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An Architect’s Guide to Climate Change Solutions
gb&d | Green Building & Design
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Media, Sustainability
Brad Johnson
Date Published: 
Climate Change, Electrification, Solor Energy, Net Zero, Energy Codes, Photovoltaics, Energy, Efficiency, Renewable Energy, Embodied Carbon, Carbon Sequestration
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2020-08-31 21:09:24
2020-08-31 21:16:21
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As the world continues to reel from the impacts of COVID-19, we are all working to figure out how to best proceed in this new context. One element of our reality that is undiminished is climate change. And while some may say it is too early to focus on anything but COVID-19, I say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to refashion our work, and our lives, toward climate change solutions and visions of a better world. We will pick up the pieces—how we put them back together is up to us.

Debra Roberts, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns that “the next few years are probably the most important in our history … Limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The challenge is one of speed and scale. A few exceptional buildings by elite firms will not get us there. We need strong policies, transformative innovations, and replicable climate change solutions that lift all boats.We are struck by the parallels between COVID-19 and our larger, slower-burning climate crisis, by the consequences of inaction in the face of science, of underfunding vital research, of insufficient and slow response. In light of the urgency for action commensurate with the scale of the climate change challenge, and the need for a clear vision for the built environment moving forward, EHDD is committing to advancing what we are calling “climate positive” design across our portfolio.

Our vision will be advanced in concert with colleagues, clients, and collaborators towards the ultimate goal of a built environment that is genuinely climate-positive by 2030. If EHDD’s portfolio can get there by 2030, we hope California can do so by 2040 and the rest of the US by 2050. To say this is ambitious is a grand understatement: It is the most significant transformation since the dawn of the industrial revolution.

The Principles of Climate Positive Design

1. Electrify Everything

We simply cannot continue to burn natural gas and other fossil fuels in our buildings and expect to conquer the climate crisis. Let’s electrify everything and run all our buildings on electricity coming from on-site photovoltaics and an increasingly clean electricity grid.

Stop burning fossil fuels.

Joe Biden’s climate plan includes eliminating all emissions from the electricity sector by 2035. This reflects the current reality that the renewable energy component of the electricity grid is increasing at a rate that even advocates would not have imagined a few years ago. In order to truly get to zero emission buildings, we need to hitch our wagons to this speeding train and run our buildings on electricity.

In my home state of California, dozens of municipalities have banned natural gas hookups in new buildings over the past year. And in our practice and that of many of our peers, all electric design is standard. For new construction the economics are clear that all electric buildings can cost less to build and operate if designed correctly.

Maximize efficiency and PVs.

Energy efficiency is as important as ever. In states with strong energy codes, like California, Washington, and New York, meeting or slightly beating the energy code is often good enough, in concert with electrification. If your energy codes are not up to snuff, consider using California’s code as a benchmark target. The cost of installing on-site photovoltaics has dropped precipitously over the past several years, such that in most cases there is an excellent return on investment on installations. Who doesn’t like a energy bill of zero dollars? Sign me up.

Use clean energy.

One of the challenges we will increasingly face is that there is plenty of clean energy available when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, but we need to fire up dirty power plants at night and during peak usage periods. The more we can align our energy use with the resources on the grid, the better chance we have of reaching an emission-free economy cost-effectively.

New electric appliances like heat pump hot water heaters allow you to schedule use to avoid peak emission periods, and smart meters allow utilities to remotely apply “demand management” for willing customers. Our Sonoma Clean Power Headquarters is the first pilot project for the USGBC and New Buildin