How do we get people to care about climate and energy?

planning your home
© American Standard

We can't. We have to paint a bigger picture. And we can learn from what the Well people are doing.

The Passivhaus Institut promotes "a building standard that is truly energy efficient, comfortable and affordable at the same time." It has been around since 1996. Regular readers will know that I am a big fan of it, but have often complained that energy efficiency isn't enough. There are now over 3,000 Passivhaus certified designers and consultants, and there are 4547 buildings in the Passivhaus Institute Database.

The Well Building Standard covers a bigger field of interest. It is "focused exclusively on the ways that buildings, and everything in them, can improve our comfort, drive better choices, and generally enhance, not compromise, our health and wellness."

Well munbers© Well Standard

The Well Building Standard started in 2014 and now has 6416 certified professionals and registrants. There are 220 million square feet in 1094 projects. It started with commercial space and is moving into residential real estate around the world. It does not even mention energy efficiency in the entire standard; it's all about health and wellness. Why is it growing like mad, when other building standards, like the Passivhaus, grow so much more slowly? Why, in a time when we have 12 years to cut our carbon footprints in half, do people care so much more about circadian lighting and healthy food?

reasons to conserve© Shelton Group

We have noted many times before that it is hard to get people to deal with the serious issues of climate. I recently wrote that people don't want to talk about it, don't want to read about it, aren't going to vote to do anything about it. Paraphrasing Upton Sinclair, their lifestyle depends on them not understanding climate change. As the Shelton Group found in their survey, the biggest motivator for energy conservation was to save money, and the last was to preserve the quality of life for future generations. Given that energy prices are low, there is not a whole lot of incentive for people to spend serious money to burn less.

Dan Gartner, writing in the Globe and Mail, points out that "climate change doesn’t dominate elections. It doesn’t dominate headlines, airtime, and social media. It doesn’t dominate consumer choices." It is because of the way our minds work:

Scientists have informed me that when I drive my gasoline-powered car, the car emits carbon dioxide into the air, which makes the atmosphere an ever-so-slightly more efficient heat-trapping blanket. If I multiply my car’s emissions by one billion cars and thousands more greenhouse-gas sources and seven billion people and 150 years of industrialization, the total is big trouble. I know this. We all do.

But the last time I got in my car, drove and got out, there was no perceptible change. I suffered no harm. No one did. The same is true of the time before that. And the time before that.

He calls it the problem of “psychological distance.

goop and paltrowVox on Goop/Screen capture

But there is nothing distant about our own health and wellness, and the people who are seriously selling health and wellness do very well indeed. Goop is worth a quarter of a billion dollars, all while being what Julia Belluz calls "a reliably laughable source of pseudoscience".

Well real EstateWellness Real Estate/Screen capture

In its early days, the Well Standard had a few touches of pseudoscience, including vitamin-infused water and aromatherapy shower heads. They are gone now, but there are still many aspects of Well that are out there on the edge and are described as a bit flaky. They may be backed by real science but they are not exactly life and death issues. Or as Deepak Chopra says about Wellness Real Estate (separate from the Well Standard but based on the same principles):

So why do we separate the human organism from where we live? Pure air, pure water, acoustics, and Circadian lighting are the first steps. For years green building has focused on environmental impact. Not on the human biological impact. That is what we are doing here.

But those of us who actually care about environmental impact can learn from all this. In a presentation to Passivhaus Portugal recently, I looked at what features of the Well standard are already covered by Passivhaus and what features could be co-opted.

Air

Passivhaus has this one nailed, with its requirement for Heat Recovery Ventilation and filtering. Air quality is becoming a serious health crisis in cities and people are finally getting seriously concerned; in London, people are apparently moving out of town. Passivhaus could own this. Chie Kawahara described living through the recent California fires in her Passivhaus Midori Haus:

The tightly sealed enclosure, about 10 times tighter than conventionally built houses, keeps random air from coming in from random places. The heat recovery ventilator provides us with continuous filtered fresh air. Only during these extended bad air quality days do we need to pay special attention to our ventilation system to keep our indoor air clean.

Comfort

Elrond BurrellElrond Burrell/ photo by Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Comfort is complicated, but is a prime feature of Passivhaus, with its thick blanket of insulation and high-quality windows; when walls are as warm as the air then you do not feel cold. Elrond Burrell has been pitching this for years, writing in Passivhaus; Comfort, Comfort, Comfort, Energy Efficiency that the standard for airtightness (0.6 air changes per hour) makes the house completely draft-free. Since the windows are so good, designed to have interior surfaces that are within 5°F of interior temperature, there are no drafts off the glass like there are in most conventional houses. More: The three most important things about passive houses are comfort, comfort and comfort.

Noise

dining and living© Jane Sanders/ Living and dining

Again, those walls and windows significantly reduce exterior noise; Passivhaus designs are extremely quiet. As I noted after touring Jane Sanders' Passivhaus townhouse in Brooklyn,

For someone living in New York City, perhaps the biggest benefit of building to Passive House standards is that it is incredibly quiet inside. Bergen is a busy street, with buses and trucks going by at all hours. However the high-quality triple glazed windows plus the thick blanket of insulation really cut the noise; you could see buses go by and really could not hear a thing.

Light

Old Holloway interior© Juraj Mikurcik

Windows are a source of both heat loss and heat gain that have to be taken into account, so they are very carefully designed and placed in Passivhaus buildings. The important thing about Passivhaus quality windows is that you or your dog can sit right beside them and not feel cold. Juraj Mikurcik describes "the luxury of being able to sit next to the large glazed window without feeling uncomfortable."

But wait, there's more!

These are four very important issues that Passivhaus designers can pitch to clients, as well as energy savings. But Well looks at other categories that Passivhaus designers have to think about too. Water is obviously important. Fitness, Nutrition and even Mind, which covers things like beauty and biophilia.

The real lesson from Well is that people care more, as Chopra notes, about their own biological human impact than they do about environmental impact. Otherwise Well wouldn't be growing like mad and Gwyneth Paltrow wouldn't be a multimillionaire.

The Passivhaus Institute may base all their decisions on rigorous science, but people want more than just energy efficiency, and they don't actually understand comfort, and Passivhaus designers don't do a great job of explaining it. So while Passivhaus addresses serious issues, they are psychologically distant. Health and wellness, on the other hand, are very close.

Le CorbusierLe Corbusier in Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

Le Corbusier famously said that good architects borrow, and great architects steal. (He stole the phrase from Picasso). I believe that we have to do some serious stealing learning from the Well people, who recognize that people care a lot more about what is going on inside their homes and their bodies than they do about what is going outside. I used to say it was because we are selfish and self-centred, but Dan Gartner says otherwise;

So why is our concern about climate change so small relative to the threat? The problem is not that we are ignorant or selfish. The problem is how we think.

Gartner says that "learning to accept that may help save us." Perhaps it is time for those who care about climate and energy to recognize this, learn from it, and deliver more. To paint a bigger picture. There is a lot to learn from what the Well people are doing, they know their audience. I have been trying to get a handle on this since I started on TreeHugger and focused on promoting green building, but I am not sure we know ours.

How do we get people to care about climate and energy?
We can't. We have to paint a bigger picture. And we can learn from what the Well people are doing.

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