A new feature article in Environmental Building News examines how a focus on resilient design could advance green building more quickly than our current focus on sustainability.
Sometimes advancing sustainability feels like pushing a boulder uphill. Are we like a modern-day (benevolent) Sisyphus who keeps pushing the idea of sustainability uphill only to have it roll back down as other priorities grab society's attention?
I thought about this question during a six-week bike trip through the Southwest at the beginning of my sabbatical from BuildingGreen. To be sure, there has been a lot of improvement in building practices over the past few decades. Standard levels of insulation have risen in homes, and windows have gotten better. We're using daylight more effectively. Efficiencies of virtually all mechanical systems have improved. Photovoltaic modules have become more cost-effective.
There are innumerable improvements being made to buildings, but climate scientists tell us that we're only chipping away at the edges. If we are to prevent a climate catastrophe in the century ahead, we need to make far more dramatic progress. Rather than incremental improvement, we need threshold improvement--an order-of-magnitude reduction in fossil fuel consumption. How will we get there? I thought about that a lot in the hot, dry sunlight of Arizona and Texas as I snaked my way across 1,900 miles of gorgeous terrain.
Resilience as a motivation for change
I came to the realization that we need motivation beyond simply "doing the right thing" or staving off climate change--a distant and overwhelming-sounding task. What if people did all this stuff (building carbon-neutral homes and weaning themselves from automobile dependence, for example) not because it was good for the planet, but because of self-interest?
For you and me, that probably isn't necessary. Anyone reading Environmental Building News or perusing BuildingGreen resources regularly is probably already convinced that we need to make these sorts of changes for reasons of altruism. But for lots of other people, that isn't the case. And even people committed to the need for addressing climate change are sometimes overwhelmed by the shear magnitude of the challenge and what can seem like insignificant contributions that they are making.
These are some of the arguments I make in our latest EBN feature article, "Resilient Design: Smarter Building for a Turbulent Future" (requires log-in). The article addresses five general observations about resilience and why we need it, then presents 59 specific strategies in a detailed Checklist of Actions.
By implementing these actions, we can create homes and other buildings that will maintain livable conditions in the event of extended power outages, loss of heating fuel, or shortages of water. We can transition to communities that have strong, locally based economies and rely on locally produced food. We can reduce our dependence on cars so that if political turmoil in the Mideast doubles or triples the price of gasoline, we won't be as affected.
These are practical, common-sense solutions that can drive the green building movement, I believe, more rapidly than is possible when we make change only because it's the right thing to do. In fact, due to the life-safety benefits, some of these measures could actually be incorporated into building codes. We require seismic codes in areas prone to earthquakes. Why not implement building codes that will ensure that new houses incorporate enough insulation, passive solar gain, and natural cooling strategies that they will never put their occupants at serious risk should extended interruptions occur in our power or heating fuel supplies?
I look forward to your input. Is this a reasonable argument? We instituted seismic codes after the San Francisco Earthquake and fire codes following the Great Chicago Fire. Is it time for building codes to mandate superinsulation and passive solar design as safety measures, just as we did in response to those other catastrophes?
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