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by Cliff Kuang

June 6, 2009

Why the problem of fixing our buildings is so vague-and what we can do about it

We're hardwired to address the smaller problems that we can see, rather than the big ones that we can't imagine. There's no better-or more important-example of that problem than the current debate over energy use.I'd wager that if you polled even well-informed citizens, they'd rank fuel efficiency as the number one problem we face, in trying to reduce carbon emissions. And I'd bet that, if in this very column you're reading, I went on to talk about all the ways cars are destructive to the environment, not a single person would respond: But how important is that, really?But the plain fact, as Mother Jones points out, is that buildings, in the electricity they use to run and the materials they require to build, are responsible for nearly half of our nation's carbon footprint. Transportation? Twenty-seven percent. So it's safe to say that while transportation is crucial, we can't solve our carbon problem if we fail to address the energy we use in our buildings.And yet the fuel efficiency of cars dominates headlines and op-eds, while discussions of carbon-neutral electricity-when they happen-treat it more like something that's nice to have rather than the single biggest problem at hand. Why is that?Cars and transportation grab our attention because there are so many numbers, and so much concrete evidence of the problem in front of us. We can grouse about the SUV idling on the curb; we can curse Detroit and its hidebound, handout-loving executives; and we can easily see the anemic fuel efficiency of American cars. We pay for it every time we see the dollars scroll past at the gas pump. The problem therefore seems much more urgent, because it's much more real and immediate.Compare that to the electricity you burn at home. It's created far away, beneath smoke stacks you never see or smell. The energy you consume at home is nothing but a line item that arrives in the mail, once a month. All of the intermediate processes occur in an opaque infrastructure dreamland. At best we have a vague sense that we should be doing better.To be sure, there are ways being created to address those problems: That's the point of the so-called smart grid you keep hearing about, and the at-home, real-time energy monitoring it would make possible. Alternative energy is rising in our consciousness-even if it seems particularly prone to green-washing from BP and the like. What's missing is a way for us to do something about it in our own buildings. Mass solutions there are hard to imagine because, unlike our cars, our buildings aren't the product of a few manufacturers. They're the product of the building industry, one of the most diffuse and least coordinated imaginable. How do you get so many millions of people and businesses to change themselves at a meaningful scale, and fast?So far the basic approach has been familiar. Take the Clinton Climate Initiative, which just announced that it's partnering with local governments and property developers in 16 community projects, based in over a dozen cities around the world. This may sounds terrific, but it leaves me cold because these sorts of top-down efforts often trickle down to nothing. It's easy to build one green building with solar panels and grey-water recycling. What's harder is convincing everyone else to do the same. That's the real work, and that's what has to happen to make an actual impact.And that's why the 14X Stimulus Plan is so interesting. Santa Fe-based architect Edward Mazria, who heads Architecture 2030, proposes that instead of directly funding building renovations, we incentivize them, through the $6.3 billion in energy-efficiency grants that'll begin flowing this June.As Mother Jones reports, cities would offer homeowners and private business the chance to refinance their buildings at a lower interest rate, with one caveat: The more your interest-rate goes down, the more efficiency upgrades you have to make. Architecture 2030 estimates that a family paying six percent on a $230,000 loan could install a $20,000 system of solar panels and save $425 a month.The "14X" name came about because Mazria estimates that for every stimulus dollar spent on his plan, $14 in economic activity would be created in the building sector and beyond (a compounding effect that's well-documented for incentive programs). Every $1 would also generate $3 in federal taxes, and $1 in local taxes. And, according to Mazria, if you simply spend $3.2 billion building green infrastructure directly, you create 49,486 green jobs. But if you spend it on 14X's interest-rate based incentives, you create 692,800. Maybe those numbers are high, but that's about as close to a magic bullet as you'll ever get in public policy.Banks, the Department of Energy, and a slew of mayors are already excited about the plan. You can actually sign a petition supporting it here.With any luck, it'll make the solutions to our building problem as utterly concrete-and as unavoidable-as the fuel efficiency of the car you drive. But moreover, it should serve as a template in how we think about solving the biggest problems we face-and nothing less.
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