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Buildings: Meeting the
Challenge of the Climate Crisis

Green BuildingBuildings in the US are responsible for almost half of all energy consumption—emitting almost twice as many greenhouse gases as all of the cars on the road. As we develop a plan to tackle the climate crisis at the speed and scale necessary, we must take a close look at how our buildings—both residential and commercial—consume energy.

In the summer 2008 issue of our Green American, we urge you to reduce your energy use by 50 percent, and show you how. But while you take steps in your home and office to reduce your energy use, new buildings are going up all over the world—buildings that will stand for 50-100 years, which is why it is imperative that they utilize smart, energy-efficient designs.

Many architects and builders are turning to the US Green Building Council’s “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” (LEED) standards and certifications as a model for how to build and renovate sustainable buildings with a significantly smaller climate footprint than their conventional counterparts. Projects earn LEED points by incorporating green design and construction throughout the whole building—including site location, building materials, water use, indoor air quality, and energy use. They then can receive the following certifications from the USGBC based on their total number of points: Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum.

LEED-certified buildings use at least 36 percent less energy than conventional buildings. Water savings, efficient use of materials, and transit-oriented development sites all contribute as well to a low-carbon footprint for LEED buildings.

Buildings can also qualify for the Energy Star from the EPA. Energy Star buildings or manufacturing plants must score in the top 25 percent of their category using EPA’s National Energy Performance Rating System. There was a 25 percent increase in 2007 of buildings qualifying for Energy Star ratings; total CO2 emissions saved through energy savings in these buildings now totals over 25 billion pounds.


Setting the Bar: The 2030 Challenge

Both LEED and Energy Star are pioneers when it comes to green buildings—they’ve created a green-building revolution across the US. In some areas of the country, such as Chicago and Seattle, a majority of new buildings are going green.

With the recent rounds of bad news on climate, we now know that buildings must take on even tougher standards. Green America’s 12-point climate plan calls for 50 percent energy savings in existing buildings, and new buildings need to be net zero on energy. With more new buildings expected in the next 30 years worldwide than have been built in all of history, we need to get started on these standards now.

That's why Edward Mazria, an architect specializing in sustainable building design, started Architecture 2030 in 2002. In order to bring attention to how building design can help avert catastrophic climate change Architecture 2030 issued the 2030 Challenge—a set of benchmarks for the design and renovation of buildings that will keep us from going over the climate change tipping point. The Challenge calls for an immediate 50% reduction in fossil-fuel consumption in new and renovated buildings, and sets incremental standards for all new buildings to be carbon neutral by 2030.

The Challenge also calls for the same efficiency standards for renovated buildings—and according to Architecture 2030, about three quarters of buildings will either be new or renovated by 2035, marking an enormous opportunity to improve efficiency before it’s too late.

And the 2030 Challenge is gaining momentum. It was adopted by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) in 2005; the AIA has since developed tools and education modules to support architects and allied professionals in pursuit of these goals. In May of 2006 the US Council of Mayors unanimously passed a resolution supporting the goals of the 2030 challenge, and many mayors have required that city buildings meet the standards set out by the challenge. The challenge has also been adopted by the National Association of Counties and individual cities, counties, and states, and the 2007 Energy Bill passed by congress required that all new federal buildings meet the standards as well.

“The Mayors are using the 2030 challenge as an opportunity to work with architects, engineers, planners, and the business community, as well as individuals, to green their communities,” says Kira Gould, member of the AIA and  communications director at sustainable design firm William McDonough + Partners. "The AIA has been working to provide the Mayors with tools and information and there has been a great sharing of information from community to community.”

The 2030 Challenge has elicited excitement from architects, universities, and politicians alike—but the most exciting part of the challenge is that it is entirely possible. Examples all around the world have demonstrated that buildings designed with energy efficiency in mind can use 50-80 percent less energy than their conventional counterparts.

Design elements like building shape and orientation, natural heating and cooling, the use of daylight and shading strategies, and off-the-shelf energy efficiency products can dramatically reduce the amount of energy a building uses. The Mt. Air Public Library in Mt. Air, NC, uses about one sixth as much energy per square foot as a nearby municipal building and 86 percent less energy per year for lighting than a typical commercial building. The building utilizes passive solar heating and cooling operable windows for ventilation, has a light-colored "cool" roof, and uses tree shading around the building to reduce heat gain.


Living Buildings of the Future

While the 2030 Challenge addresses the urgent need to rethink how buildings use energy, the Living Building Challenge, started by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council and sponsored by the US Green Building Council, is asking designers to create the living building of the future. The Living Building Challenge launched in 2007 seeks to help drive ideas and innovation for the future by challenging designers and builders to create a Living Building, one that generates all of its own energy with renewable resources, captures and treats all of its water on site, and uses resources efficiently and for maximum beauty in accordance with its region.

The Living Building Challenge has yet to find a project which meets all of its criteria, but has awarded existing buildings and those still in design for exceeding in one of the Living Building categories; the Oregon Health and Science University’s Center for Health and Healing in Portland, designed by GBD Architects, received a “Stepping Stone” award for water re-use—73 percent of the Center’s water is captured or reclaimed from its rain and groundwater reclamation system.

“We anticipate the Living Building Challenge will generate truly transformative approaches to building design and construction,” says the Cascadia Region Building Council on their Web site. “These approaches will serve as models, and prime the pump for rapid transition. The green building movement can’t afford to rest on its laurels. Incremental change is insufficient. The Challenge serves as a reminder of the lengths still needed to be truly sustainable.”

Take Action:

Urge your local and state governments to adopt the 2030 challenge as a guide for government buildings and building codes. Architecture 2030 has information about cities and counties that have adopted the challenge, and also has language for creating similar resolutions at

—Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist

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