I spent the majority of last week attending Building Energy, an annual conference put on by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA). NESEA is a driving force behind the advancement of sustainable energy and green building in the Northeast, and Building Energy attracts the best and brightest in the field. For three days building science geeks, energy policy wonks, design visionaries and sustainability thought leaders gather together to chart a course to better buildings and a better world. It’s an intense learning experience, especially for a relative neophyte like me.
Part of what makes it so intense is that the broader stakes are everywhere felt. Climate change. Unconventional fossil fuels. Extreme weather. Almost every session I attended and conversation I had was infused with a sense of urgency about the environmental challenges we are facing and the belief that time is running out, both in the building sector and more broadly, to find solutions.
Which isn’t to say that the mood was wholly or even primarily pessimistic. The conference highlighted breakthrough technologies, best practices and broader trends in design and construction that give cause for cautious optimism. For example, just six years ago, the Annual Energy Outlook projected that building sector energy use would climb 45% between 2005 and 2030. But earlier this year, Architecture 2030, a nonprofit group pushing for carbon neutrality in the building sector, announced that the rapid advance and widespread adoption of green building practices have dramatically changed that outlook. According to AEO 2011, the worst case scenario would be a 14% rise in energy use by 2030, while the best case scenario has energy use dropping by 9%. In other words, achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 is not just some crazy pipe dream cooked up by a bunch of fanatics.
On the other hand, there is also uncertainty about whether we, as a society, have the collective will to achieve this best case scenario and, more generally, to live within planetary means. What makes Building Energy intense–and why I like it so much–is that it doesn’t just showcase technical expertise. It also asks participants to confront seriously the barriers to creating a sustainable future.
There are of course as many different types of barriers–economic, political, social-cultural, technical–as there are proposals for surmounting them. In keeping with my interest in personal sustainability, I found myself repeatedly mulling the barrier of complacency and considering how we can better engage the unconverted.
The truth is that most people–almost everyone who lives in, works in, and visits the buildings we are striving to build and retrofit to high(er) performance standards–are unconverted. Of course, there are some conservation-minded folks who beat the modeled energy use of their buildings, and yes, they are inspiring. But most people–even some who invest in the highest performance design standards available–aren’t motivated to conserve.
Paul Panish and Mike Duclos, of DEAP Energy Group, provided a striking illustration of this problem in their comparative case study of two single-family homes built to extremely stringent energy standards whose actual energy use varied sevenfold. Yes you read that correctly: one house ended up using 7-times more energy than the other (You can learn more about this case study on Green Building Advisor).
How did this happen? Well, the same way it happens in “standard” homes. One family left their lights on all the time while the other family didn’t. One family plugged in lots of electronic gadgets while the other family didn’t. One family set their heat at 60 and the other ran an electric space heater in one of their bedrooms. And so on.
So why would a family build to stringent standard and then use energy so extravagantly? Panish suspects that a perverse logic may be at work: precisely because the family invested so heavily in the envelope and mechanicals, they felt entitled to leave their lights on all day and all night.
This may be stating the obvious… but cultural norms are working against us here. Which is all the more reason why the green building community needs to get serious about behavior. We need to make it clear early on to our clients that their habits and choices count. And we need to make it much, much easier for them to properly operate and maintain their buildings (let them have manuals!). And, like Panish and Duclos we need to track performance. And if/when we discover that behavior is throwing things off, we need to advise our clients (how) to make changes.
But we can’t stop at behavior. We have to give people a reason to care in the first place. We all know that the moral argument for conservation hasn’t proven all that compelling. The question is what will?
I’m in the camp of those who believe that mainstreaming green building will require bald appeals to self-interest. Also at Building Energy, Alex Wilson presented his latest work on a new conceptual framework for green building: resilience, or the ability of buildings to maintain livable conditions in the event and aftermath of a disaster. Wilson recommends that the green building community move away from talking about “green” or even “sustainability” and instead focus on resilience in large part because he believes it will be more compelling to people, especially after the spate of extreme weather we suffered in 2011.
My next post will explore Wilson’s work on building resilience and consider whether this can (finally) puncture our complacency.