As America mulls its urgent energy predicament, we’re being seduced yet again by splashy, pseudo-energy solutions—scores of new nuclear power plants, expensive carbon capture and sequestration technology at coal plants, and “drill baby drill” for more offshore oil—while a truly effective answer to our energy and emissions problems is already on the table.
Buried deep within the 1,428-page Waxman-Markey climate bill passed by the House and now on the Senate floor is a demonstrably sane solution to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Yet this simple idea is being largely ignored, even as its principles have been championed by architects around the country who are serious about making a difference in the nation’s energy future.
That real solution is Section 201 of the Waxman-Markey bill, which covers building energy codes—that’s right, building codes. The measures set out in Section 201 are so powerful they can single-handedly transform the entire built environment in the U.S. by 2050, achieving over six times the emissions reductions of the 100 new nuclear power plants recently pushed by a handful of senators, at a fraction of the $750 billion cost. Simply putting those codes into practice would reduce building emissions by 48.8 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, eliminating the need for a gargantuan leap down the wrong energy path.
As most architects and urban planners are aware by now, buildings consume 75 percent of all the electricity produced in the U.S. and are responsible for about half of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Section 201 accomplishes its significant emissions reductions by going straight to the source, requiring national building energy codes to be updated to gradually meet reduction targets—30 percent below recent energy codes by 2010, 50 percent by 2015, plus another 5 percent each additional year out to 2030.
These code updates are derived from the energy reduction targets of the widely adopted 2030 Challenge, a measured and achievable strategy developed by Architecture 2030 to dramatically reduce global GHG emissions and fossil-fuel consumption by the year 2030. Specifically, the Challenge contains three major targets. First, all new buildings and developments are to be designed to use half the fossil-fuel energy they would typically consume—that is, half the regional or country average for that building type. Second, at a minimum, an equal amount of existing building area is to be renovated annually to use half the amount of fossil-fuel energy it is currently consuming. And third, the fossil-fuel reduction standard is to be increased to 60 percent in 2010, 70 percent in 2015, 80 percent in 2020, 90 percent in 2025, and carbon neutral by 2030, meaning that no fossil-fuel, GHG-emitting energy is used.
The targets should be achieved first through appropriate planning and building design—density, party walls, building shape and orientation, glazing location and properties, passive solar heating, cooling and natural ventilation strategies, daylighting, shading, and site landscaping, to name a few—and then by generating on-site renewable power or purchasing (up to a 20 percent maximum) renewable energy.
Architecture 2030 issued the 2030 Challenge in 2006, with the AIA being the first organization to adopt. It has made a significant national impact, having now been adopted across the nation with complete bipartisan support, including the U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Governors, U.S. Green Building Council, Congress for the New Urbanism, and numerous professional and industry organizations. In addition, California, Oregon, and Washington have passed legislation adopting the Challenge targets and are currently crafting new energy codes to implement them. Also, in 2007 Congress passed, and the president signed, the Energy Independence and Security Act, requiring that all new and renovated federal buildings meet the 2030 Challenge targets.
Having seen the writing on the wall with regard to where building design must go to address climate change, hundreds of firms in the United States, including the top five multinational architecture/engi-neering/planning firms—Gensler, HOK, HKS, Perkins + Will and HDR—have already pledged to design all of their buildings, whether in China, India, Europe, or the United States, to meet the 2030 Challenge targets. These firms are now designing much-needed examples of buildings that meet the Challenge targets, from Perkins + Will’s Great River Energy Headquarters and Synergy at Dockside Green, to the San Mateo County Forensics Lab and Winrock International Global Headquarters by HOK.
Since June 2006, over 60,000 new homes have been designed, built, and certified in the U.S. to meet a minimum 50 percent energy reduction for heating and cooling. Also, studies by the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) show that meeting the 30 percent new home energy reduction target will save households in every region of the U.S. between $403 and $612 per year, after the cost of efficiency measures is factored in. In fact, at current energy prices and mortgage interest rates, NREL estimates that the average cost-neutral point for home efficiency upgrades is a 45 percent energy reduction below code.
We are at a defining moment. As we move our built environment into the 21st century, we will heavily influence the direction of global events. China and India will not sit idly by as the United States transforms its building sector; they will act, too. As more and more U.S.-based multinational design firms take the 2030 Challenge, our work here will help set off powerful changes abroad.
We cannot let society’s current, almost hypnotic attraction to big, high-tech ventures overshadow the fact that simple, inexpensive, and hands-on solutions are already in our grasp. It is not an overstatement to say that our environmental and economic future may depend on passing this obscure section in the climate bill, Section 201. It’s time for our elected leaders to buckle down and make the right decision.
A version of this article appeared in AN 09.09.2009.