our current actual planetary course of behavior as creating emissions equal to or worse than the worst-case A1Fl scenario used in the projections for that IPCC report.
Many good sources publish regular updates of emerging climate science. Some of these sources are included in the realtime information stream at the ArchitectureWeek blog center, for people who'd like to keep up on a regular basis.
One useful review of recent climate science findings is An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts: How We Know Inaction Is the Gravest Threat Humanity Faces, published at Climate Progress, the outstanding climate science and policy blog edited by Joe Romm.
In summary, global climate change is real, and the projected outcomes are generally looking worse and worse as projected impacts are refined and detailed through ongoing research.
Today, there is no more scientific evidence to support climate change delay and denial than there is scientific evidence to support Biblical creation, in preference to Darwinian evolution, as the means of creation of species.
Rapid climate change is a reality, and within the scope of basic care for health and safety, it has become a clear and present responsibility for professionals in architecture, engineering, construction, and real estate to respond appropriately.
How Fast is Rapid?
While the Earth is a small planet for an unconstrained global industrial civilization, and for nearly ten billion people, it is still big relative to individual human beings, both in distance (ever walk across a continent?) and in time. While we rarely live as long as 100 years, many trees naturally live 1000 years, and many forests naturally live for tens of thousands of years.
In terms of day-to-day human perception, shockingly rapid changes in the Earth system can appear to be quite stately — in fact, imperceptible.
Much as we can't see the day-to-day growth of a large Douglas fir, or tell the difference in its size walking by from one year to the next — yet we can certainly measure change in the tree with instruments and records, as its size increases gradually over a period of years — similarly, the pace of rapid climate change is not something we can see day to day.
Precise instruments and accurate statistics are simply required to see the ongoing trends in increasing average temperature, rising sea levels, and shifting patterns of precipitation.
"Rapid" in rapid climate change means rapid in Earth's terms. In fact, the scientific evidence shows that anthropogenic climate change is happening faster than any transition seen in the fossil record of life on Earth.
In several dimensions, such as the rate of extinctions — hard as it may be to grasp — what our global industrial system is doing right now is a more extreme and faster-moving disaster, worldwide, than the crash of an asteroid into our planet that is associated with the end of the great dinosaurs.
Yet our collective greenhouse gas emissions are still increasing, year on year. We have not yet started to substantively change.2
Somewhere around the level of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the Earth's atmosphere — perhaps plus or minus as many as 100 parts per million — the best evidence suggests that multiple parts of the climate and biosphere system may cross tipping points that unlock releases of additional ancient stored carbon, such as from carbon-rich Arctic bogs, currently frozen year-round.
Crossing these tipping points will lock in continuing rapid climate change for centuries to come. That risk alone is ethically unacceptable.
Yet, with CO2 levels already well above 350 ppm (reaching 394 ppm in June, 2011, at the Mauna Loa monitoring station), virtually all climatologists are "now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization."3
Much of the public discussion of carbon-emissions reduction goals over the last decade has focused on annual turnover, and the need to reduce this turnover each year. The very useful "climate stabilization wedges" approach is based on a sheaf of correlated strategies, working in parallel over time, each of which achieves a few percent of emissions reductions annually within its own scope, so that all the wedges together provide the needed 5% annual emissions reductions overall for the entire world system.4
It is valuable to notice in passing that the compounding of reductions over time works in the inverse compared to the compounding of interest. As interest accumulates over time (perhaps in some different economy than many are seeing now), each year the percent growth applies to a slightly larger base amount, so the growth effectively increases.
In contrast, as emissions reductions accumulate over time, each year the percent reduction applies to a smaller base amount, so the savings effectively decrease over time. Add to that the natural and appropriate tendency to seek savings first among the low-hanging fruit, and one needs a surprisingly large annual rate of emissions reductions to achieve a distant low target.
Facing a Total Carbon Budget
If budgeting for annual carbon flow reductions is analogous to a cash flow budget, the other way to think about carbon budgeting is analogous to a capital budget.
In this case, the remaining resiliency of the Earth system gives us an endowment of a certain total amount of CO2 it is likely to be able to absorb over the next few decades.
If we put out more CO2 than that — if we spend our endowment of carbon resiliency down to nothing, and beyond — then we go broke, carbon bankrupt, and the result is crossing tipping points, and thousands of years of torture for the planet and for the children of our children.
"Research by the Potsdam Institute calculates that to reduce the chance of exceeding 2°C warming to 20%, the global carbon budget for 2000-2050 is 886 gigatons of CO2 (GtCO2)."5
However, we've been burning carbon stocks profligately for more than ten years of that budget period already. Subtracting emissions already put out during 2000 to 2010, the remaining total budget of carbon-emissions equivalents for the remaining 40 years, to 2050, is estimated at 565 GtCO2.
Because we've spent the first decade of this century, and the whole first period of the Kyoto Protocol, doing not much — particularly in the large and high-emitting United States — we are increasingly in danger of outrunning our endowment.
It's not enough anymore to just focus on saving a bit more each year. We have to measure our progress against the total emissions over time. Otherwise we are not likely to cut emissions fast and deep enough.
Focusing on the total carbon budget brings some important points into focus.
The Carbon Budget and Fossil Fuel
According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative, "the total carbon potential of the Earth's known fossil fuel reserves comes to 2795 GtCO2. 65% of this is from coal, with oil providing 22% and gas 13%. This means that governments and global markets are currently treating as assets, reserves equivalent to nearly 5 times the carbon budget for the next 40 years."5
Let's set aside the huge accounting issues related to most of the world's largest companies measuring their assets fallaciously by a factor of about five. This vast exaggeration of achievable corporate values represents a large international fossil fuel bubble. However, ArchitectureWeek doesn't think it is up to architects, engineers, and builders to resolve that problem in international finance.
More concretely, if fossil fuel reserves already listed as known reserves represent five times more than we can afford to actually burn, then we have no business looking for more.
Put another way, when any further oil, gas, or coal exploration is subjected to an environmental cost/benefit analysis, we know a priori that the benefit side of the ratio is zero. There's no real-world benefit to finding even more of something we cannot use.
Whatever the technical economic irrationalities of the system that continues to drive large profits despite overwhelming externalized costs — at a more fundamental level, it is very difficult to justify making additional investment in added capacity where we have far too much already.
In fact, the investment is needed urgently in areas that will reduce the use of fossil fuels. Recent research suggests that even natural gas investments are misplaced relative to the cost and speed of carbon reductions needed.
From a long-term perspective, therefore — measuring actions today from a perspective of a couple of decades in the future — further investment in fossil fuel capacity, whether in exploration, processing, distribution, or consumption, can be reliably predicted to be stranded.
It no longer makes sense to keep digging this hole deeper. Not one more shovel-full deeper.
For example, this means that a new project like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline categorically fails to make sense. If we are going to be using less fossil fuel, locally and globally, then there is no need for, and no long-term value in major additions to infrastructure capacity.
To prevent a climate disaster, we need to not just cease from making stranded investments in unusable capacity increases. We actually need to be phasing out all fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
Stopping the ongoing investment in increasing our capacity for consumption is "just" an essential opening move.
So Goes the Highway
The same pattern applies to roads and highways in the U.S. Knowing that U.S. total driving needs to be gradually reduced, or at most held constant, the era of rational capacity increases is over.
The most optimistic while still plausible projections for automobile carbon efficiency improvements over the next 40 years, taking into account technology transition times, vehicle turnover rates, etc., suggest that we might possibly be able to support something close to the current level of driving, or vehicle-miles traveled (VMT), well into the future.
One obstacle to that outcome is the embodied energy of vehicles themselves, currently typically about 20% of the vehicle's total life-cycle energy cost. That means that even if (or once) the entire motive fuel process achieves a strictly zero carbon footprint, the embodied energy is likely to still give each vehicle about twice the carbon footprint we can afford in 2050.
If energy is decarbonized aggressively worldwide, the embodied energy reductions might even reach down to the necessary lvel — projecting very optimistically — if by 2050 we would have succeeded in dramatically reducing the carbon cost of the entire product manufacturing and life-cycle process, from raw materials onward.
To meet the needs for transportation-sector reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, however, one conclusion stands out clearly.
Total VMT in the U.S. has to be held constant, at most, even as population continues to increase. This means VMT per person in the U.S. has to be reduced at least at the same rate as the population increase.
And so we have the same conclusion for road and highway capacity expansion projects as for fossil fuel expansion projects. We have used up all the slack in the system. Constant VMT means no more constantly increasing driving — no more constantly increasing traffic — and so capacity expansion projects simply no longer make sense.
In a nation with flat or, more reasonably, decreasing total VMT, investment in expansion of automobile capacity is at best waste, and will predictably end up as stranded investment.
Just as with fossil fuel infrastructure, stopping the ongoing investment in increasing our capacity for consumption is one of the essential opening moves.
Then, beyond that initial step of stopping the increase in U.S. road capacities, lies the challenge of achieving flat total VMT in the U.S. going forward, with per-capita VMT, therefore, steadily decreasing.
Integrated Problems and Solutions
From an architect's way of thinking, profound challenges like these we face collectively today can be bracing — and inspiring!
Difficult design challenges can help our thinking expand out of the box, and beyond the bounds of business as usual.
As well as challenge, there is a striking degree of elegance to many of the solutions before us. In part, this arises from the deeply integrated, systemic nature of the overreach of our industrial culture.
The problems and solutions are both richly integrated.
Just for example, the mining of tars sands damages our atmosphere, biodiversity, and vast watersheds, and destroys the ongoing carbon sequestration provided by millions of acres of boreal forest. Distribution and ultimate use of the extracted petroleum will damage human health and far-flung ecosystems. The tar sands projects (like continued coal extraction) are backed by global banks and investors, with imagined profits imagined to percolate throughout Canada. Politicians across America fight to claim a piece of the action.
That's an integrated problem.
At the same time, actions to reduce oil consumption can have integrated benefits. Growing U.S. cities better, not bigger — infilling parking lots and commercial sprawl with well-designed, daylit multifamily and mixed-use buildings, intertwined with restored green landscape fingers — can increase daily physical activity and thus human health, improve the sense of community, invigorate construction and local business economies, and support ongoing ecosystem services. Preserving greenfields and building with strictly sustainable materials preserves food-growing capacity and forest carbon sequestration.
That's an integrated solution.
What Does It Have to Do with Me?
Are we getting too far afield from architecture, engineering, construction, and real estate, looking at tar sands and global finance? ArchitectureWeek doesn't think so.
Remember buildings' share of energy.
Switching from integrated problems to integrated solutions can't be accomplished — can hardly even be started — without the complete commitment of the economic sector that represents half of all energy consumption and more than half of electricity consumption.
And conversely, when the sector that represents half of all energy consumption and more than half of electric energy consumption changes direction, and builds henceforth to meet the needs of 2050 and beyond — instead of the needs of 1990 and before — it will make a huge difference for long-term health, prosperity, and beauty for all.
Together with the move toward strong vehicle efficiency standards started by the Obama administration, and the slow turn toward EPA regulation of major greenhouse polluters in electricity generation and concrete production, ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court, building for the future can actually help us save the project — safely and effectively housing humanity and our activities to support a good quality of life — the great project of architecture, engineering, and construction, since the origin of these professions.
Applied to Buildings
The realization that we're working with an essentially fixed atmospheric capacity for carbon dumping over the foreseeable future has implications for what we are building now, and what we are going to build.
Because even in the best scenario we will have used up that capacity by 2050, we can predict now, with real assurance, that buildings operating in 2050 will have virtually no allowance for carbon consumption.
The stranded investment in buildings not built to meet the efficiency standards to be expected during their lifetime will be more than sufficient to destroy development profits.
Current calculations of payback times very significantly underestimate the cost of failing to avoid predictable future costs.
For instance, if you're putting in a natural-gas boiler system today, technology directly dependent on fossil energy — as done just recently at the new LEED Gold-certified utility operations center in Eugene, Oregon, just for example — the building owner had better be planning ahead for how to replace it with an all-electric solution, a solution at least capable of a minimal carbon footprint.
Buildings that are built today to seemingly impressive incremental standards — even positive standards such as using 60% less energy than prevailing local average for type — can be reliably predicted to become energy white elephants in less than 40 years.
What is to become of the highly engineered, strategically located, LEED Platinum-certified trophy-class office building that only goes halfway to meeting 2050 performance levels? What are the future costs and embodied energy impacts of major upgrades to an already sophisticated and expensive building envelope?
How many building owners can afford to (or want to pay to) follow the example of Deutsche Bank and do a gut-remodel of an iconic tower less than 40 years old, just to improve its energy efficiency?
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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