I work in what is now called the “Seaport District” in South Boston. There’s a construction site outside my office window. It’s pretty cold in Boston in February, so I gotta hand it to the men and women who show up to work every day in the cold and snow.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are about 162 million people in the US workforce. Another BLS study estimates that outdoor occupations (like construction) account for maybe 28 million of those jobs. So let’s say 80% of the jobs in the USA are indoors.
And look, I’m not an economist by a long shot, but if the US Gross Domestic Product (GDP: a monetary value for the output of goods and services by an economy) is almost $20 trillion, I would guess that those of us who work indoors account for 80% of that GDP, or $16 trillion. Hold that thought.
Another thing I see out my office window: a lot of infrastructure.
“Infrastructure” is defined as “the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or other area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function.” That includes roads, bridges, train tracks, airports, water and sewer pipes, and power generation and distribution systems.
But what do all those systems connect to? Buildings . . . where that $16 trillion worth of indoor-generated GDP is happening.
I know I’m just spit-balling the dollars, but this much is inarguable: Buildings mediate between an often unaccommodating outdoor environment and productive forms of human engagement like research and development, health care, education, banking and finance, shopping and eating, sleeping and getting dressed in the morning.
So I was very happy to see the American Institute of Architects take up this banner with a policy statement titled “Where we stand: Buildings are infrastructure”. Since building support 80% of our GDP, buildings rightfully should be considered part of our national infrastructure. And if we’re going to talk about investing in infrastructure, we should also talk about investing in building – especially improving the energy efficiency of the buildings that 80% of us work in.
We know that investing in energy efficiency boosts private market growth. We’ve done this before. Under the Energy Efficient Commercial Building Tax Deduction (Section 179D), $1 of federal tax deduction has leveraged $3.12 of private investment in high-performing HVAC, lighting, and building envelope improvements and reduced energy use by 8% since 2005.
And we know that federal government policy can certainly drive greater building energy efficiency, leading to a more competitive and productive economy. The Alliance to Save Energy points out that the minimum efficiency standards for appliances set by the US Department of Energy has already saved American households nearly $500 per year on utility bills, and since 1992, the EPA’s ENERGY STAR has helped US families and businesses save $430 billion and reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2.7 billion metric tons.
Public investment in buildings will produce a public benefit. Cost-effective and revenue-neutral ways of making our (indoor) workforce more productive should be part of a national infrastructure investment plan. Let’s get Congress to work on this.
Remember when the drinking age was different in US states? I do. I went to high school in upstate New York in the 70’s where the drinking age was 18. I went away to college in Pennsylvania where the drinking age was 21. I smuggled many a case of beer from my home to my dorm room in the back of a beat-up Ford station wagon.
Folks in Washington DC got wind of such illegal interstate commerce and decided we needed a uniform national drinking age. But this being a “states’ rights” matter, the feds couldn’t order the states to change their laws. So in 1984, they passed the National Minimum Drinking Age act. This bill withheld 10% of scheduled federal highway improvement dollars from every state that allowed people younger than 21 to buy booze. By 1995, the national drinking age was 21.
Now let’s think about the AIA 2030 Commitment and our pledge to get to carbon-neutral architecture by the year 2030. We know what is broadly meant (in this case) by “carbon neutral”: building that are a). radically energy efficient and b). use renewable energy exclusively so that c). the buildings’ annual carbon emissions from operations net out to zero.
I was recently in Copenhagen. The nations of the European Union, having taken the Paris Accords seriously, are thinking beyond carbon-neutral buildings. They’re working to make their entire economies carbon-neutral by 2050. This will obviously require a lot of renewable energy. Today, 53.8% of Sweden’s energy comes from renewable sources. Finland is at 38.7%. Latvia: 37.2%, Austria: 33.5%, Denmark: 32.2%. These countries are on their way.
In the United States, we’re only at 12.2% of primary energy consumption from renewables. For us to get to a carbon-neutral economy, we’d need a whole lot more renewable energy generation than we have now.
Why, may you ask, is renewable energy in the USA lagging way behind those EU nations? The answers are truly myriad . . . but a big reason is that old Constitutional states’ rights thing. Like the drinking age in the mid-70’s, every US state sets its own renewable energy generation laws: its own renewable portfolio standards, its own net metering policies, and its own interconnection standards.
Renewable portfolio standards (RPS) are the regulations that requires utilities in a state to produce a certain amount of power from renewable sources. Twelve US states have no RPS requirements. Eight states have only voluntary RPS targets. Net metering policies allow distributed power generators to sell excess electricity back to the utilities. Twelve US states do not allow net metering. And net metering capacity limits vary widely by state: Wisconsin allows net metering for systems up to 20 kilowatts, New Mexico’ cap is 80 megawatts, Arizona’s system cap is defined in another way: it’s 125% of a customer’s total connected load.
Interconnection standards regulate how any kind of distributed power generators (like photovoltaic arrays or wind turbines) can physically connect to the grid. Seven US states have no interconnection standards. Some states (like Illinois) have adopted IEEE 1547, the model national interconnection standard established by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Most states have written their own interconnection standards, but, like Iowa, they typically only apply to investor-owned utilities. Municipal electric utilities are free to make up their own rules. Kansas’ standards only apply to systems with capacities up to 200 kW. Florida classifies “waste heat” as a renewable fuel source.
The ACEEE (American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy) says “lack of a consistent standard that explicitly establishes parameters and procedures for connecting to the grid drives up both monetary and transaction costs for technology manufacturers and owners, discouraging [renewable energy] deployment”.
This is no way to run a country. Those damned regulations are killing our industry! (Where have you heard THAT screed before?)
The fix? Like the national minimum drinking age, we know it can be done. We need our Congress and President to realize that carbon neutrality is too big an issue for the states to solve on their own. If we’re ever going to get to a carbon-neutral economy in the USA, it will take federal leadership. We just need to make it a national priority.
As a long-time supporter of the AIA 2030 Commitment, I was looking forward to seeing how the infrastructure discussion would take shape this year in Washington, DC. Why? Because I believe architecture IS infrastructure, and driving greater energy efficiency in our existing buildings should be a national priority. Plus, we’ve been kicking the infrastructure investment can down the road for decades now. So maybe with a real estate guy in the White House, Congressional priorities could be changed.
On February 12, 2018, the Administration published its infrastructure plan, a “Legislative Outline for Rebuilding Infrastructure in America”. I read the whole thing. I wasn’t too surprised to find that existing buildings were not mentioned in the document. What was surprisingly absent: a comprehensive vision for the sustainable, resilient 21st century infrastructure that America sorely needs.
As we design professionals know, you can’t raise public support or private capital for anything without describing that thing first – and describing it in specific and compelling terms. This infrastructure “plan” failed to make a convincing case for infrastructure investment.
I didn’t expect the White House to conduct a coast-to-coast needs assessment of where infrastructure investment was most warranted. They didn’t need to. That research has already been done. The American Society of Civil Engineer’s (ASCE) 2016 “Failure to Act” report documents the many ways in which the US infrastructure “investment gap” increasingly burdens American businesses and families.
To kick-start the infrastructure discussion, I believe the Administration needed only to do two things: first, describe the desired end goal, and then, prioritize.
For example: they could have started by prioritizing the national security need for a 21st-century power generation and distribution infrastructure that would maintain vital functions within our buildings in the face of increasing threats from a rapidly shifting climate and global political strife. A second priority case could have been made for infrastructure improvements that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This could have included the need to use public funding mechanisms to increase energy efficiency in existing buildings.
The Administration could also have asked Members of Congress to work together on a nationwide public transportation network to facilitate the equitable and carbon-efficient movement of Americans between their homes and their workplaces. They could’ve described a future America with ports, harbors, and riverbanks that were redesigned to better-manage the stresses of severe weather and protect the lives, businesses, and interests of the citizens that live or work near them.
Supporting equal-opportunity wealth formation should have been presented as another high national priority, directing infrastructure investment to communities without sufficient access to private capital. Ultimately, resilient design in its broadest sense should have been an overarching infrastructure priority, therefore leveraging the expertise of the nation’s many talented designers.
But, most importantly, the Administration needed to make the public benefit case. Again, the ASCE report is explicit about the projected $3.9 trillion loss in GDP that decaying infrastructure will cost the US by 2025, the $7 trillion in lost business sales, and the $3,400 in direct cost to each US family per year. And these figures are apart from the huge untapped savings that improved building energy efficiency could bring to every sector of the economy. No public benefit case, no public investment.
Imperatives such as these could have shifted the infrastructure question from “why” to “how” and formed the basis for meaningful public policy. Unfortunately, an enormous political opportunity has been missed.