Why Efforts to Make Buildings Greener Fail

Public Domain. Library of Congress/ if you care about green building, do not read this book

The Economist looks at the problem and says that “zero energy” buildings do not go far enough.

We might never know who wrote the article in the Economist, Efforts to make buildings greener are not working, because they do not name their writers. It's a shame, because it is remarkably sensible and reasonable. It is also a shame that it is behind a paywall because a lot of people should read it.

The writer points out that most of our efforts to reduce energy consumption have failed; that programs haven't delivered what they promised. For instance: "Claims in Britain that installing loft insulation can cut energy bills by 20% were contradicted by a government study that found that it reduced gas consumption by just 1.7% on average."

The author comes out in favour of regulations rather than carbon taxes. "One problem is that the poor feel the hit from green taxes especially hard," as do the people who drive big pickup trucks and SUVs and live in big poorly built suburban houses and don't like paying more for energy. Hence yellow vests everywhere.

Elrond Burrell

Elrond Burrell/ photo by Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The Economist author, like this TreeHugger, isn't fond of net zero schemes either, and notes that they are not all that effective. The writer speaks to TreeHugger regular Elrond Burrell, who says the impact on emissions will only be slight.

...as Mr Burrell notes, many “zero carbon” buildings are neither as efficient as they are supposed to be, nor do they generate as much renewable energy as expected. Britain’s Building Research Establishment, a research laboratory, was designed to be an exemplar of a zero-carbon building. It ended up consuming 90% more energy than planned. Wind turbines and solar panels on buildings produce far less power than larger ones in wind and solar farms. Installing wood-burning boilers in new buildings is especially daft because they discharge dangerous particles and gases into crowded parts of cities.

The Economist author also gets embodied carbon and energy, a tough subject to explain.

If zero-carbon standards were changed to include the emissions from building and demolishing structures, many of the perverse incentives in the building regulations would disappear. It would probably lead to more building with wood.

three little pigs cover

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C./Public Domain

As often is the case in the Economist, they start with a sort of editorial intro about interesting stories and here they say more buildings should be made of wood. "It is better for the planet, and safer than you think" Alas, like the New York Times recently, they start with clichés.

The second little pig was unlucky. He built his house from sticks. It was blown away by a huffing, puffing wolf, which promptly gobbled him up. His brother, by contrast, built a wolf-proof house from bricks. The fairy tale could have been written by a flack for the construction industry, which strongly favours brick, concrete and steel. However, in the real world it would help reduce pollution and slow global warming if more builders copied the wood-loving second pig.

But they do get the benefits of wood as a way of beating the embodied energy problem, noting that "the energy required to produce a laminated wooden beam is one-sixth of that required for a steel one of comparable strength. As trees take carbon out of the atmosphere when growing, wooden buildings contribute to negative emissions by storing the stuff." They note that "no other building material has environmental credentials as exciting and overlooked as wood."

I spend far too much time arguing on Twitter but it does force you to put your thoughts into a few words. Wood has the lowest embodied energy of any structural material. Embodied energy matters and doesn't get the attention it deserves.

I do hope that the Economist makes these articles available outside their paywall, as they are smart and important. But I do hope that they lose the three little pigs, since both straw and wood are pretty sophisticated these days.