Environment & the World

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Natural Capitalism, Ch. 5

Filed under: Development, Reading Group — Cathy @ 12:42 pm

This chapter is all about green buildings.  Again H&L emphasize a recurring theme in this book – that the whole is different from just the sum of its parts.  A design framework in which each engineer or architect individually optimizes his own component of the building doesn’t necessarily result in the optimum building.  This is one of the greatest challenges of good green design.  If it were merely about putting the right technologies together in the right way, that would be a fairly simple task; the real challenge is to implement a new framework with which to approach building design.  H&L emphasize the need to “have the architects, engineers, landscapers, hydrologists, artists, builders, commissioners (specialists who get the building working properly between construction and occupancy), occupants, maintenance staff, and others who have a stake in a particular building all design the building together.”

H&L emphasize that, in contrast to conventional wisdom, green buildings, if done right, can have lower capital costs than traditional construction – largely by saving on infrastructure and by using passive heating and cooling techniques.  Companies can also get surprisingly large returns from increased worker productivity.  But these savings for green buildings don’t just apply to commercial buildings – green homes can also be much more efficient at no net additional cost.  In their most impressive example, H&L write:

“A Pacific Gas and Electric Company experiment eliminated cooling equipment in two normal-looking tract houses. The first, in Davis, California, where peak temperatures can reach 113°F, was a mid-range ($249,500), 1,656-square-foot speculative home, completed in 1993. During three-day, 104°-plus heat storms, the indoor temperature didn’t top 82°, and the neighbors came into the house with no air conditioner to take refuge from their own inefficient houses, whose big air conditioners couldn’t cope. Yet if routinely built, rather than as a one-off experiment, the Davis house would cost about $1,800 less to build, and $1,600 less to maintain over its life than a comparable but normally inefficient home, because it had no heating or cooling equipment to buy or maintain.” 

In addition to energy savings, natural resource savings can be achieved by retrofitting existing buildings or reusing materials from prior structures.  H&L note that internet markets are appearing for trading construction materials / waste. 

H&L also discuss the need to correct the incentive structure that governs building design.  That is, the contractors and designers can get away with installing cheap and inefficient equipment because they’re not the ones paying the electricity and heating bills.  (Also, at least in some countries, the way the building is initially designed and the way it is finally built are not necessarily the same, as contractors try to cut costs.  A recent report by the Chinese Ministry of Construction found that in 2005, 75% of new buildings in Beijing were designed to follow the energy efficiency code … but only 5% were actually built that way!)  For example, designers and contractors who design a more efficiency building could be allowed to recoup a portion of the yearly savings.  Leases could stipulate a sharing of the energy efficiency savings between landlords and tenants to encourage both to be more efficient, both in purchasing and using the appliances.

H&L conclude the chapter by discussing the larger context – building green buildings in mixed-use, non-sprawling developments.  They note that these “new urbanist” models are often more popular than traditional suburban developments: “the opportunities they create for ‘negacars’ and ‘negatrips’, for convivial communities, and for safer and better places to raise children can be welcome … to developers’ bottom lines.”



  1. As seems to be the norm with this book, this chapter is filled with many, many useful and innovative ideas to build greener, more efficient, more inspiring buildings. However, rather than focusing on the technical fixes, I’m more interested in another aspect to this issue that they raise in the chapter–the market and incentive structures that should help roll out these improvements. The reason I find this issue more pressing and interesting is because it seems to be the arena where more work needs to be done. My impression from reading this chapter is that many of the efficiency hacks have been around for decades already (“superwindows” have been around since the early 1980s, for example). Yet, decades later, we’ve yet to see the large-scale energy savings the authors tout. So the question then becomes, (which is a question that can be asked about most of the chapters in this book as we did with regard to Hypercars), what’s holding back or slowing down the mass introduction of all these improvements?

    This question brings us to the realm of market and incentive structures, and H&L have some illuminating insights on this issue. I was surprised, for example, to read about the linkage between architecture fees and building costs, which, the authors argue, tends to encourage costlier equipment and higher energy costs (91). H&L suggest replacing that system with one of rewards for best practices and penalties for designing and building inefficient buildings. I also liked their idea of making the energy bill and operating costs of a building more readily available to prospective renters as a way to create an incentive and a market for energy efficiency.

    One area that H&L maybe don’t discuss so much is that of taxes. Many states already have rebate programs or grant tax credits for energy efficiency retrofits, but expanding them and making them more generous in some cases could help offset upfront costs and thereby encourage the larger-scale implementation that H&L envision.

    Two other ideas from the chapter worth bringing up: 1. Making better use of solar energy–be it through solar panels or even just more natural lighting and passive heating. I think there are big energy savings to be had in this arena, and some extra exposure to natural lighting would be particularly welcome in the northern latitudes. The thought of making most houses and buildings small energy producers sounds exciting, and by spreading out energy generating capacity in such a way we could at least become less vulnerable to large-scale blackouts.

    2. More community/neighborhood-based development a la Village Homes in Davis, CA (83). I’d like to believe that these “new urbanism” and community-centered tenets are increasingly being incorporated into new developments across the U.S. At the same time, I don’t see much evidence that traditional suburban development is slowing down. Furthermore, a big question remains regarding how to “reclaim” the suburbs–how to make them more pedestrian friendly; how to build stronger communities; how to reduce commuting..?

    Comment by Amir — Monday, February 12, 2007 @ 6:57 pm

  2. Personally, I wondered how this all came about. I am in the air conditioning industry and maybe just dont get it. I enjoyed visiting though!! Have a great weekend!

    Comment by Oldsmar Air Conditioning Service — Friday, June 15, 2007 @ 9:10 pm

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