Influencing the Built Environment at Scale

This past week I was invited to speak about Project Drawdown at the 5th Residential Building Design & Construction Conference at Penn State. In addition, Project Drawdown’s 2020 Review was published (it’s a free download), publishing much of the work that myself and other research fellows have been working on for the past two years. Both of these events have gotten me thinking about how to enact large scale change in the built environment at scale.

The narrative of halving carbon emissions by 2030, and reducing them fully to zero by 2050, is stressed at every academic conference or paper that I have been reading lately. And in the recent Project Drawdown review, we know that it is possible to get to zero carbon emissions by the mid 2040’s. To do so, we just need to adopt the solutions that we know to already exist. So why is it that we in these academic settings are still shouting our the same things that we have known for so long? What is the role of an academic in shifting the decisions made about the building stock. While we can continue to talk about reducing emissions in academic papers and presentations, I have the feeling that there must be other leverage points to push on in order to create change.

I know that financial institutions and systems need to fund these climate solutions, since with buildings, there’s typically a first cost associated (albeit significant savings and health benefits as well). But it feels like as an academic the financial decision makers are not within influence or reach. So how then can we get unprecedented change in the building stock to make it consume less energy and emit less carbon.

Historically, the retrofit rate of building stocks is not high, 5% annually at the maximum during economic upswings. Yet to get buildings to zero-carbon by 2050, a much higher retrofit rate is needed, in addition to building new buildings that have low embodied and operational emissions. So in what ways can a young academic, such as myself, do to get the global building stock to shift? And what should my role be?

The leverage points that I have identified and know how to push on are as follows (with a focus on eduction, since that’s where my head has been these days):

  1. Educating students to design low-carbon buildings.
  2. Educating practitioners about low-carbon design.
  3. Educate building and home owners about the importance of low carbon design.
  4. Educate high school students (future homeowners and building owners) about the importance of low carbon design.
  5. Advising professional organizations (such as the Structural Engineering Institute) to make low-carbon design part of the ethic as a building designer.
  6. And shouting from rooftops at anybody that will listen and hopefully do something with the information.

Each of these leverage points could be discussed at length many times over, but these are the ones that I have been thinking about this week at least. I’m sure there are more, and some will be more impactful than others. But to actually make change in the next 10 years – to get the curve of carbon emissions to go down – where should I be focusing my efforts? Since there really isn’t much time to waste.

I was fortunate enough to have some good conversations with a professor about his work in trying to get adoption of wind resistant designs by homeowners in tornado and hurricane-prone areas. He felt like he has been saying the same thing for the past 10 years of his career and didn’t know what his role should actually be as an academic to create the large-scale change that is needed. We commiserated over a pint with similar feelings about the futile effort getting change in the building stock can be.

In writing these thoughts out, maybe academia doesn’t have the largest levers to change the system. Maybe other professions have more opportunity to make the immediate change that is needed , and the role of academics is to support that and guide it. To quantify the what-ifs and educate the students that will be making the differences needed in their communities. I plan to continue thinking on this topic, since the change that is needed is fairly immediate and there is no time to wait. But I rest in the fact that we know it is possible to get there.

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