12 Big Steps to Make Building Better


Buildings consume 76% of electricity generated; they create 48% of our greenhouse gases; a quarter of our waste in landfills comes from construction. Over the past year we have suggested a dozen big steps that could be taken to make our buildings better and reduce their carbon footprint. We round them up here; they are long posts so you will have to follow the links. We invite suggestions for other big steps.
1. Ban Demolition.

"Every brick in building required the burning of fossil fuel in its manufacture, and every piece of lumber was cut and transported using energy. As long as the building stands, that energy is there, serving a useful purpose. Trash a building and you trash its embodied energy too." Big Steps in Building: Ban Demolition

2. Ban Formaldehyde

As we know courtesy of FEMA's optimization experiments, Formaldehyde exposure is not a good thing. It gets worse; a new study links it to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig's disease. As we know courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency, energy efficiency is a good thing, which is why they promote Energy Star houses, which have effective insulation, high-performance windows and tight construction.

One would think that a standard coming from the EPA would care about health and air quality instead of energy (isn't that another department?) but no, they recommend tightly sealing houses to reduce air leakage, the biggest energy loser. A leaky old house might change the air once an hour; a tightly sealed house designed for Energy Star might be as little as 1/100 of an air change per hour.

What happens when you don't change the air enough? The concentration of toxic chemicals gets higher. Formaldehyde, as an example, found in particle board, MDF, (medium density fibreboard) fabrics, glues and paints, and most fiberglass insulation.
Big Steps In Building: Ban Formaldehyde

3. Deconstruct, Don't Demolish

We have stated that the real big step in building would be to ban demolition and renovate, but if the building has to come down, at least it should be deconstructed. The demolition numbers from the US EPA are shocking; Greenstrides summarizes the extent.

"Building demolitions account for 48% of the waste stream, or 65 million tons per year; renovations account for 44%, or 60 million tons per year; and 8%, or 11 million tons per year, is generated at construction sites." Big Steps in Building: Deconstruct, Don't Demolish

4. Put Solar Hot Water Heaters on Every Roof

How dumb is this? Use coal to boil water. Use steam to spin turbines and run generators to make electricity then transported long distances to connect to a coil at the bottom of a tank- to make hot water.

Solar hot water panels are dumb simple too, often just a box with a glass lid with black pipes in it; you can even build them yourself. Others, like evacuated tube collectors are more efficient if more expensive.

A solar water heater could save $ 450 a year and keep almost a ton of CO2 emissions out of the air; multiply that by 80 million houses in the USA. The technology has been around forever. Chinese manufacturers are cranking them out by the millions. So why doesn't every house have them? Big Steps in Building: Put Solar Hot Water Heaters on Every Roof

5. Get Rid Of Those Radiator Fins

Studio Gang are very talented architects, and have shown that they know how to design for energy efficiency. and their Aqua project certainly is interesting. However every one of those balconies on each of eighty floors of highrise condos is a giant radiator fin, constantly losing heat to the cold Chicago winters. It isn't too terrific for comfort, either as the floors are freezing near the window walls and condensation can form on the ceiling. Hairline cracks due to thermal stress are also likely to form. Big Steps in Building: Get Rid Of Those Radiator Fins

6. Make Natural Ventilation Mandatory

Hallandale, Florida's oceanfront is wall-to-wall condos; you can tell the ones built in the recent boom because they are generally huge stucco and glass monsters like the one on the left, interspersed with older, lower buildings that were just big enough to avoid being flattened. But more than size separates them.

The big building is a center-corridor design that is identical to what might be built in New York or Toronto. The corridor is air conditioned and cold. Outside it is in the mid 70's and the wind is blowing hard, maybe 20 knots off the water. We have all the windows and the patio door open. In the dining room it is stuffy and hot. In almost every other unit the patio doors are closed and the air conditioning is running. Big Steps In Building: Make Natural Ventilation Mandatory

7. Install Gray Water Recovery Everywhere

John notes in an earlier post that gray water re-use is, well, a gray area. However in fact it has been studied and documented, and is accepted in the IPC, or International Plumbing Code. Most municipalities use this or the Universal Plumbing Code, (UPC) as their standards, and neither is international or universal, but that is an aside. According to Ecospace:

The details: Basically what the IPC is now saying is that water coming from bathtubs, showers, lavatories (read sinks), and clothes washers are no longer required to discharge into the sewer main. This gray water is now considered collectable for the use of flushing toilets, (and subsurface landscape irrigation) if the proper procedure is followed. Big Steps in Building: Install Gray Water Recovery Everywhere

8. Ban Minimum Floor Areas

We spent the summer borrowing bandwidth from a timberframe builder in Dorset, Ontario. Early in the summer his design for a small 512 square foot tower was published in a popular cottaging magazine. Brad Johnson of Portico Timberframes is quoted: "If you stay smaller and simpler, you can come up with a good design at a much lower cost, use fewer resources and minimize your impact on the environment."

Except that you are not allowed to. In almost every jurisdiction around, there are minimum floor area requirements, usually designed to keep out the riff-raff and ensure that tax assessments keep going up. Brad's phone rang off the hook all summer, and to every caller he had to explain that it was too small. People would keep saying "But that's all I need!" Big Steps in Building: Ban Minimum Floor Areas

9. Change Our Wiring to 12 Volt DC

Edison was right; direct current is better than alternating current. Tesla and Westinghouse won the current wars, because it was easy to transform into different voltages without electronics, and they needed high voltages, which travel longer distances in smaller wires than low voltage.

Our current system is based on big, central power plants like Niagara Falls shown above, that pump out high voltage (as much as 400,000 volts), step it down to 22 thousand volts for distribution at street level, then down to 110/220 for distribution to our houses. At every step, there are transmission losses; as much as 10% of the electricity transmitted by the power plant is lost on the way. The losses are higher in AC than in DC because it grounds so easily; according to the Economist, DC distribution is far more efficient. Big Steps In Building: Change Our Wiring to 12 Volt DC

10. Change our Building Codes from Relative to Absolute

For at least 3700 years, since the code of Hammurabi, builders of houses have had building codes, a government minimum standard intended to protect the health and safety of its citizens. Possibly in all that time, the majority of builders have considered it the maximum as well- don't do any more or build any better than you have to. Through the energy crises of the 70's to today, energy efficiency standards kept going up, but the amount of energy used in a house went up faster because they just keep getting larger.The average post-war 1950's house was 983 square feet; by 1970 it was 1500 SF; last year it was 2350. Encouraging smaller homes, like smaller cars, would save a lot of energy, but codes applies the same standard across the board. Just as conservation is a resource, everything we use in housing has embodied energy, a carbon footprint and an operating cost; we have to treat them all as resources where we can mine savings of energy and greenhouse gases. Big Steps in Building: Change our Building Codes from Relative to Absolute

11. Survival, Not Suburbs

We are at the beginning of a major food crisis and can no longer afford to lose agricultural land close to our cities and towns. Let's use this time out in the construction industry to bring in rules that put food first and preserve agricultural land. They do this in Europe and Japan; they can do it in North America too. In those parts of the continent where the development industry is still paving over farmland, let's have an immediate moratorium on any construction on farmland: We are talking survival, not subdivisions. Big Steps In Building: Survival, Not Suburbs

12. Plant a Tree

A deciduous tree planted on the south side of a house is the ultimate passive solar system; it shades in summer and lets the sun through in winter. Let's use this time out in the housebuilding industry to develop codes and bylaws that make appropriate tree planting part of the requirements for the construction of any home. Big Steps in Building: Plant a Tree

Tags: Architecture | Big Steps In Building