NYT – When Green Building Is Not Green Enough: A Response
Mr. Zeller writes in his NY Times “Green” Blog post “When Green Building Is Not Green Enough” that “the nation’s building stock plays a bigger role in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions than many Americans might realize.” This is only true (a) because many Americans have chosen to ignore information that has been widely available for at least four decades and (b) powerful business and social interests have conducted a massive campaign of misinformation in order to maintain positions of economic and political power.
In 1972, the Club of Rome published the highly regarded Limits to Growth stating that by the first decade of the 21st century, the approaching limits to the availability of finite resources including energy would have profound effects on our lives, most of them being negative. In 1977, Richard Stein’s book Architecture and Energy documented that over 40 percent of all energy use in the US was closely affected by architectural decisions. In 1972, the American Institute of Architects, a very mainstream organization, began a detailed investigation into the relationship between building and architecture and in 1974 issued Energy and the Built Environment: A Gap in Current Strategies.
In 1981, the AIA issued Energy and Architecture, the first in a series of documents directed toward the design professions which eventually included four texts. In 1978 and 1993 respectively, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards published Energy Conservation in Existing Buildings and Energy Conscious Architecture both of which discuss the amount of energy consumed by the built environment. The list goes on; however, the upshot is that detailed, quantitative data regarding the extent to which decisions on building and regional planning affect or national energy use have been readily available for many years.
However, we continue to get conflicting messages. On the one hand, we are being told that thinking and acting “green” is essential to global survival and international economic competitiveness. This position is well supported by overwhelming hard information. Yet even when we consider sustainability, we rarely account for the larger scope of the impact.
When we choose to operate an electrical device, we may consider the utility bill that will have to be paid later in the month. We may, in times of stressed utility capacity, realize that this operation may contribute to a system overload resulting in brownouts or blackouts. It is unusual, however, to visualize the contribution that the decision to operate electrical device makes to the plume of smoke and carbon dioxide leaving the stack of a generator three hundred miles away or to the added demand for coal with its related environmental degradation. We don’t think about the part, however small, that our use of electricity plays in the thirty to forty coal mining deaths each year in the United States.
From Greening Modernism, Carl Stein, W.W. Norton, 2010
On the other hand, there are those who inveigh against standards for electric lamps, appliances, showers and toilets, whether or not these standards have any particular impact on our day-to-day experience. Their main thrust seems to be an appeal to the deep “nobody tells me what to do” strain of frontier independence. While this may be fine when we each have miles of empty space around us, it is not viable in the highly interconnected condition that we currently experience. The net effect of this attitude is, in the short term, to compromise our global position and, in the long term, at a minimum to degrade the quality of life for our children and grandchildren and quite possibly to threaten the survival of the planet as we know it.
Dramatic reductions in our energy use are possible through simple, cost-effective substitutions and very modest adjustments in everyday practices. While zero-net-energy and zero-carbon buildings are admirable goals and serve as important test beds for emerging technologies, there should be no confusion about the fact that smart design and careful application of off-the-shelf technologies offer the best near-term methods for reshaping our energy consumption patterns. Not only will these have an immediate impact, they will also inform the attitudes that underlie future design paradigms.