We can do a much better job constructing energy-efficient buildings

April 11, 2008 | By | 3 Replies More

In the April 3, 2008 addition of Nature (available online only to subscribers), an article entitled “Architects of a Low-Energy Future” indicates that we can do a much better job in building energy-efficient structures.  This opportunity is critically important (as discussed in an earlier post regarding architect Ed Mazria of the highly accomplished non-profit Architecture 2030) because buildings worldwide account for approximately 45% of total energy consumption, more than “all the world’s cars and trucks put together.”

How much better can we design buildings?

The most efficient of the structures are almost completely passive, meaning they require very little, if any, traditional heating or air conditioning.  Yet the overall comfort they provide is, if anything, superior to existing buildings.  Nor is there necessarily a cost penalty: these ultra-energy-efficient buildings are often no more expensive to build than conventional structures, and they work out far cheaper if energy bills during their occupation are taken into account.

The hurdles to building these energy-efficient structures do not involve engineering challenges or lack of materials.  The major impediments to developing energy efficiency in buildings can be found in “our institutional barriers and market failures rather than technical problems.”

Another big problem is that high energy efficiency is too often not on the client’s radar, and architects are geared to simply giving the clients only what the client wants.  This is a shame, as the article points out, because “the biggest payoffs will come from new buildings, where ultralow energy can be designed in from the beginning.”  If it is not designed in from the beginning, the work of trying to make the building energy-efficient is much more difficult.  Retrofitting generally has to rely upon “bolting on energy intensive air conditioning, heating, and artificial lighting.”

Reading this article, I was astounded by how much energy a good building design can save.  Take, for instance, heating and cooling.  Most people pour lots of energy into their heating and air-conditioning systems.  It was eye-opening to learn that most of this cost is not necessary.  With high efficiency installation, glazing, and “thermal bridges” to prevent wasteful energy transfers to the outside, high-efficiency buildings show their “impressive gains in negawatts.”

The building can get its heating from the solar gains through glazing as well as through waste heat from appliances and even our bodies.

Another key technique for temperature control and passive houses is that first counterintuitive: simply let fresh air and from the outside.  A pump draws fresh air through a grid of pipes several meters underground, where the temperature is relatively constant throughout the year, 10-14 degrees centigrade . . .  When this fresh air arrives at the house, its temperature has already been modulated–warmed up or cool down by the ground, depending on the season . . . this system of air base cooling and ventilation not only saves energy by recycling heat, but vastly improves air quality.

Jeff Christian is the head of buildings technology Center at the Oak Ridge national laboratory.  His job is to design cheap and energy-efficient homes for low income families.  He is convinced that “cheap, low energy houses will take off in United States only if the government steps in:  “The financial incentives we need to drive this are not in place.”

Getting highly efficient buildings actually built sounds like another place where the invisible hand needs a hand.


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Category: Energy, Environment, Technology

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Marlon says:


    My first real job when I got out of school in the early 70s was as a salesman for a tract builder of entry level to low mid level homes in the Houston 'burbs. We (sales, management, and owners) all realized that the way we were building homes was stupid. We talked about it all the time. Although we did start using double glazed windows and high efficiency A/Cs and appliances, prospective buyers' eyes would glaze over (sorry) when we pointed that out. They wanted island kitchens, big closets, and two sinks in the master bath.

    Drive (or better, ride your bike) through some newer suburbs today, and you will see that not much has changed in 35 years. A window is where it is because that is where it should be on a Tudor style house.

    Sorry if I'm stating the obvious, but these seem to be major issues for serious energy efficiency innovation in residential construction:

    -Spec builders are scared to be too different and maybe get stuck with a house that doesn't sell.

    -Buyers are hesitant to be too daring with such a major investment.

    -Buyers don't want to be the ones who live in that "weird looking" house.

    -Good construction tradesmen are hard enough to find today. Now we want them to use new and maybe unfamiliar materials and techniques.

    -Building codes tend to discourage innovation.

    -Financing of a house that is too unconventional can be problematic.

    Fortunately, energy awareness by consumers is at an all time high, and there are many talented and innovative architects out there (even more so in Europe, it seems). Home buyers are going to have to drive this change though by demanding it of the industry.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Marlon: Big houses in the suburbs are like stationary SUV's. If they aren't careful, it will cost far more to use them than to buy them. For consumers to do the math, I would recommend that they assume the cost of gasoline to be $10/gal, which is what it will be in ten years.

    It wouldn't be so difficult to change the attitudes of prospective homeowners if the president of the U.S. would do some straight-shooting about the real life supply and inevitably skyrocketing price of oil when he stands up there on his bully pulpit. See http://dangerousintersection.org/2007/10/28/we%e2

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