Design and Ecology
by: Sam Miller, AIA, LEED AP, NCARB
Senior Project Manager | Architecture
The origin of energy efficiency in the United States dates to the Oil Embargo in 1973. The response was the first national effort to make our buildings more energy efficient. Architects and engineers went to work on how buildings might be designed to reduce energy use. One part of the response was to control air infiltration; to control how buildings allow the movement of air through their skins. Tightening a building this way along with improved insulation resulted in better energy numbers. As buildings got tighter, a new issue emerged: indoor air quality. We found that buildings with very tight envelopes were filled with materials that were more or less poisonous. At this point, a discussion began about building materials, chemicals from their manufacture, and how they gave off gas over time. This caused a huge shift in materials chemistry and eliminated toxins that prior had been accepted without question. Designers and manufacturers began to go deeper into the subject of energy and materials in buildings. Simultaneously we started to consider design and the environment. Facts that were taken for granted for decades were turned out in a new light. The question asked was just how much does design and construction affect the environment? How much energy use is connected to our buildings? The answer is a lot. In the total U.S. economy of approximately $14 trillion construction accounts for $1.5 trillion. To add insult to injury, most buildings are inefficient and because of how they are built, difficult and expensive to recycle. Building materials consume huge quantities of energy in their mining, fabrication and transport.
Steadily, ideas from ecology began to permeate the design world. First there was the idea of sustainability. This is old news now, but in the 1990s it was a big deal. The idea of being “less bad” though did not seem like there was enough improvement being made. Green building standards like LEED were established followed by a plethora of standards with differing focuses and levels of difficulty. The idea of carbon neutrality was established along with carbon offsets. The design professions advanced the idea of zero energy buildings. Now there are living buildings, or buildings that make more energy than they use.
So what’s next? There are enormous opportunities in the existing building stock world wide. Green building standards largely concentrate on new construction and leave existing buildings out of the conversation. The reality is that existing buildings make up the vast majority of structures in the world today. Also, we would be wise to study systemic change including how our transportation systems and cities are designed. These are huge, long term projects. In aggregate, migrating toward systems that mimic what are called climax ecosystems is imperative.
For example, making a global fleet of electric cars still uses untold quantities of materials, so unless every last bit of an electric car can be up cycled and reused, we’ve improved energy efficiency, but still continue to harvest materials in a manner no different from the Twentieth Century.
We have a long way to go yet, but the opportunities for improvement are plentiful.