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Want to actually fix the environment? Change how buildings are built

We must decarbonize our buildings; our future depends on it, writes a consortium of architects, activists, and thought leaders.

Want to actually fix the environment? Change how buildings are built
[Source Images: yewkeo/iStock, SpicyTruffel/iStock]
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It’s official: The United States is recommitting to dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and capping global warming under 1.5ºC. In doing so, the federal government now rejoins nearly 4,000 U.S. businesses, cities, counties, states, and tribes that declared “We’re Still In” following the United States’s previous withdrawal from the agreement. So how do we make progress while also managing through a global pandemic? We need to talk about buildings.

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When it comes to carbon emissions, our homes, offices, schools, hospitals, shops—the places where we live, work, play, grow, connect—are major polluters. They account for 74% of national electricity consumption and about a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions nationally, more than any other sector. And that’s not factoring in their embodied carbon—that is, the CO2 emissions generated by producing and acquiring the materials we use to construct and maintain buildings—nor how they affect the health of occupants and communities. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

For decades, our respective organizations—Architecture 2030, Institute for Market Transformation, International WELL Building Institute, New Buildings Institute, and Wickham James Strategies & Solutions—have been exploring how government intervention, business leadership, building industry professional practices, and technology innovation can change this. Now is the time for us to collectively transform buildings from major emissions generators to central solutions to the climate crisis while also improving public health, creating jobs, and strengthening community resilience.

With public demand growing for scalable climate solutions from all levels of government, policymakers can work together to transition the United States from a patchwork of requirements to a set of dynamic, performance-based policies that enable rapid decarbonization throughout a building’s lifecycle. Zero-carbon building codes for new construction address the emissions from buildings constructed each year, while emerging building performance standards and policies can address existing buildings.

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During the most recent updates to the International Energy Conservation Code—which establishes baseline performance expectations for new construction and serves as the model energy code for U.S. jurisdictions—zero-carbon residential and commercial code options were adopted. The voters, governmental representatives who are involved in ensuring the health and safety of buildings and their occupants, signaled they want more aggressive codes when it comes to building performance and decarbonization. U.S. jurisdictions have passed, and others are now exploring, building performance standards that set carbon and energy reduction targets for wide swaths of America’s vast existing building stock. In New York City, Local Law 97 established carbon emissions caps for buildings over 25,000 square feet. Starting this month, owners of large buildings in the District of Columbia now have energy performance targets their properties must meet within the next few years, while in St. Louis, a newly appointed Building Energy Improvement Board is establishing performance targets.

These policies can help us respond to the twin crises of climate and health—the latter in the context of safety amid a global pandemic as well as ensuring, beyond the pandemic, that our daily spaces enhance, and not compromise, health and well-being. They also make way for electrification and a cleaner grid. Importantly, these policies could also provide significant economic benefits to building owners and communities. Lower energy use means lower operating costs, and investing in building retrofits increases the demand for skilled local labor. More economic activity will flow through local economies, creating a much-needed boost as we work to recover from this pandemic.

Policies to decarbonize buildings—which often seek to change the physical, operational, or financial profile of real estate in some way—must also be leveraged to strengthen the role of buildings as community assets that improve people’s lives. Buildings that protect the climate but leave vulnerable populations behind will ultimately fail to serve society. Thoughtful federal, state, and locally tailored policies can generate new building and energy jobs that benefit small businesses and communities that have been historically disadvantaged. If applied to multifamily buildings, the policies themselves could help address the tremendous inequities between what white and non-white Americans pay in utility bills.

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For zero-carbon codes and building performance initiatives to achieve their transformative potential, though, they need financial support. As federal, state, and local policymakers think through economic stimulus programs, it’s imperative that they direct funds to make buildings healthier, safer, and higher performing.

We must decarbonize our buildings; our future depends on it. We congratulate President Biden and his administration on renewing the U.S. government’s public commitment to addressing climate by rejoining the Paris Agreement. We applaud the private businesses in both tech and real estate that have remained committed to action the past four years. Now, it’s time for collective action. Let’s get to work.


Ralph DiNola is the chief executive officer of the New Buildings Institute. Jason Hartke is the executive vice president, external affairs at the International WELL Building Institute. Former Kansas City, Missouri mayor Sly James and Joni Wickham are cofounders of Wickham James Strategies & Solutions. Ed Mazria, FAIA, FRAIC, is the founder of Architecture 2030. Lotte Schlegel is the executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation.