The AIA 2030 Commitment: A Demand-Side ProblemPosted: August 3, 2011
The day of the all-office “lunch and learn” at Bergmeyer on the AIA 2030 Commitment had arrived. Turn-out was good. Free pizza helped. Most of the firm was squeezed into our largest conference room. Even the accounting department sent a representative.
For the record, I discovered that it is possible to explain the Commitment to a room full of people in under an hour . . . if you speak quickly and leave a lot of time for questions! The advocate in me was both pleased and challenged by the many thoughtful and practical questions. Like these:
Does the 2030 Commitment record construction-related or procurement emissions? Not with this program, building operations only. Is carbon-neutral the same as net zero? Not exactly, in fact that question is the source of much confusion for architects. Onsite renewable energy produced must offset energy used, right, otherwise, how could a building ever get to zero? Good point! Have the energy use baselines we will be using already been discounted for 60%-better-than-code? Don’t know that one, let me get back to you.
So far so good, but I had a feeling there was a curveball question waiting somewhere in the wings.
One of the diagrams I used for the presentation was “Estimated US Energy Use – 2009” created by the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. This absolutely killer chart shows energy generated, used, and lost across all segments of the US economy. As a combined sector, buildings are shown as wasting 25% of the energy they draw. And 30% of that energy comes from distributed electricity, which itself wastes a staggering 69% of its output. We know this waste as transmission loss. And over half of the fuel used for electric power generation is, of course, coal.
So you can see, I said, even if you don’t believe that human activity causes climate change (pause for a quick glance around the conference room revealed the presence of no climate change deniers) this process is inarguably extremely inefficient.
Then the curveball question came: So why is this a problem for architecture? It looks like the biggest environmental impacts come from distribution loss and the use of coal as a fuel source. So then it’s a utility problem. If we make buildings 10% or 20% more efficient, we’re done, right?
Sorry, no. The chart doesn’t tell the whole story.
It’s a demand-side problem. Even useful energy creates greenhouse gas emission. Our goal is to radically reduce actual building energy use, not just make buildings more efficient. We need to shrink the amount of energy required by buildings to a level where building-integrated or small-scale distributed generation can meet the demand. Yes, the system must change. But buildings must change, too.
And architects are the people who can make this change happen.