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Sustainable Architecture is the Future

Sustainable Architecture is the Future 

Healthy buildings can create a path to comfortable, carbon-neutral living.

Here’s a hard truth: conventional buildings use too much energy. Here’s another: our power grid is a deteriorating infrastructure that has outlived its usefulness. As the planet warms and the population grows, we need to change the way we build; a shift to sustainable architecture is a crucial way to help ensure that we’ll have enough energy for everyone and be able to secure a carbon-neutral future. 

If we continue building houses and other structures the same way we’ve been building them for generations — buildings that demand loads of energy to keep occupants comfortable — the outcome is simple: we won’t have enough power. 

That future is closer than you might think. We’re based in the Pacific Northwest, where experts are predicting rolling brownouts (reductions in energy availability) within the next five years. Similar scenarios are playing out all over the world.

The Role of Carbon 

An excess of carbon in the air is inducing climate change — energy and climate experts say that we need to reduce our energy needs by 70% to avoid an energy crisis. If we continue to extract and consume energy and materials from the Earth at this rate, we’ll continue contributing to a warming planet. 

We need to find ways to decrease, or at least plateau, our energy use.

We Can Build More Sustainable, Comfortable Structures

The answer isn’t to suck it up and deal with less comfortable indoor surroundings by turning the heat down in the winter and the cooling system up in the summer. It isn’t to take cold showers. 

Every choice to consume less energy helps, of course. But conventional buildings are so unsustainable that no matter how much comfort you relinquish, it’s impossible to save enough energy to make a difference on a larger scale. Traditional architectural practices are only going to keep killing the planet. 

The answer, instead, is (believe it or not) to be more comfortable using less energy. Healthy, sustainable buildings are ultra temperature-controlled, filled with natural light and fresh air, and use less power (and generate lower utility bills). It’s possible.

What Do We Mean By Using Less “Energy”? 

Architects think about two kinds of energy when we’re designing a structure: operational energy and embodied energy

Operational energy refers to the kind of energy it takes to run a building: to light the space, to heat and cool it, to bathe, to wash the dishes, and so forth. 

Embodied energy refers to the amount of energy it takes to build the structure itself, to get the materials out of the Earth and into your building. Materials like steel and concrete have a big energy impact; materials like wood, a much smaller one.

Conventional wisdom says that reclaimed materials are greener than new ones, which implies that using less embodied energy is all you need to build sustainably. It’s a good idea to reduce our consumption, of course. Using reclaimed woods and fewer energy-hogging materials does lighten the energy load.

But the future of sustainable design is to address embodied energy only in the context of a high performance building. That is, you will make the biggest impact by addressing operational energy first and then immediately addressing embodied energy. 

A High-Performance Building Uses Less Carbon (No Matter What It’s Made Of)

If a building doesn’t use energy efficiently, it will be a drain on the grid, no matter how sustainable the materials are that were used to build it.

In a high-performance home built with conventional materials, the carbon costs of those materials will be paid off in one to five years purely through operations. If you use low-embodied-energy materials — like sustainably harvested wood — that payoff will happen even sooner. 

Sustainable systems, however, are the key. Low-load operations ensure that the structure will continue saving energy throughout its entire existence.

What are the systems of sustainable architectural design? 

According to Electrify, the most important elements to reduce the carbon load of your personal infrastructure are heat pump-based heating and cooling systems, electric vehicles, energy-efficient home and appliances, and solar panels on your roof. It’s imperative that we halt investments in fossil fuel-based infrastructure and one way we can do that is to make decisions to go electric and solar when it’s time for these major purchases.

For new structures, sustainable architectural design is:

Electric: induction cooking ranges, electric water heaters, and electric dryers.

Generative: creating as much energy on-site as possible through solar to reduce the burden on the grid. 

High-performance: buildings that are lean and draft-proof so those electric, generative systems can keep humming along at a fraction of the energy load.

If you put it all of this together — and multiply it by the number of new buildings we’ll need to accommodate future generations — you have a solution that will give us a fighting chance to meet our future energy needs. 

Image from Passive House Accelerator