Beauty and the Beast

June 12, 2006 · by Edward Mazria

Throughout most of the twentieth century, contemporary global architecture has been characterized by a reliance on inexpensive fossil-fuel powered "active" technology, to the exclusion of other factors.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, contemporary global architecture has been characterized by a reliance on inexpensive fossil-fuel powered "active" technology, to the exclusion of other factors.

We are currently dependent on the mechanical control of the indoor environment, rather than the designed exploitation of climatic and other natural processes, to satisfy our comfort requirements. As a result, today we can see the same building type in all climatic regions throughout the world. And so we have become prisoners of complicated mechanical systems, since a minor power or equipment failure, or fossil fuel delivery disruption, can make many contemporary buildings uninhabitable.
Historically, significant transformations in building design and planning have always followed great world events, and as such serve as a record of the times. In some instances, as with the Industrial Revolution and the grand engineering structures that followed, architecture has reluctantly held on to the past until pushed into the present. There is always a concept, a spark, a significant event that ignites the profession and seems to turn it in another direction, grab its attention. We are, I believe, at one of these moments. Never before in human history has the earth been so threatened, and never before has the design community been challenged to lead the world in a new direction, helping it avert large scale dislocations and setting the tone for international cooperation as we struggle to stem the tide of global warming.

Why? Scientists project that a 1-degree Celsius rise in global average temperature (above today's level) is expected by about 2050. This is the temperature threshold - an upper limit to global warming - beyond which it is estimated that unprecedented stresses would be placed on global natural and social systems. Climate scientists calculate that we will need a 60 to 80 percent reduction in global warming emissions by 2050 if we are to stay under this threshold. That means we have approximately 10 years to be on a declining global greenhouse gas emissions trajectory in order to achieve emissions reductions of this magnitude. This will be necessary in each of the following sectors: transportation, industry, and building.

We know that buildings and their construction account for nearly half of all the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and energy consumed in this country each year. Globally the percentage is even greater. And the design community holds the key to turning down the global thermostat.

The reason for this is quite simple. Domestic industrial emissions are not increasing much annually. If recent studies are correct and global oil is about to peak, and reserves are significantly overestimated, domestic transportation emissions will stabilize in the near future. In the transportation sector, the economics of oil and existing efficient technologies can combine to stimulate the production of a new fleet of automobiles and light duty trucks in about 12 years, the time it takes for the country's road fleet to turn over. By contrast, in the building sector, buildings have a life expectancy (and energy consumption and emissions pattern) of 50 to 100 years and are designed to consume energy mainly by burning oil, natural gas, and coal.

And herein lies the problem. U.S. oil and gas production has been in decline since the 1970s and global oil and natural gas reserves are limited. Most of these remaining reserves are located in a small area stretching from Saudi Arabia to Siberia, currently considered a politically unstable part of the world.

This leaves us with only one inexpensive fossil fuel, coal. The U.S., Russia, China, Australia, and India have plenty of it and it is cheap - and dirty. Clean coal technology is decades away as is capturing and storing carbon dioxide, and it is costly. Over the next ten years, three countries, the U.S., China, and India, are projected to build over 1,000 coal burning power plants to meet their growing demand for electricity.

We have all heard the arguments surrounding climate change, from impending doom and draconian GHG reduction measures at one end of the spectrum to the destruction of the global economy and the characterization of global warming as fiction, at the other end. Each extreme cites only the information that suits its cause and ignores the rest. Nevertheless, the latest scientific data recently published confirms that we do have a serious global warming problem, that it is human-caused and that we humans must now take reasonable measures to address the situation.

What can we do? Architecture 2030 has issued the "2030 ºChallenge" calling for design and building professionals to adopt the following global targets to curb building sector GHG emissions:

1. That all new buildings and developments be designed to use half the fossil fuel energy they would typically consume (half the country average for that building type).

2. That at a minimum, an equal amount of existing building area* be renovated annually to use half the amount of fossil fuel energy they are currently consuming (through design, purchase of renewable energy and/or the application of renewable energy technologies).

3. That the fossil fuel reduction standard for all new buildings be increased to:

60% in 2010
70% in 2015
80% in 2020
90% in 2025

Carbon-neutral by 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate).

(Due to China and India's large existing building stock, the annual area of building renovation should equal 1-1/2 times the area of new construction.)*

The "2030 ºChallenge" clearly outlines a strategy to immediately stabilize and begin reducing building sector GHG emissions, with the goal of realizing a 60% to 80% reduction below today's level by 2050. What makes this strategy unique is that it is achievable through design, through creative problem solving, and the application of information and innovation, the very elements that are the foundation of the design professions.

To support this effort, in our professional design schools, we must also require the establishment of a mandatory, full-year, innovative, studio-based program which promotes creative problem-solving relevant to climate change - one which incorporates a deep understanding of the relationship between nature and design in all core courses.

We are responsible for directing the purchase of over a staggering one trillion dollars worth of goods and services annually. We can effect major reductions in the emissions produced by the manufacture of building products and the construction of buildings and infrastructure through the specification of innovative, low-embodied energy materials, technologies, and processes.

The Building Sector analysis summarized here demonstrates that there is no short-term or long-term GHG reduction solution possible without involving the global design community. To date, this community has not been invited to participate in meetings, policy setting sessions or UN and IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) gatherings regarding climate change. This illustrates that the scientific community, government, and general public do not really understand what architects, planners, and designers do and how central their role is in crafting meaningful mitigation strategies. Design innovation can tame the beast of global warming, but with time running short, and abrupt rather than gradual climate change looming as a distinct possibility, the design community must be quickly engaged.

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