There have been some extraordinary claims in the newpapers lately. James Lovelock, of Gaia hypothesis fame, has said we’re too late, the show’s over: Earth’s climate is already in a runaway feedback loop, “and before this century is over billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.” This is a planetary “fever” that could last 100,000 years.
Even the Pentagon has not missed out on the speculative action, arguing in an apparently J.G. Ballard-inspired internal report from 2004 that mass rioting and nuclear war will be the inevitable outcome of climate change. With barely concealed relish, the Pentagon predicts that disruption, conflict, and warfare “would define human life.”
As if that were not bad enough, we then learn that the oceans may soon become “marine deserts” due to the extinction of phytoplankton and other “microscopic plants” at the base of the aquatic food chain. Creeping death, if I may be allowed to quote Metallica, seems to be all around us. But all is not gloom and apocalypse.
The BBC, for instance, has been running a series called Fueling the Future, which, among other things, informs us that alternative fuel use is on the rise in the U.S. ? even in Texas. Honda has successfully tested an emissions-free car, using hydrogen generated from Japan’s excess rainfall. The winners of last year’s Solar Decathlon are trying their hand at the suburban development game. And Sweden, famously, has pledged to ween itself entirely from oil; the country’s goal is “to replace all fossil fuels with renewables.” (Iceland has also passed a similar initiative). There is even good news from the halls of American theology: Christianity Today reports that “environmentally concerned evangelicals, including megachurch pastors, Christian college presidents, and theologians, [have] announced their support…for a major effort to combat global warming.” They are part of the so-called Evangelical Environmental Network, whose climatological call-to-action can be read here. (As a side note, it is interesting to see how climate change initiatives are partially justified because they are “pro-life.”)
More directly relevant to the design and building communities, however, are the following two stories. New Mexican Architect Ed Mazria greeted the new year by announcing Architecture 2030. Architecture 2030 hopes to inspire an industry-wide shift toward sustainable building technologies as a means for reversing human-induced climate change. It may come as an unwelcome surprise, for instance, to learn that the architecture industry is a far larger source of indirect environmental pollution than are Hummers and SUVs. (See Mazria’s graph, at right).
In this interview, Mazria – an articulate, patient, and interesting spokesman for the cause – keeps the ideas coming: there could be a “50 percent reduction right away,” he says, in American domestic energy expenditure, simply “by making siting, fenestration, and orientation of buildings work with the local environment, so that buildings take advantage of passive heating and cooling and natural lighting. That’s just smart design.” Further, “approximately 15 percent of all energy in houses is used for domestic hot water. Yet we’ve had solar hot water heating in this country for 30 years now. It’s not a new technology. The payback on that sort of system is three to five years. So using solar hot water heating would reduce residential consumption in many areas of the country by about 15 percent overnight ? that’s a no-brainer.” Mazria also points out the somewhat eyebrow-raising statistic that, by 2035, “three quarters of the built environment in the U.S. will be either new or renovated.”
Finally, the Natural Resources Defense Council has debuted a new website to demonstrate “how ‘building green’ can give builders and developers a competitive edge, boost occupancy, cut operating and maintenance costs and enhance public image – all for little or no extra cost up front.”
Accordingly, the website “provides comprehensive information for building professionals on how to create high-performance, energy-efficient, healthy homes and workspaces, known as ‘green buildings.’ The site is a concise, practical resource designed to help building professionals get started in the green building field.” You can explore several case studies, read about the true cost of being green, and learn to apply a “whole-building approach” to any architectural design. So what would such a “green building” look like?
Foster and Partners, one of the most ecologically-aware design firms practicing in the world today, has built a new library in Berlin which “represents years of research into the use of active and passive technologies for more energy-efficient buildings.” Metropolis reviews the building favorably in their February 2006 issue.
(Note: An earlier, and slightly different, version of this post originally appeared on BLDGBLOG).