7 Ways Fixing Building Construction Will Slash Greenhouse Gas Emissions

net zero energy houses uk photo

Sheppard Robson Architects

It really isn't that hard; every architect and builder knows exactly what they have to do to cut greenhouse gases significantly. People just don't want to pay the price, either in cash or in lifestyle changes. Here are just a few of the things we might do:

1. Be Like Britain: Net Zero Energy for Housing By 2016

Getting to net zero (putting as much energy back into the grid as one takes from it) is a balancing act of design to minimize waste, offset by enough photovoltaics and other types of generation to offset the little bit of power or gas that is needed. You want to build a bigger house? Put on more panels and stuff in more insulation. Some examples:

The Net-Zero Energy Now House is Really Boring.
Green Net-Zero Energy Housing by Mithun Shows How It's Done
Bright Built Barn is Net-Zero Energy
Chicago Net-Zero House is "Clean-Lined and Elegant"

2. Build Transportation Intensity Into the Codes

transportation intensity graph

Alex Wilson, Green Building Advisor

Buildings don't happen in a vacuum, people have to get there. The vast expansion of suburban office parks in the USA mean that the energy consumed getting to work exceeds the energy used by the building by over 30%. The more efficient the building, the worse this number gets. Unless we take transportation efficiency into account, every new LEED gold building in the suburbs just makes greenhouse gas emissions worse, unless it is replacing, square foot for square foot, a less efficient building. And that never happens.

house in woods photo

image source k.obscura

For houses it is worse. Increasing the efficiency of a house by 20% doesn't do much in the larger scheme of things if you build 5,000 square feet an hour's commute from work, and if getting a quart of milk requires a 20 minute drive. It is all a bigger picture- the design of the community, the frontage of the lots, the ability to walk to school or to a decent transit system, these are the things that really influence energy use.

Jargon Watch: "Transportation Energy Intensity" of Buildings
The Transportation Energy Intensity of Buildings
5 Building Code Changes That Absolutely Cannot Wait Until 2030

3. Plan for People, Not Cars

vauban bicycle

Martin Specht for The New York Times

Cars are wonderful things, giving us mobility and freedom to go where we want when we want. But that doesn't mean we have to use them all the time; in New York or London, people often own cars but just use them on the weekend. In Vauban, Germany, you can buy a parking spot and about a third of the people there have cars. But you don't need one. If you design a suburb with decent shopping and schools within walking distance, good transit and maybe throw in a car sharing program, then people may well choose not to pay the cost of owning a car. If they do, they may be like the New Yorkers or Londoners who use them sparingly.

Life Goes On Without Cars in Vauban

4. Bring Back Natural Ventilation

New York Tenement photo

A hundred years ago, even the crappiest tenement in New York had an air shaft; you were not allowed to build kitchens or bathrooms without windows. There wasn't much of a view, but the stack effect sucked air through the unit and up the middle. Then mechanical fans were approved, and builders no longer had to pay the price for these. Now if you want ventilation, you need electricity.

Big Steps In Building: Make Natural Ventilation Mandatory

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