By now it’s common knowledge that we have little time to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. It’s also common knowledge that the way we make buildings, which represent about 39 percent of carbon dioxide emissions and 36 percent of energy consumption in the world, will have to change. In the United States, the increased plausibility of a Green New Deal is raising questions about how public investment can and must shape cities and buildings. How will we develop the carbon-neutral materials necessary for new construction? What will it take to retrofit all existing buildings to meet new efficiency standards? Will the building trades be onboard with all of this?
Overwhelming as these tasks might be, we can begin to make sense of them by taking stock of current sustainable building practices. Over the past ten years, LEED and other green-building certifiers have set the tenor, encouraging outcomes like high energy performance through tight building envelopes, reduced water use, connection to public transport, and the deployment of low-emission materials. These practices have become increasingly visible and celebrated, but are not necessarily common—in reality, only about 5 percent of buildings across the United States are LEED-certified. Yet even LEED standards fall well short of what’s necessary to make a building and its operations less carbon-intensive.
“A building that’s LEED Gold won’t necessarily perform to those standards in the field,” says Caitlin Turski Watson, an architect in New York City and an industry advocate for the Green New Deal. She says that architects concerned with high energy efficiency and carbon emissions are instead turning to the Living Building Challenge, which measures the performance of a building only after at least 12 months of operation. This period of abeyance ensures compliance with the initiative’s seven standard categories, dubbed “petals.” The highest level of certification, Living Building, is notoriously difficult to achieve, primarily because the materials required can be almost impossible to find, or, in the case of the Living Building Challenge’s Red List of forbidden materials, avoid. Many items typically specified in building construction (think switch boxes and electrical outlets) have multiple component parts (brads and toggles), each one containing substances on that Red List (BPA and PVC).
“It’s a supply issue; the materials just don’t exist,” explains Watson. “Especially for plumbing and electrical fittings, which have so many small pieces, the change has to happen at the manufacturing level.”
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