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Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

The Next Frontier in Sustainable Building:

Deep Altruism

Green Building pays off reducing global atmospheric carbon levels and the resulting potential reduction in the severity of climate change. (Flickr)

Nate Gusakov

For the last few decades, most of the leading discussion, innovation, and progress towards a more sustainable building industry have been centered on reducing operational energy use. In other words, learning how to make buildings use less energy while they keep people at the same level of comfort. More insulation, better air-tightness, innovations in appliance efficiency, siting and glazing for solar gain…all of these are geared toward helping buildings use less in their day-to-day operations. Less oil, less natural gas, less coal, fewer electrons – it’s the same idea across the board. To some people (probably many of whom are readers of Green Energy Times), there is a great deal of global consciousness and eco-awareness behind this work. However, the larger part (by far) of the building industry is mostly motivated by the good ol’ bottom line. Spending less money to get the same result is, and always will be, an excellent selling point. So, it should have been a snap for the mainstream building industry to see widespread adoption of technologies that absolutely maximize reductions in operational energy use, right?

Well, let’s try to measure. One simple way to measure a building’s annual energy use is with a metric called Energy Use Intensity (EUI). It’s expressed in thousands of BTUs per square foot of floor space, or annual kBTU/ft2. For example, the most stringent of today’s building standards (certification by the Passive House Institute of the US or PHIUS), requires an EUI of slightly less than five kBTU/ft2. However, the latest available numbers from Efficiency Vermont show that the average VT home currently has an EUI of over 64 kBTU/ft2, and the latest numbers from show an average EUI over 86 kBTU/ft2 across all U.S. building sectors! This means that on average our buildings use 1500% more energy than the levels we are capable of! We are obviously still a far cry from selling everyone in the industry on maximizing reductions in building energy use.

Now that we’re into the 2020’s the discussion at the forefront of sustainable building practices is changing. Increasingly over the last five years or so, if you’ve spent any time at a regional sustainable building conference (NESEA’s Building Energy Boston, or Efficiency VT’s Better Buildings by Design, for example) you’ll have seen lots of attention paid to the topic of embodied carbon (EC). This is the overall amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere during the creation, transportation, assembly, maintenance, and decomposition of a product or material (usually expressed in kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of product or material). If you subscribe to the global scientific understanding of the causes and dangers of atmospheric climate change, then you can understand why embodied carbon is such an important topic. Regardless of how many dollars or BTU’s a certain material will save during its time in a building, if more CO2 emissions are thrown into the atmosphere just during its manufacture and transport than it will eliminate during its lifetime, we have a losing proposition. Add to this the fact that operational savings take years to accumulate while EC represents emissions that have already happened before the building is even finished, and you can see doubly the importance of paying attention to EC.

Ok, so where am I going with all this, and what does it have to do with ‘deep altruism’ (whatever that is)? Here’s the thing – even with very direct bottom-line savings as a marketing tool, significant reductions in EUI have been slow to spread, even across decades. Why that’s the case is a big long snarly question, and not one that I’m getting into here. Regardless, it’s true. And now the conversation needs to change (broaden, really) to include EC concerns as well. The big catch: there’s very little immediate, tangible benefit to minding our EC. It is often more expensive to achieve low-EC construction goals (although that’s changing by the moment), and the truest return on investment is clearly not going to be realized for many, many years. If and when there is a payoff from the hard work of tracking and minimizing EC, it will come in the form of reduced global atmospheric carbon levels and the resulting potential reduction in the severity of climate change. That is the currency. The return on our investment will be the possible alleviation of future suffering of other living beings who may or may not live their lives far away from us in place and in another time. Perhaps to those with a more indigenous world view, used to taking into account the effects of their actions on life seven generations later, this is not news. As for the rest of us, well friend, this is not a bottom line that most corporations (or homeowners, for that matter) are keeping on their spreadsheets, and that’s got to change. In order to invest ourselves truly in EC issues at a significant level right now, the actions of the entire building industry will need to become altruistic beyond our current imaginations. I call that deep altruism, and I wish us luck.

Nate Gusakov is an air-leakage specialist and building envelope consultant who aspires to be like Friar Tuck in the Sherwood Forest of modern building science.

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