Energy, and sustainability

December 01, 2000 |

Are building teams focusing on how much energy their latest projects are expected to use? It's quite likely that energy has not been the draw it used to be. Energy costs have only recently spiked, with imported oil and natural gas making headlines in stories about irked SUV drivers and East Coast homeowners.

The recent price hikes are unlikely to affect project plans and specifications developed over the last several years, however. American building teams have been lulled into professional slumber by incredibly low fuel prices, and the term "energy efficiency" has taken on a quaint, 1970s significance, like "stagflation."

Another reason energy consumption has dropped off the radar is that it has been supplanted in the minds of many designers, builders and owners by the notion of sustainability. Broader in scope, sustainable building involves a host of factors, including energy use.

Yet, sustainability has had the unintended effect of subsuming energy considerations to a raft of other issues, such as recycled content, material toxicity and the certification of sustainable suppliers. A kind of moral equivalency has ensued; energy consumption seemingly can be traded against other features when considering design and product options.

Of course, this was not intended. But thanks to cheap electricity, gas and oil, building teams have seen complacency overshadow common sense. The fact is that, as a nation, we must examine how our buildings derive and consume energy.

First, consider the sources. Coal and nuclear power (coal and nukes!) supply the nation's base electrical load. Coal is dirty but cheap; we sit on massive reserves of the stuff, so we-not some faraway oil cartel-control how and when it comes out of the ground. And the oxymoronic but much-hyped "clean coal" technologies may help cut pollution levels. Nuclear power is cheap, too.on the front end, that is. On the back end, we bury scary by-products into lead-lined landfills and give serious thought to jettisoning the wastes to Mars.

Back on earth, we burn oil and natural gas-both of which are on the uptick-for our national peaking loads. So, electric power looks more and more like the road to economic, if not environmental ruin. Thus, we should rely more on "clean energy" technologies, right? Maybe.

Solar seems a powerful alternative for southern and western states now, but at the expense of thousands of square miles of beautiful desert that would fall in the shadow of photovoltaic panels. There is also serious talk of leveling some of America's biggest hydroelectric dams.

Get it? We're in rough straits. Our energy challenges are enough to make the sustainable-building advocates shiver. The fact is that we could soon face energy supply constraints the likes of which haven't been seen since Jimmy Carter asked us to turn down the thermostats.

In the meantime, building teams must pay attention to what really matters: Energy efficiency as a design driver in specifying building materials, systems and equipment. Designers must look with renewed vigor at such items as envelope design, insulation specification, glazing selection and lighting controls.

True, energy use is only one of many factors, but isn't it time to consider it seriously, before we end up wearing parkas indoors? Building teams must make energy efficiency a renewed priority. Now.

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