23 Days To Go: The Habit of Consumption

Jess is far too modest to advertise this herself, but I just have to tell you about it. She now has her own website with all her graphics and architectural designs. It’s a gorgeous portfolio. Please give it a look, and tell your friends: https://www.jessicaleebutler.com/Index.html. — AWO

A large portion of my posts relate to the trends, shortcomings, and advantages of the “green” movement within the realm of architecture. I have my opinions and concerns about the popularity of the green movement as just a “fad,” something that people just do for the sticker price or for first impression. While I don’t deny that it’s good people are moving in a more sustainable direction for whatever reason they choose, we need to be changing not just our standards and incentives, but also our motivations and thought processes.  

A new report by Rob Watson has shown that while many LEED-certified buildings are more sustainable, they are not necessarily more energy-efficient. Fewer than 30% of these buildings would qualify for the ENERGY STAR label, a more stringent and energy-focused rating system operated by the Department of Energy. This fact can lead us to assume that builders and developers are focusing more on getting LEED points in areas that cost less (materials, construction methods, etc.) and get them the certification, but not necessarily the ones that matter in terms of consumption (mechanicals, insulation types). While I think that this assumption is mostly true (who doesn’t want to save a buck these days?), I also think that there is an important factor to consider when looking at the performance of LEED and uncertified buildings in general: human, and particularly American, energy consumption.

While making changes in the efficiency of buildings throughout the country will in the end help to improve our total consumption, the fact is that while we Americans continue to employ the same energy-using practices, it will be hard to make a large dent in the amount of energy we use. Right now, we leave lights and TVs on, use inefficient lightbulbs, charge laptops, leave computers plugged in, cook, clean and live our lives with a huge amount of energy wasted. At most schools, supermarkets, airports, office buildings, and most other public buildings, lights are left on for the duration of every single night of the year, I assume for security and aesthetic purposes. We have air conditioners, heaters, and fans; ipods, stereos, TVs, and alarm clocks; all things that we use every day and take for granted. Everything down to our stop lights uses energy, and most people don’t realize the inherent cost of operating all the things that fill the buildings we use. Aside from the performance of the building, the people who sleep, eat, work, and live in them are still following the same habit: wasting as much energy as they like because that is the standard of living they’re used to.

Until Americans are ready to address real sustainability by reducing consumption with everyday activities, the performance of buildings themselves will not be able to have a large impact in the energy crisis that is coming our way. This starts with our own motivations: Right now, most people are building LEED- or ENERGY STAR- certified homes for their resale and rental values (another report released this year shows that green rated buildings have higher rental rates than comparable buildings) rather than a genuine interest in sustainability. These labels have become a trend that are more for popularity contests than actual efficiency. Until the factors that effect our sustainability start directly effecting us (builders, developers, homeowners, lessees) such as energy prices, access to energy and how we are using it, we won’t have a motivation to change the status quo. Without placing direct regulations on these factors, I don’t foresee any change in the attitudes of our country on how we use and waste energy.

So, maybe this holiday season, we can all turn off the Christmas lights a little sooner, watch a few less holiday TV episodes, and spend a little more face time with our families in the interest of conserving energy.