March 28th, 2011

Buildings, Climate Change, Education and Action: The role of the building sector systems in climate change mitigation

By Peter Papesch, Jeff Haberl, Robert Koester, Dan Proctor and Bob Berkebile


The complexity of climate change and related mitigation efforts require complex responses from many different sectors of society. Weather, water, food, health, poverty, population densities and species diversity are all manifestations of the forms and functions of climate. A major contributor to climate change is the building sector. Incrementally and cumulatively, every negative contribution to climate change detrimentally affects the life-supporting climate on Earth and thereby its inhabitants. The building sector affects the planet, people and prosperity (the “triple bottom line”). Altering the effects of the building sector on climate will require not only education, but the setting of standards for individual and collective behavior (laws, codes, rules and regulations) while preserving the principles of good design that were forged over human history. Addressing these interlocking components will require a whole system approach that respects the nature of each of these dynamic systems and addresses climate change on all its multiple fronts.

The effects of the building sector system on climate

Since the steam engine’s advent, coal, petroleum and natural gas have been burned at an exponentially-increasing rate to exploit their heat-releasing characteristics. The heating and cooling of buildings in particular has been one of the most rapidly-increasing drivers in the uses of these finite planetary resources. Until recently, societies all over the world have been unaware of the harmful effects of fossil-fuel combustion on our personal health, atmosphere and world-wide climate. Simply taking the bounty of our planet’s resources for granted, and not considering the cumulatively detrimental effects of this method of source-energy conversion has brought us to the brink of global catastrophe.

In a directly-correlated sense, we take for granted the construction, operation and even demolition of the buildings we occupy.

Connecting the dots between fossil fuel burning and energy consumption by buildings necessarily requires a new awareness by the lay public and professionals alike. We must take quick action to avert the catastrophe; we must act in ways that liberate our collective genius to solve the many-headed complexities of this problem – a problem of unprecedented magnitude.

Society in the context of the climate change problem

The science:

The predominant empirical evidence from scientific communities throughout the world points directly to the anthropogenic cause of global warming. The long-term implications are real.

The political context:

Our many Senators and Representatives are individually-torn by many forces: their value-laden conscience, their rather pragmatic day-to-day constituents’ wishes and needs (which are not always the same), and their need to be re-elected. These facts, in the least, make it difficult to explore the technical challenges and frame the political actions that can address Global Warming, Climate Change and significant mitigation.

The political-economic context:

From its beginning, the development of the United States as a society with a substantial economic engine has yielded the creation of many institutions and industries, employing many citizens, regulated by many federal, state and local laws. With a lack of knowledge about the invisible and unforeseen climate change and global warming consequences of this long history of industrial development and institutional operation, the health and prosperity of those very institutions and industries – indeed our citizens’ health and prosperity – is now threatened.

Of course, changing any established political-economic system is extremely difficult, since there are many whose very livelihoods rest on the mechanisms of these established systems. Consider the oil, coal and gas industry or agribusiness systems in the new context of climate change, and then consider potentially more benign political-economic systems: if we are part of the vested interests in the former we will understandably and vociferously oppose any measures that threaten the livelihood so arduously achieved; and although espousing a more environmentally benign employment would seem a gamble, it holds great promise if such industries can retool –  can  restructure their skill sets to that new purpose.

The social context:

The democratic ideals of the US are based on an assumption about the value of a reasonably well-educated society that is informed about the complexity of the issues of the day. Unfortunately, as a recent NY Times article points out: the US ranks 12th amongst 36 developed nations in college graduates.[1] If affecting climate change depends on adopting complex remediation measures, such measures must make sense to the members of our society. An undereducated society will not voluntarily take steps to alter behaviors that if left unchecked will cumulatively affect climate change for the worse.

An even more insidious problem resides in the very affluence that US society has enjoyed since the end of the Great Depression of last century and the end of World War II. This individual affluence was based on the country’s world-wide economic power. This in turn rested on a combination of the extraction of “ancient sunshine” (oil, gas, and coal) as source energy, and the many subsidies provided for the extraction and delivery of those carbon-based products. Such subsidies were extended to agribusinesses which in turn altered the economic landscape for the individual (family) farm.

The more recent combination of this climate of plentitude (for some) with a fundamental shift in employment opportunities for very large numbers of our society (from agriculture and manufacturing to service industries) has brought about a socio-economic environment which harbors many built-in resistance points to the adoption of climate change mitigation measures. When lack of education is added, climate change mitigation becomes even more difficult.

However, it is precisely during times of stress that the opportunities for re-tooling and re-thinking are reached for by ever-increasing numbers of people who see their innovative peers prosper.

The role of the building sector system in the arenas of climate change and of socio-economic reality

Climate change has been under broad discussion since the energy crisis of 1975, i.e. for 35 years. While initially there was some uncertainty as to the dimensions of the problem, and the role of human activity, this is no longer a matter of scientific debate (although the public debate – in the form of political posturing – continues).

In the last several months of 2010 we’ve seen

1.             the economic and environmental risk intrinsic to a traditional supply side fossil fuel solution in the socially-, environmentally- and economically-devastating gulf oil spill;

2.             new reports on global temperature maxima reinforcing the warming trend data[2], and

3.             the utter failure of our political process to deal intelligently or effectively with this threat.

We need fundamental and rapid change in energy use patterns on both the supply and demand sides; since this process will require system-performance knowledge, considered strategic risk, and targeted investment, it makes sense to select areas immediately ripe for improvement, that can deliver savings, and for which our investments can have other tangible societal benefit. Since buildings are such a large and fast-growing element of this landscape, we need to start there.

We know from scientific simulation and measurements that we can cost effectively reduce energy use of new buildings by 50% using existing knowledge and technology, and that we can reduce energy use of existing buildings by 30% or more[3]. Even just requiring that all designs be ASHRAE 90.1-2007 or 2010 compliant would be a start, which could readily be followed by building energy labels, performance measuring protocols, and updated building codes. We also know we can approximately double these savings using more expensive emerging technologies, tools and solutions. In fact, achieving this level of savings across the US building stock would not only reduce overall energy use dramatically but also buy us time to make other changes in the US energy use patterns, to increase the availability of renewable, non carbon sources, and to bring the cost to much lower levels.

The building sector, which represents between 4 and 5% of GDP[4], is a disaggregated (non) system characterized by its diversity, its fragmented nature, its feast/famine employment aspects, its participant risk aversion, and its intense capital requirement. Energy-use decisions are embedded in this complex web of business, investment, amenity, function, and safety considerations … all the diverse demands of any complex system, but not the operational structure of one. The challenge for participants in this arena is to find the means of whole-system thinking and action; integrated design offers that hope.

Climate change mitigation needs the aggressive, integrated and active involvement of building-industry professionals –  architects, engineers, contractors, and owners, supported by bankers, policy makers, government and, last but not least, the general public. None of us operating in any of these contributing areas will engage the issues unless we understand our own relationship in the complex interaction of systems represented by climate, the building sector, education and action.

The role of focused creativity by architects, landscape architects and urban designers in the arenas of climate change and of socio-economic reality

Architects, landscape architects and urban designers (recently also named landscape urbanists) established their credentials by convincing society of the benefits of focused creativity. Design as learned by these design professionals is a creative process, weaving together quantifiable and ethereal concepts to become buildings. Buildings are the shells within which human activities and functions take place – the structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems on the quantifiable side and the history, aesthetics, social equity and poetry on the more ethereal side. And it is the collection of our buildings that form the neighborhoods, that can coalesce as villages, expand into the towns, and aggregate as urban areas.

Of these design professions, architecture in particular requires an understanding of the dynamic systems involved in transforming a concept into meaningful built form. To paraphrase Glenn Murcott “Architecture without poetry is just merchandise”[5]; but we can reclaim that more holistic role for architecture in light of society’s recent awakening to the anthropogenic effects on climate change; in fact:

Given our societal awareness of anthropogenic contributions to climate change, an architecture (or urban design) that does not contribute to climate change mitigation is not just harmful, it is irrelevant.

The reason for emphasizing design creativity of the profession of architecture in the context of climate change lies in the fact that – like any other profession – it takes several years of intensive training and education to forge the required professional skills of architecture. This occurs in diverse courses, studio classes, and internships.  Teaching the future professionals to design for climate change mitigation is as important as teaching them to make their buildings not only structurally sound but serve their users.

That said, how is society to benefit from professions that are not also fully trained to mitigate rather than aggravate climate change by their anthropogenic contributions? Henceforth, our anthropogenic contribution calls for educational mechanisms that will assure that architecture and the many allied design professions can appreciate the value of the contributions that each can make. The world needs a system of education that trains all the professions of the building sector system to create complex design responses to the complex problems of climate change.

Although this may seem very difficult in practical terms (imagine each design studio project assembling an entire cadre of architects, landscape urbanists, engineers, biologists, sociologists, historians and poets!) in fact, it can be accomplished — via the virtual world of the internet. And while this opinion piece is an attempt to focus on the more quantifiable components of climate change mitigation design, the very nature of such focused creativity-training of architects and allied designers is as crucial to the future of architectural and urban design quality as it has ever been.

The principal systems dynamics components of climate change

Climate affects all of life on Earth, but for this fact to become meaningful to each of us we must learn how we humans depend on the resources of the closed material system of the planet, namely the cycling of matter and the balanced energy flows which sustain life on earth. Ecological literacy and environmental consciousness – although currently spotty at best and absent at worst – offer substantial hope for framing the attitudes and behavior changes necessary in each of us.

The primary roles of building sector participants in climate change mitigation or aggravation

Members of society can be enablers or obstructionists

As stated earlier, every person reading this article lives, studies, and/or works in a building. We are complicit in its impact on climate change. But we have the power to influence the effects of our buildings on climate change.

We can influence the decision makers and other participants or stakeholders in envisioning, designing, financing, implementing and regulating how buildings are constructed and operated.

We can start with the awareness that all building materials produced, transported, and assembled (construction), as well as day-to-day operations require energy has traditionally been supplied by the burning of fossil fuels, need to employ more environmentally-benign means of sourcing, construction and use.


As voters, we influence our lawmakers. Recognizing the different directions in which lawmakers are continually being pulled by various interest groups must of necessity become part of any mitigating measures aimed at climate change.

Governmental and non-governmental agencies and authorities

We also can influence our local, state and federal governmental agencies. If we focus on climate change mitigation, and act collectively rather than just individually, we can multiply our efforts.


Lawyers are trained to apply our Federalist-system of laws; they can sometimes be persuaded to assist in climate mitigation actions by shaping the regulations that affect built form, but sometimes also not. Court cases are beginning to appear against parties charged with contributing to climate change.[6]

Bankers and financiers

As participant stakeholders in any building, bankers have a unique opportunity to leverage the concept of return on investment as not only a monetary metric but also a metric for leveraging public good.

Owners, contractors, engineers, architects and landscape urbanists, but also newly-engaged professionals from relevant contributing fields

As users of any building we are the operational ‘clients’ of the building owner and indirectly of the enablers of building project — the contractors, engineers and architects. The communal wisdom of such client groups must be engaged by the implementation enablers, the owners, the contractors, the engineers, the architects, the urban designers and others from relevant contributing fields such as biomimicry and permaculture (collectively best grouped under the heading of ecological system designers or ecologists).

Education, and Informed Action

Raising one’s awareness of the desirability to engage in climate change mitigation is no guarantee that we can or will change our behavior accordingly.

Awareness of our influence on climate change is a relatively new phenomenon. And it is far from universal: some of us are still unaware, some are confused by the apparently conflicting opinions (the vast majority of scientists on one side and a few well funded deniers on the other side). However, as the unintended/unwanted results of climate change become ever-more documented and obvious, a new awareness gradually creeps into our social consciousness.

But, unless the complex dynamics between climate change and our socio-economic system is identified as interlaced and interdependent systems, their interactions, their influences on each other, and their conflicts cannot be addressed effectively. For brevity we list the most pressing issues in the building sector:

–   Time is of the essence in confronting climate change mitigation.

–   Free market mechanisms alone won’t work: price signals to decision makers are insufficient to cause needed change in decision making when energy use is ~ $3/sf – cumulatively large, but not enough to motivate needed change.

–   We confuse energy use with energy services: we can cut energy use dramatically without impacting energy services, i.e. comfort, and amenities. We can save even more if we reduce services, but unfortunately that is not a universally preferred solution.

–   Fixing the problem will take money, but conservation of energy use can only be the driver if we move away from the pessimistic ‘years payback’ and towards the more equitable metric of ‘return on investment’ as the driver: building owners who demand 2-4 years payback are ignoring that these values comprise 50% and 25% ROI respectively. What other investments do we make in our daily lives with such extreme financial criteria? By way of contrast, utilities finance energy investments (power plants) for 40 years, and at lower rates.

–   We spend $400 billion/yr on energy use in buildings, and $800 billion in construction and renovation. We know we should cut the energy use by $100-$200 billion, and even know how to do it, which would free up capital to invest in better buildings.

–   We also need to rate and label the energy performance of every building.

–   One of the key changes needed are better designs that provide aggressive energy efficiency, e.g. the Passive House model. We need to provide a continuous improvement philosophy and implementation activities that ratchet down the energy use of every building.

–   We also need to rate and label the energy performance of every building. Commissioning is essential for measuring whether or not a building functions as designed.

–   Energy simulation, daylighting simulation, BIM (Building Information Modeling) are typically only elective courses in architecture schools, not part of the core professional curriculum. Worse, as yet, the various tools being developed by the government or the private sector (DOE-2/EQUEST, EnergyPlus, TRNSYS) are not inter-operational due to the use of separate programming languages, nor are they integrated with GIS, CFD, Radiance, thermal comfort programs, let alone the broader-scale data bases for community level information, plug-in hybrids, SCADA systems, etc.

–   There are cutting edge tools, skills and methods being developed by the building sector participants. They reside in the combination of BIM (Building Information Modeling), IPD (Integrated Project Delivery), and MBD (Modular Building Delivery), and energy and daylighting simultation (DIVA),  all embedded in an ethos of climate change mitigation and ecological literacy – an intellectual environment otherwise referred to as Green Mindset. However, they are not yet interoperational between each other nor with a wider platform of tools, including Graphical Information Systems (GIS), and Energy Management and Control Systems (EMCS).

The cadre of building sector professionals involved in designing, constructing, commissioning and operating buildings old and new need to acknowledge and incorporate into their decision-making the inter-operational aspects of the three dynamic systems of climate, socio-economics and building sector.

Education of owners is different from that of contractors, and both in turn are different from the education of architects, urban designers and engineers. However, one thing is becoming abundantly clear as the building sector grapples with climate change awareness in the context of energy conservation and building sector implementation inefficiencies: only in collaboration can we address climate change.

In addition, architects need to learn to understand building science and technology, engineers need to learn about design, both professional groups need to learn to understand economics and sociology, and all need to become ecologically literate … and then we collectively need to learn that – for every project – collaboration with professionally-trained colleagues is essential if the project is to embody climate change mitigation characteristics.

This kind of educational deepening needs to take place both in the professional schools as well as the continuing education programs demanded by all professions of the building sector system. That this requires teacher training seems evident. In turn, since school curricula are difficult to change because faculty are often not trained in climate change mitigation needs (apart from sometimes not even being convinced of the needs), and because faculty are understandably reluctant to discard the large investment in their established syllabi in favor of the work required to develop new material, pressure for change needs to come from several different directions: from the students, from the established professionals who realize the need for adapting to new tools, skills and methods, from innovative faculty, from the administrations of the educational institutions, from the trustees of the educational institutions, from the professional associations[7], and even from the accreditation agencies of educational institutions (NAAB for schools of architecture, ABET for schools of engineering). Perhaps the most important and also most difficult component of curricular changes resides in the need to change the way how design studios are held. Design studios are the cauldrons where architectural creativity and practicality are forged into the necessary climate change mitigation tools, skills and methods; yet if the students don’t experience the value of multi-disciplinary collaboration as they set about solving the needs of different client and project types, they will be severely handicapped in coming to climate change mitigation, because no single profession can encompass the variety of responses which the problems of climate change complexity demands.

In addition, licensing authorities have a major role to play: they can issue clear policy on climate change mitigation and how it is connected to our socio-economic system. These authorities can put in place the appropriate tests to gauge professional competence. And although adoption of new standards for testing is understandably slow, the momentum of climate change makes imperative the acceleration of this process.

Since owners are not required to seek professional accreditation, the above-mentioned prerequisite for appropriate responses to climate change mitigation is more difficult. However, other participants in the socio-economic — the lawmakers, the governmental as well as non-governmental agencies and authorities, and the banker-financiers – can all influence the climate response outcome of building. The laws, codes, rules and regulations they originate and administer affect all of us, professionals and lay persons alike. In addition, the demand-side of capitalism is demonstrating that owners can be influenced by educated clients in matters of energy frugality and attention to matters of sustainability.

It is noteworthy that since our society’s awareness and education of these complexities is so diverse, the need for regulatory guidance via laws, codes, rules and regulations is essential if one wants to minimize the time lag between universal social awareness of the issues and the adoption of measures to counteract climate change.

The problem for us all, but especially for professionals who are schooled to be task-oriented, rests in the fact that climate change mitigation is a mindset issue, not simply a task issue. Climate change is so complex that no single effort (task) can hope to solve all aspects of the problem. What is required of lay persons, policy makers and professionals alike is to act by thinking how our work – and play – can help mitigate rather than aggravate climate change. Equally important is for us to keep in mind the likely outcomes of any mitigation efforts, and their effects on the triple bottom line of people, prosperity and environment. In short, such thinking constitutes for us all our Green Mindset.

Such a Green Mindset is at the heart of the most innovative approaches to high-performance, climate-positive projects and programs like the Living Building Challenge, The Clinton Climate Positive Partner developments, the One Planet Communities, the Omega Center for Sustainable Living, Permaculture, John Todd Ecological Design, etc.). Beyond their regenerative effects on climate, these examples provide impressive health, productivity, resilience, security and attractive returns on investment benefits. They represent an outcome-driven way of thinking and acting that is based on multi-disciplinary collaboration. The very act of assembling such a multi-disciplinary team at various stages of professional education and practice represents a reasoned response to the complexities of climate change. Regeneration of the planet’s productive environment and mitigating the harmful anthropogenic effects on climate will henceforth require the highly-sophisticated input from all sectors of human ingenuity, from science, from technology and from the humanities.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Unfortunately, a distinct time lag exists between building sector professions acquiring new tools, skills and methods to address the complexities of climate change, and the time it takes for these new tools, skills and methods to become institutionalized: for the educational institutions to adopt new curricula; the time it takes for teachers – of architecture and engineering especially – to learn how to teach these; the time it takes for the professional education accrediting agencies to put in place the criteria by which to evaluate educational institutions and their curricula; the time it takes for the professional licensing authorities to develop the exams to test proficiency in candidates for degrees and for licensure; and the time it takes for all the accumulated knowledge to be transformed into the necessary codes, rules and regulations, which takes time to seep into the public consciousness to such an extent as to become second nature. Climate change, however, has a momentum which requires action. We need:

–   Public education efforts of the type offered by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, NRDC, WWF, Architecture 2030, USGBC,,  etc. and the media on the public side, and on the governmental side by the Department of Education and  Department of Energy, which collectively create the context in which we individually live our lives – aware or unaware of the urgency of climate change mitigation.

–   Curricular changes starting in K-12 schools and continuing through colleges and universities, to engender full awareness of the challenges that climate change represents for every person on the planet. Organizations like AASHE, SBSE, and Second Nature are diligently engaged in developing curricula, broadcasting successful efforts, and responding to the demands of the students for insights into – and instruction in – sustainability.

–   Curricular changes in the educational institutions of all building sector professionals to ensure that all graduates can competently engage in the multi-disciplinary responses to the complexities of climate change mitigation. Some colleges and universities are in the process of initiating such changes[8]. The sole national regulator of architecture schools, the National Architecture Accreditation Board (NAAB), together with its collateral organizations (AIA, AIAS, ACSA and NCARB)[9], has a most important role to play.

–   Teacher training in most schools of architecture and engineering, to ensure the proper education of all faculty of institutions claiming to graduate professionals who are proficient in the climate change mitigation. Such training needs to encompass the ability to teach tools, skills and methods like BIM, IPD and MBD; the expertise to practice multi-disciplinary studio instruction; and – most importantly – the talent to instill the techniques and principles of design creativity.

–   Professional licensing authority changes in the testing materials for such professional competence. Since the current insular testing for professional expertise of architects and engineers precludes testing for the multi-disciplinary collaboration required to mitigate climate change, entirely new and combined architecture-engineering institutions and appropriately-created licensing exams seem called for[10].

–   Changes initiated by lawmakers and authorities setting codes and regulations which incorporate climate change mitigation measures and standards. Examples include laws like The Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act[11] and the adoption of the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC)[12], and the publication of the International green Construction Code[13] by the International Code Council (ICC). These are the initial indicators that climate change awareness is spreading throughout society.

–   Adoption of a Green Mindset by us all.

So far, the struggle to pass national legislation addressing climate change mitigation through energy conservation and replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy sources has seen the predominance of  vested interests seeking to preserve outdated and deleterious extraction and consumption of scarce planetary resources. However, this political process is not over, and increasing awareness of climate change by record-setting temperatures and disruptive events (storms, floods, and draughts) across the globe this summer will of necessity bring the issue before the country’s legislative bodies.

Living with a sense of operating in the complex web of different and interlocking dynamic systems of climate change, ecology, and our socio-economic reality requires of us an ethos, a unifying philosophy or Green Mindset, which will – once adopted – underpin the validity and meaning of our individual professions and daily undertakings. This unifying philosophy is the recently-formulated need to mitigate rather than aggravate climate change, and essentially constitutes the Hippocratic Oath-equivalent for 21st century humanity. In the words of the International Living Building Institute (IBLI):

What if every single act of design and construction made the world a better place?

[1] Bob Herbert, Putting Our Brains on Hold, NY Times, August 10, 2010

[2] January to June 2010 are the hottest 6 months on record on our planet, and it is likely that 2010 will be the hottest year on record, following on the hottest decade on record.

[3] Claridge, D., Haberl, J., Liu, M., Athar, A. 1996. “Implementation of Continuous Commissioning in the Texas LoanSTAR Program:

Can you Achieve 150% of Estimated Retrofit Savings?: Revisited,” Proceedings of the 1996 ACEEE Summer Study (August), pp. 4.31-

4.48. Also PassivHaus standards:

[4] US Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Annual Industry Accounts, May 2008 <>

[5] Winner of the 2009 AIA Gold Medal, the highest honor that the American Institute of Architects bestows annually.

[6] New Scientist, 20 October 2010, Climate change battle moves to courtrooms, p8 ff. The parties being sued are ones like American Electric Power (AEP) and Tennessee Valley Authority. This is relevant because 70% the electricity produced in the US is consumed by the buildings of the economy.

[7] SBSE and AIA have collaborated in the Carbon Neutral Design Curriculum Materials Project <>, which is as yet incomplete for lack of funding. The Boston Society of Architects Sustainability Education Committee has drafted A tentative Carbon Neutral/Zero Net Energy (CN/ZED) Curriculum Outline. In some state schools, such as Texas A&M University, integrated studio classes are now being offered where faculty with engineering backgrounds work side-by-side with architecture design faculty to more closely mirror real-world A/E design projects <”>.

[8] The San Francisco Institute of Architecture (SFIA) offers distance learning Bachelor degrees in Green Building Business Management, Green Building Entrepreneurship, Green Building Planning and Design, Green Building Construction and Construction Management, Green Building Facilities Management and a Bachelor of Education in Green Building and Sustainable Design. Ironically, during this period where innovative approaches to climate change are desperately needed, “Architectural accreditation [of SFIZ] through the National Architectural Accrediting Board is still some years away. Meanwhile, education at SFIA is recognized for partial credit toward the California architecture licensing exam.)”! Similarly disappointing was the missed opportunity by NAAB (and its Canadian counterpart) to incorporate as an aspirational goal in its 2009 Conditions for Accreditation the recommendation by the Society of Building Science Educators (SBSE) “That NAAB and CACB/CCCA set as a Condition for Accreditation that every North American  architecture school’s curriculum provide all graduates with the theoretical and practical competence to consistently design high quality carbon neutral/zero net energy built environments.”

[9] American Institute of Architects, American Institute of Architects Student Organization, Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, and National Council of Architectural Registration Boards.

[10] Bucky Fuller once said: “The only way to make significant change is to make the thing you’re trying to change obsolete.”

[11] <>

[12] <>

[13] <>

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