Yes, a buildings-energy transformation is possible now

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Accepting and implementing rapid change has become the norm across America.

The growing depth of change in the building sector suggests that traditional resistance to change is not irreversible. Indeed, historical building industry practices are more likely the result of an information deficit than of things inherent to the market. Even knowledgeable building professionals remain concerned that perfectly viable technologies are not readily available, up to the task, or sufficiently cost effective for large-scale market uptake. They are often seen as technologies linked to a vision of buildings at least a generation away. Important opportunities exist today, though the formula for change is admittedly not linear. Transformation will not result from doing better what is already being done. Rather, it requires new thinking — a new approach to buildings and energy, both distinct and integrated.

Building-energy transformation must be based on systems and sub-systems viewed holistically. And though the basic formula can be stated simply, it has far-reaching implications for buildings in relation to energy, from conception to retirement. The life trajectory of the building needs to be crafted into the building at birth. That means first and foremost a shift in thinking about the role of building design.

Building transformation requires shifting from component specification to integrated design, a shift with vast consequences. To be effective, integrated design requires a new orientation toward building delivery, maintenance, and improvement over the life of the building. It implies new categories of thinking, new operations, and new standards.

What building transformation delivers is high performance in energy productivity, life quality, and economic impact. Buildings cannot genuinely be sustainable without transformative performance on energy, life quality, and economy — and it’s possible that they can deliver on all three. Deep transformation will begin when the marketplace is persuaded it can be done.


Why the Building Transformation

Buildings today consume 70% of the electricity generated in the U.S. — 66% of which was generated from carbon-based fuels, 33% from coal, and 33% from natural gas in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. The United Nations estimates that current carbon emissions have placed the world on a path toward a 4-degree Celsius increase in global temperature, so the agreed-upon UN Sustainable Development Goals has set the upper targeted limit at a 2-degree Celsius increase. But over half the carbon budget consistent with meeting that goal has already been spent.

With global population expected to exceed 9.7 billion by 2050 and industrial development spreading at historic rates around the word, no emissions target within reach (assuming current building energy consumption and only expected improvements in energy efficiency) is even close to being sufficient

to meeting the 2-degree Celsius target, or anything that resembles it, ever.

In 2014, energy from renewable sources was 11% of total electrical power — with solar at 4% and wind at 18% of total renewables-based electrical power. Neither existing nor anticipated renewable energy technology will support replacement of fossil fuels as the primary source of electrical power. It’s possible to improve the mix of carbon-based fuels and grow renewables marginally as equipment costs decline and technology improves. But the 2-degree target can consequently be met only by lowering building energy requirements dramatically, not by meeting current or anticipated energy demand with renewables-based power.

The climate-carbon connection, however, is not the only reason to focus on buildings and energy.

1. Electricity is a cost, and in some places a substantial one. If the cost is unnecessary, it is waste, and waste is an economic drag.

2. There are important economic and security advantages to shifting the U.S. source fuel global profile.

3. Extreme weather events that are growing in frequency and intensity have created serious electricity resilience issues. Those can be addressed more effectively if buildings are less dependent on external power, macro grids, and centralized power generation.

4. Looking off-shore, China and India have experienced acute air pollution problems as modernization has required more coal-based electrical power.

5. Traditional buildings in both the developed and developing world are well known for significant indoor air quality and related health issues — problems that are even more challenging if outdoor air quality is likewise a health threat.

Building science thought leaders are largely in agreement that the basics of traditional applied building science — that is, building science that is reflected in traditional buildings and the bulk of the our building stock — have not seen much innovation or deep improvement over several generations. Performance improvements across a range of criteria, including energy consumption, has been steady but incremental. And performance too often falls off from targets not long after buildings become operational.

Policy has not yet proven to be an effective tool for achieving the levels of building performance required for climate security, energy economy, resilience, or optimum health and comfort. Today’s buildings do not reflect many important advances in building science, nor do they parallel the transformational improvements witnessed in other products such as cars and airplanes.

Public policy on energy efficiency should not be abandoned in order to test purely market-driven improvement in building performance. It is vital, however, that we define “high-performance buildings” effectively for policy makers and the marketplace, and that we articulate clearly and as definitively as possible the paths, practices, and technologies for required transformation.

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