The case for green building |

The case for green building

The largest user of energy in the US isn’t transportation (27 percent) or industry (25 percent) but buildings, which are responsible for 48 percent of our consumption. Shouldn’t be too surprising, buildings ” residential, commercial, industrial etc. ” are really big and require heating, cooling, power for all their appliances etc. every hour of every day. By comparison, a car is small and turned off most of the time.

If we built our buildings smarter, we’d save huge amounts of energy.

The Department of Energy funded a few projects in the ’80s to study efficient design. One of them ” a library in Mt. Airy, NC ” used 80 percent less energy than similar sized buildings. Achieved without using any ‘fancy’ new technology of solar or wind power; just thoughtful building orientation, placing of windows, furniture and use of natural light, etc.

Buildings last a long time, so our construction choices today will reward or haunt us for at least 50 years. With 22 million new houses projected for the next 20 years, we can saddle the next two generations with 22 million oil- or gas-dependent houses, effectively all little power plants churning out greenhouse gases for the next century.

Architects have a lot of responsibility. Not only can they design smart homes, but also they choose the materials a building is made of. With the amount of construction they may be the largest purchasing group in the U.S. Choosing green materials ” ones made without toxic chemicals, less fossil fuels, recycled bricks, steel etc. ” and smart designs would have an impact on our energy use, resource consumption and landfills.

Vail lost an opportunity to lead the country in showing how attractive, smart and green buildings could be. We have the resources in wealth and architects to make that statement but instead seem hung up on matching or one-upping the neighbors’ imposing and wasteful mini castles. Someone needs to start a trend of building attractive and flamboyant ‘green’ houses, why not us?

Regulations will help but are often focused on making us less bad. Making a destructive process more efficient reduces the problem but doesn’t remove it. Being good is much better, growth is no longer a problem and you can have a large beautiful house that feeds power into the grid, creates compost and doesn’t destroy the planet – probably the most beautiful thing about it.

The architect William McDonough likes to bring up a cherry tree as an example of smart and effective design. A cherry tree is spectacular in blossom but not austere and efficient, wasting a lot of blooms ” but these all get recycled back into the soil. He calls it ecological intelligence and sees nature as a model for smart design.

Bedouin tribesmen use black tents and wear layers of black clothes in 120-degree heat. It makes no sense to us, but black screens out UV light and the layers trap moisture. A Bedouin consumes 20 times less water than exposed, sweaty visitors. Their black tents heat up on the outside creating an updraft and cooling breeze through the loose weave of goat hair of their tent fabric. When it rains, these hairs swell and the tent is waterproof. The goats the tents are made of are self-sustaining, follow them around, turn their trash into meat, cheese and a whole range of other resources and it starts to look a bit smarter.

Not that we should live in tents, but perhaps take a wider perspective and think our building process through and past the life of the buildings. McDonough designed an energy-free air conditioning/ventilation system for The Gap’s offices in California based on the principles of the Bedouin’s tents.

If we decide on new ‘green’ building regulations I hope we go big on the ideas and small on the details. The market place is incredibly good at sorting out details once it is given direction, and without direction we all flail around. Ed Mazria, another famous) for architects) designer and efficient building promoter suggests a simple building code that requires new buildings to use half the energy that is typical for that structure in that region.

I’m guessing the real estate industry will fight any regulation the way they fought the smart growth amendment 24. They should think twice. As an industry, they’re happy to cover their brochures and lifestyle adverts with pictures of wild lands, views, deer and greenery to sell the mountain lifestyle. If your major selling point is the environment around us, then it’s not hard to see it’s in your long-term interest to preserve it, too.

Their brochures are well done. A recent one had me checking my bank account for a previously unseen million or two but no such luck. It also promoted luxury real estate with quotes from Blake, Thoreau and Einstein, which is ironic and amusing.

Thoreau probably spins in his grave every time his observations of nature are used to promote the bulldozing and concreting over of the natural lands that still remain. Shame that nature or wildlife can’t charge a copyright fee for every time their physical or verbal image is used to sell something ” usually produced at their expense. By now they’d have a trust fund big enough to buy the land they live on.

Green building is a way to lessen our impacts locally and globally while helping our country to greater energy independence. Who would want to oppose that?

Check out for information on green architects and builders. A web site for information on passive heating/cooling is the Energy Dept’s Never hurts to look.

Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. This column, as in the case of all personal columns, does not necessarily reflect the views of the Vail Daily.

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