This Is What Architects Should Do to Help Fight Climate Change

As Hurricane Ida slowly went back out to sea in September, having lumbered its way from the Gulf Coast to New England (and having caused over 100 deaths and nearly $100 billion in damages), one of its closing acts was a stunning explosion of a single-family house in New Jersey. The cause: a gas stove. Having been dislodged by rising waters, this kitchen appliance introduced a gas leak, resulting in the explosion that reverberated across the neighborhood. Dramatic though it was, the blast was by no means exceptional. Every year, the U.S. sees almost 300 serious natural gas explosions, killing, on average, 15 people per year.

Explosions from natural gas are one thing, but scientists, economists, public health advocates, and policy makers have also been eyeing the invisible—invisible, but no less dangerous—systemic risks that natural gas carries as a source of greenhouse gas emissions. “Gas is a huge contributor to climate change,” says Adam Roberts, director of policy at the American Institute of Architects New York. “It’s better than coal or oil, but, still, we are at a point where we just don’t need fossil fuel–powered buildings anymore.”

As Rachel Golden, a principal of the carbon-free buildings team at the Rocky Mountain Institute quantifies it, “there are 70 million buildings that burn gas, oil, or propane, which results in 600 million tons of greenhouse gasses.” With the methane leakage that occurs during drilling and piping, that figure surges upward even more. “Globally,” she adds, “buildings account for 35% of greenhouse gasses.”

Looking to address the causes of climate change stemming from their own profession, architects are increasingly moving toward what those in the industry call building electrification. By drawing a building’s energy entirely from electrical infrastructure, architecture, once that infrastructure becomes powered by renewable sources, can more readily position itself as a net-zero proposition. In the nearer term, as grids transition, building electrification provides an alternative to gas-powered buildings, mitigating energy loads and lessening emissions.

Already, some architects are proactively anticipating the eventuality of a renewable-powered grid. “The electric grid is becoming greener,” says architect Bill Ryall, who has designed a series of high-performance homes across the U.S. “With all-electric buildings that plug in,” he adds, “we can avoid building fossil fuel dependence into new or renovated buildings.”

University of California Davis’s West Village neighborhood is the largest “zero net energy” community in the U.S., generating as much energy as it consumes.

Billy Hustace

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