What ecological footprint is fair, and reasonable and ethical? According to Vaclav Smil, there is one number that really matters, and that is gigaJoules/person/yr total consumption. Here is some sense of the scale of our respective footprints.
In the 1990’s I believed that ‘Factor 10’ design would solve our problems. In other words, if we all learned to design and live with 1/10th the resources and energy we are accustomed to in ‘The West’, we’d be living in a more balanced way. What would be an equitable target for 9 billion people? 50gJ/pp/yr of total consumption? I used to imagine that by the year 2030, finally everything we design on planet Earth would take into consideration it’s part in a complete planetary energetic and ecological system. Now, I am unsure that we human beings, such as we are, will ever recognize the deficit we have drawn of the Earth’s capital. And so I am unsure that we will have much of a choice on the matter as nature is just now forcing our hand. Where I once believed we needed to embrace a new kind of architecture and way of living that was a hybrid of the modern world and ancient ways of living, now I wonder if we should stop considering the design of architecture, and rather focus on designing better human behaviour and understanding – so the purpose of this post, and my work from here on out, is focused on research and education through architecture.
The architecture we have designed to date doesn’t really apply anything we learned from the space age ~ super important lessons that you can only learn from surviving in the hostile environment of space, such as;
- Thermodynamic efficiency (Exergy considerations)
- Compact design
- Passive and Active Thermal Control Systems PTCS/ATCS
- Light weighting or ‘Ephemeralization’ of structure & materials – an overall materials reduction resulting in labour efficiency and cost reductions
- Design for staged assembly and disassembly
Short for ecological architecture – ecotecture is a term coined by my German professor, friend and mentor Rudolf Doernach (1929-2016). Doernach was a partner of R. Buckminster Fuller in Germany and a pioneer of the living building movement in Germany in the 1970’s. As a consummate wordsmith and eco-philosopher, Rudolf quite vocally scoffed at any claim that architecture can be ‘environmentally friendly’. At public lectures he often humorously and lucidly excoriated representatives from the concrete and steel industries for their obvious hypocrisy, when they began lauding their respective industries for environmental leadership.
Doernach was considered a guru of sorts after he wrote two ‘Handbooks for Better Times’ (which I did promise to translate to English for him someday!) that chronicled his lifelong experiments in ecological homesteading in the Black Forest region of Southwest Germany. The two-volume handbooks cover everything from Aquaculture to goat-herding, from making your own solar food dehydrator, to the basics on beekeeping and button making. In the Handbooks you can find everything from how to promote health, fitness and nutrition in micro-farming, to felting hats and slippers, not to mention how to grow your own living home from willow trees. Yes, you read that right. The latter takes decades of patience and commitment, but was considered the pinnacle of “high-tech/high-bio” in Doernach’s worldview, where humans and nature actually co-operate.
Doernach once stated that if every citizen simply wore a wool cap and sweater indoors in Winter, and turned their thermostats down from 22ºC to 18ºC, a total energy and carbon savings of 20% could be achieved overnight at almost zero capital cost. Instead, increased insulation standards have added to building capital costs, with little expected change in human behaviour. Just as with the parable of the Emperor that demanding his kingdom be paved with cork for the comfort of his feet was answered by a clever cobbler that presented him with the first pair of sandals, so we too should not consider heating and lighting EVERY indoor space, but only the ones we are actively occupying!
And as Rudolf also said, a regular change of temperatures promotes health as it challenges the immune system and metabolism. Instead of thermo-stats, Doernach promoted thermo-changers, and that’s exactly what most Nest, EcoBee or other smart thermostats can do now, reducing temperatures at night and when we are not home, and increasing them when we first wake up and after we return from work. This 20% reduction is the ‘low hanging fruit’ on a wide range of buildings and can be implemented at minimal cost. We feel a mix of personal and collective/technological responsibility is merited; As John Bentley Mays once wrote about our work:
Mr. Thomson foresees not merely a radical building type, but also a new kind of human being to fit the built prototype. It may well be that the long-suffering environment will eventually turn on us in some catastrophic fashion — if global warming is not already such a calamity — forcing our conversion from wasteful people into more mindful folk. Should this apocalypse come upon us — or, better still, well before it actually happens — we should be listening to what designers such as Andy Thomson are telling us, and to what they have learned.John Bentley Mays, The Globe and Mail, “Lessons Learned from a Prefab Pipe Dream” 2007.
When one considers that construction and demolition activities constitute almost 70% of total global waste and 40% of global GHG emissions, and that many building programs could be satisfied by pre-existing buildings, or better uses of technology (home offices and/or telecommuting), and that most commercial buildings are largely unoccupied most of the time (after the 9-5 hours and weekends), the very question of whether a building should be built at all really should be asked by architects. This might sound like professional suicide – but this is the dilemna of the green architect. In fact this was the very theme of the last Oslo Architecture Triennale: ENOUGH!
Green architects today make their living by picking the lesser of evils for our clients, when we could be asking how we might create the best possibility for current and future generations. Ecotecture is about asking deeper questions, and only then, in the context of finding an optimal, admittedly least destructive solution, can the best practices outlined below find their proper place.
Our portfolio represents a body of work that attempts to balance the greenest buildings possible, of the very highest quality, and for the least possible cost by using the least material possible, something Bucky Fuller referred to as Ephemeralization. With patience and experience, we have been rewarded with the opportunity to work on many buildings that are the best in class in each of these categories. I also believe one shouldn’t pay for the things that nature gives us in great abundance, namely light and heat from the Sun, Air, Wind, and Water. Our projects strive to take optimal advantage of these energies and resources to reduce environmental footprint and lessen building operating costs.
While there are green building standards such as LEED, Passivhaus and many others that seek to define environmental performance in a laundry list of terms, my time in Germany and in Canada’s R2000 program taught me that it is possible to go much further than even these stringent environmental building standards, ESPECIALLY when it comes to energy use, and that in fact if we are to survive at all as a species, we had better start looking at ideas like Factor10 as a design strategy for almost everything – which states that a general per-capita reduction in materials and energy of 1/10th is in order to reduce developed nations’ impact on the planet and equalize the rapid growth of developing nations, such that we don’t require an untenable 10 additional planet Earths to sustain our current growth. Factor 10 principles can result in either smaller buildings – or – conventionally-sized buildings using far fewer materials in a structurally optimized way. Now this may sound impossible, but the cost implications and strength-to-weight ratios of many of our research building demonstrate that this is not only possible, but entirely practical.
Factor10 translated to a per-capita metric for the typical North American might include the following features – the features noted below should also be given consideration (each icon represents a specific environmental goal that was initially developed with the miniHOME project, but that has subsequently expanded, text descriptions are further down);
Ecotecture therefore should strive to:
- Build Nothing
- If you must build, renovate rather than build new
- If you must build new, build clever
- If you build clever, Consume less than 100kWh/m2/yr (20kW less than the Passivhaus Standard) in terms of Total EUI or TEUI (we have research projects that have achieved a TEUI of less than 5, so 100 is readily possible)
- Burn nothing, the atmosphere cannot handle any more GHGs without extinguishing us, and every other specie, so Build Zero Carbon; zero combustion of fuel on site. In other words have a Greenhouse Gas Intensity of 0 kgGHGe/m2/yr. Completely avoid natural gas, as it makes it extremely difficult to wean from later on.
- Conform to stringent material specifications for health (EAQ/IAQ), sustainability and durability.
- Use the least carbon intensive materials possible, which would typically be a function of kgCO2e/MT of material. As an example, steel can have an Embodied Carbon Intensity of close to 1:1, whereas wood has a ECI of 0.10:1, or 90% less embodied carbon.
- Wherever possible, be a net exporter of electrical energy.
As most buildings in existence now will be with us in 2030, and 2050, and as these were designed and built to lower standards of performance, they present specific challenges to architects, and will be dealt with separately. The following list is sorted in order of importance by impact, with energy and carbon mitigation measures at the top of the list. Least-cost, Passive measures are always first (Building Envelope, shape and orientation) followed by active/technology measures second. We may not implement every one of these items on every project, and there are a bunch we have probably omitted, but the list should giove a sense of how we think on every project.
Below are a few key resources that I’m posting here so that I can return to reference them later.
Resources on Finance:
Resources on Materials:
- Concrete: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/25/concrete-the-most-destructive-material-on-earth
- Steel: https://medium.com/mit-technology-review/a-new-way-to-make-steel-could-cut-5-percent-of-co%E2%82%82-emissions-at-a-stroke-ecd0999a8515
- Mineral Batt:
Resources on Policy with SBEC/OAA Contributions:
- Thermodynamics: https://www.scienceeurope.org/our-resources/in-a-resource-constrained-world-think-exergy-not-energy/
- Supergrid (1mlnV vs. 500kV Transmission grids = 150GW, where 1gW=1 Nuke Plant or 10,000 Teslas): https://medium.com/mit-technology-review/chinas-giant-transmission-grid-could-be-the-key-to-cutting-climate-emissions-1f0ead2f2b71
- Supergrid: http://www.geni.org/globalenergy/library/technical-articles/transmission/environmental-expert.com/what-is-the-super-grid-supplying-renewable-electricity-worldwide/index.shtml
- Electrification & Canadian Demand: https://thefutureeconomy.ca/interviews/francis-bradley/
- The last quarter: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611498/we-still-have-no-idea-how-to-eliminate-more-than-a-quarter-of-energy-emissions/
- Key point: NONE OF THIS TECH GETS FUNDED WITHOUT A PRICE ON CARBON!
- Boxwing Aircraft: https://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-04/jets-future
- Megafans: https://www.aiaa.org/uploadedFiles/About-AIAA/Press-Room/Key_Speeches-Reports-and-Presentations/2012/Martin-Lockheed-AVC-AIAA-GEPC2.pdf
- Boxwing-Nasa: https://www.nasa.gov/content/outside-the-box-sort-of