Modest proposal for combating climate change

August 11, 2010

We're putting too much emphasis on greening new buildings as the solution to climate change. Seven years into LEED for New Construction, only 833 buildings have been certified; another 5,595 are registered. LEED for Existing Buildings has touched fewer than 700 projects. That leaves millions of existing nonresidential buildings and 125 million housing units unaccounted for.

So, what can we do to cut greenhouse gas emissions that's relatively inexpensive, fast, and effective? Some thoughts:

1. Do the easy things first. What would happen if we bumped up the insulation and R-value in half—or a quarter, or a tenth—of the existing buildings in the U.S.? How much energy would that save?

What if we really pushed compact fluorescents? We don't have to ban incandescent bulbs. Just replace, say, 15-20% of them with CFLs. This last year, Chicago gave away 500,000 CFLs to encourage people to give them a try. Why can't we extend that concept nationally?

Better still, what can we do to encourage people to turn off lights (and computers, and A/C systems) that aren't being used? Harvard University trains 80 undergrad “green ambassadors” a year to talk to fellow students about cutting energy waste in the residence halls. The result: a 15% savings in electricity bills. Just turn off the light!

Windows! How much wasted energy (and resulting greenhouse gases) are seeping out of the billions of windows in our buildings? How much would we save if we replaced, say, 10% of them with more efficient units? Ditto for doors.

2. Encourage building commissioning. Commissioning pays off. Evan Mills, PhD, a highly respected researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, has shown that commissioning an older building costs 27 cents/sf and will reveal 11 deficiencies; the payback period: nine months. Commissioning a new building will turn up 28 deficiencies, at a cost of $1.00/sf (4.8-year payback)—but much of that cost can be made up in reduced change orders.

Most existing buildings are energy hogs and need fine-tuning, and many new buildings are replete with design and construction shortcomings that commissioning would find. Yet only about 1% of buildings are commissioned, according to the U.S. Energy Department. A lost opportunity.

3. Save existing buildings.We're too eager in this country to tear down and replace buildings. We need to reconsider the practical effect of throwing away all that embodied energy—and cost. Of course, structurally unsafe buildings do need to be demolished. But too many salvageable structures are being torn down without considering how they might be reused. The old adage “waste not, want not” still carries weight.

4. Encourage density.Not in our thinking, but in our landscape. Instead of “location, location, location,” we need to think “concentrate, concentrate, concentrate.” That's the only way we're going to cut down our excessive commuting miles, with all the resulting waste and emissions they produce. “Density” is going to have to be the new mantra in the next decade.


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