Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Can the Built Environment Heal the Planet?

The New Carbon Architecture: Building to Cool the Climate

by Bruce King, New Society Publishers, 2017, 159 pages, $29.99

Book review by N.R. Mallery

Let’s face it, CO2 in our atmosphere is the biggest problem humans have ever had to face.

Recent news says scientists have measured a slowdown of the Gulf Stream. It is happening now, much faster than they might have imagined, at a level not expected to occur for another 100 years.

In the past, we thought the solution was to just reduce our carbon emissions. Now it has become clear that is just not enough. We need to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it.

Buildings are not only a huge part of the historical problem but can also be a great solution for the future.

The New Carbon Architecture makes it clear that we need to pursue new building methods beyond efficiency. We should use every resource available to us to draw carbon out of the atmosphere. Buildings give us a great opportunity to sequester carbon.

As I was reading this book, I discovered that Robert Irving, a net-zero builder from Salisbury, NH was also reading it. His first takeaway was that this was something he hadn’t thought of quite in the same way it is presented. Irving said he was assuming that any additional carbon in construction methods would be offset by long term carbon savings realized by our net-zero buildings. The point is that increasing the levels of carbon in the atmosphere is not something we might need to worry about in 30 to 50 years. The crisis is right now, and therefore we need to think about the carbon we use right now.

The Strawbale LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) in Leeds in the UK is an example of the built environment that is a carbon sink. The development alone captured and stores 1,080 metric tons of atmospheric equivalent CO2. Credit: ModCell

Irving thinks we should look at the carbon crises more seriously, and that many people don’t think about carbon a lot, including himself. He said, “It’s a very complex subject and one really should know the embodied carbon of all materials we use.” Many people might say something like “that’s way too complex, so let’s ignore the whole thing.” And this is what the book is about: what building techniques and materials we are currently using that only add to the carbon crises instead of addressing many alternative solutions.

What do the studies show, and what are the options? This is explored from many angles by a network of ecologically-minded professionals. Some of the information seemed a bit confusing, and it is perhaps not always in agreement. But the information presented is always thought-provoking and valuable.

A good start for healing the planet could be by sourcing materials closer to point of use, and the book is great at showing how to accomplish this. Beyond that, there are many choices for the most carbon-friendly structural materials to use. Wood sequesters carbon. Advanced wood technology gives it characteristics that we have never seen it have before, allowing it to be used in new applications such as skyscrapers. Nevertheless, steel still has applications that were addressed in the book. So does Portland Cement, although the book speaks to new cement alternatives that help us rethink the embodied carbon of concrete. Many other building materials are discussed as well, that make a valuable difference to help to create buildings that will cool the climate instead of adding to the crises. There are many examples of incorporating locally-sourced materials that help to phase out carbon emissions in building materials.

Buildings can become a big part of the climate solution. The key components are innovation and imagination, along with exploration and learning how to use materials, such as advanced wood products and even plastic from cleaning up the oceans that can be used for making building blocks. As we discussed in the last issue of Green Energy Times (Issue #50, p. 27), you can even grow your insulation and bricks! The book reveals great value and benefits that we can get by not ignoring the carbon crises we now face. Irving concluded, “It’s not the end-all, be-all book about carbon, but it’s hugely important especially to folks like us who actually care about the subject. It’s gotten a lot of people to think, including me, about things we need to learn and how to do better. It provides some ideas and thoughts for some of these better ways. So, I think it’s a valuable book at this time.”

Thanks to Bruce King for these solutions and to Bob Irving for his comments.

Nancy Rae Mallery is the publisher of Green Energy Times.

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