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The Building You're In Fuels Global Warming

By Edward Mazria
Los Angeles Times
March 4, 2004


In our quest to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions and
lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, we have contented
ourselves by pointing a finger at gas-guzzling SUVs. And in
doing so we have overlooked the biggest source of emissions
and energy consumption both in this country and around the
globe: architecture.

If you took all sport utility vehicles off the road tomorrow
and replaced them with hybrids, the effect on energy use and
global warming would be minimal. The entire fleet of SUVs,
minivans and light-duty trucks in this country accounts for
only 6.5% of the total U.S. energy consumed each year,
according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And
although that doesn't mean we should abandon efforts to
produce more efficient, environmentally friendly SUVs, it does
illustrate a huge blind spot in U.S. energy consciousness.
Buildings and their construction account for nearly half of
all the greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumed in this
country each year. Globally, the percentage is even greater.

And architects hold the key to turning down the global
thermostat.

The reason for this is quite simple. Though our country's
fleet of autos and light trucks could turn over within about
12 years and be replaced by more efficiently run vehicles,
buildings have a lifespan (and energy consumption and
emissions pattern) of 50 to 100 years.

The problem is that buildings consume energy mainly in the
form of burning oil, natural gas and coal, and U.S. oil and
gas production has been in decline since the 1970s. Global oil
and natural gas reserves are limited; most of these remaining
reserves are in a small area stretching from Saudi Arabia to
Siberia, an unstable part of the world. This leaves coal. The
U.S., Russia, China, Australia and India have plenty of it,
and it is cheap and dirty. Clean coal technologies are
decades away as is capturing and storing carbon dioxide
and they are costly.

Architects know that buildings can be designed to require less
than half the energy of today's average U.S. building, with no
additional cost. This is accomplished through proper siting,
building form, material selection and glass properties and
location and by incorporating day-lighting strategies and
natural heating, cooling and ventilation.

To achieve such a reduction, government at all levels must
pass laws that all major governmental building renovation and
new building projects be designed to use half the energy now
typically consumed. When these standards are in widespread
use, building codes for all housing developments and
commercial, institutional and multifamily buildings can be
changed to the standard in place for government buildings.

With about 5 billion square feet of new construction and 5
billion square feet of renovation taking place in the U.S.
each year, the potential for reducing energy consumption and
carbon dioxide emissions is enormous. This would put the U.S.
well on its way toward meeting its international obligations
and demonstrate a way for developing nations to cut emissions
without sacrificing economic growth.

There is no short-term or long-term greenhouse gas solution
possible without involving the architectural and building
communities. With abrupt rather than gradual climate change
looming as a possibility, quickly engaging this sector becomes
critical.

Edward Mazria is an architect in Santa Fe, N.M. He is author
of "The Passive Solar Energy Book" (Rodale Press, 1979).

 

 

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