January 23, 2022

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Act now to start repairing climate change through greener buildings: Marcia Silver

CLEVELAND — Buildings account for nearly 40% of energy-related global greenhouse gas emissions, from heating, cooling, lighting, and the carbon costs of building materials, according to a 2018 assessment. Because we are experiencing massive growth in urban population and building, global building stock is expected to double by 2060. That’s like adding a whole New York City “every month, for 40 years,” calculates the nonprofit Architecture 2030.

In the Climate Change and Health course I audited at Case Western Reserve University, we learned that current technology and innovations provide a road map for the urgently needed correction of our poisoning of the atmosphere with damaging greenhouse gases. It can be done over the next decade or so at a cost of about 2% of GDP annually in the United States. This is manageable – if we can just muster the community will to preserve a livable world for our children and grandchildren. Mostly good news.

Part of the road map has to do with replacing greenhouse gas sources with much better alternatives as those old technologies come to the end of their useful lives – for example, most cars and light trucks last only about a decade and can be replaced soon enough with electric vehicles that use safer energy sources.

But buildings have a much longer life cycle, and hence create more difficult challenges.

What we need to do now, not later: As new buildings and renovations are proposed and go through approval and funding processes in our communities, we need to embed and require planning for the substantially reduced carbon emissions systems we need now.

No new buildings should be built that are not either near net zero now, or built for easy conversion before 2030. Renovations should similarly be done with such planning, if not immediate implementation. And renovations are good, because they preserve embodied energy and limit new-construction emissions costs.

If anyone doubted the credible science that for years has predicted our destruction of our habitable world, the current wildfires, droughts, torrential rains and flooding, and lethal heat emergencies should be a wake-up call that we must act now.

My experience with building projects at home and work suggests that a major obstacle to implementation of zero, or near-net-zero, carbon-emissions buildings is that the majority of architects, builders, contractors, and tradespeople are neither knowledgeable about nor comfortable with the new technologies. But, if they cannot get approval for zoning from local boards of architectural review, or for loans, without meeting these emissions requirements, there will be rapid improvement in the knowledge, skills, and comfort levels of all these essential groups.

Ian Bogost’s February article in The Atlantic magazine on moving toward electric heating and cooling shows a way forward.

So how might this work? We could urge this requirement at all levels of community governments — in each town or city or county with their zoning boards, boards of architectural review, and housing inspection professionals. In the Cleveland area, the Cleveland Restoration Society (CRS) has a major program for Home Heritage Loans that provides low-cost loans and expert assistance for renovations of older buildings. CRS should definitely be part of such a project.

We would not want to make new building and renovations too expensive to accomplish – we need to improve housing options and to restore our cities and older buildings. So this will require some creativity and maybe some government subsidies. However, better to do it right from the start (now that we know we must do it!) than to have to tear down and start over. The latter would be much more expensive.

Expert resources and ideas can be found at Architecture 2030 and at the Cleveland 2030 District.

We must promptly engage architects, builders, funders, community leaders, and all of us in repairing our world.

Dr. Marcia Silver is an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. The opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not of CWRU.

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