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  • Writer's pictureEnergy Insights

Good Buildings, Bad Buildings

Sometimes, the answer to a problem is right in front of your eyes. Conversations about energy often dwell on industries such as transportation, manufacturing and power generation. Those are worthy targets of our scrutiny. Yet there is a culprit we tend to overlook, perhaps because it is all around us.


Our homes and buildings – referred to as the “built environment” – account for roughly 40 percent of the energy consumed annually in the U.S. [1] Residential and commercial structures account for about 70 percent of the electricity we use in a typical year, and are responsible for more than a third of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.[2] Yet more than two-thirds of the total energy consumed in the U.S. is wasted, according to data compiled by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.[3]

“Most buildings waste energy needlessly, making power plants work harder and putting stress on the electric grid, making energy efficiency in buildings incredibly important,” according to the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit, bipartisan alliance of business, government, environmental and consumer leaders. [4]


I’ve researched this topic thoroughly and almost every study supports the conclusion that buildings are a vast source of wasted energy. That’s why I am adamant about making our buildings more energy efficient. If our buildings and their systems were optimized to save energy, instead of wasting it, many of our environmental problems would become manageable and ultimately solvable.


A growing number of architects and builders are aware of this. Slowly, a consensus is emerging around the need for design and construction strategies that prioritize energy efficiency and reduce waste. The built environment has a permanence that makes it unlike any other human artifact. For better and for worse, the built environment surrounds us. Except for brief periods of time when we’re hiking through the woods or sunbathing on a beach, we cannot escape it. Therefore, we need to make it better.


Living Buildings

Jason F. McLennan wishes that buildings were more like flowers. Jason is known as “the Steve Jobs of the green building industry,” and he’s received the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Prize, the world’s top prize for socially responsible design. Jason created the Living Building Challenge,[5] which has been hailed as the most stringent and forward-looking green building program ever developed.


Jason and his firm, McLennan Design, [6] strive to create buildings that are beyond efficient and green. Their goal is designing sturdy, durable buildings that are living parts of their environment; buildings that are more like trees and flowers, drawing energy from natural sources and adding value to the neighborhoods around them.


Living buildings also offer the best long-term economic benefits, according to Jason. “You don’t pay energy bills or water bills because the building is producing its own energy and water,” he says. Living buildings such as the Bullitt Center, a six-story Class A office building in Seattle, also compost and recycle their own waste materials, eliminating sewer bills and greatly reducing the costs of waste removal. “The goal is creating habitats instead of destroying them,” Jason says. “We’re not just trying to be ‘less bad’ – we’re pursuing a holistic model that is regenerative for the planet.”


Living buildings are constructed from non-toxic materials, making them healthier workspaces. Use of cement, which accounts for 8 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions [7] and is a prime component of concrete, is limited to the building’s foundational elements.


“Above the second floor, the Bullitt Center is constructed with heavy timber framing, recalling Seattle’s history of heavy timber warehouses. 100 percent of the wood used is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, ensuring it came from a responsibly managed forest, according to the Bullitt Center website. “Using wood sequesters carbon for the life of the building, with 545 metric tons of carbon locked away in the Bullitt Center for the next 250 years.”[8]


Jason says he feels energized and optimistic about a future in which buildings are green, healthy and efficient. “The technology has matured and it’s just becoming easier every year. There are more examples out there … people can look around and kick the tires … they can see for themselves what’s happening. There are many shades of green and there are many opportunities, regardless of whether it’s a very modest project or a larger project. People should feel good about that.


This blog post is excerpted from Elena Cahill’s new upcoming book, POWER ECONOMICS: An Executive’s Guide to Energy Efficiency, Conservation, and Generation Strategies (Wiley, 2021). You can purchase or download copies of the book from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Wiley and other online booksellers.

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