Earth Rise and Architecture, 50 Years Later

Today is the 50th anniversary of the iconic photo, Earth Rise, captured by the crew aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft in 1968. I was a child of the groovy, mellow, and high-tech 1970’s. The Space Shuttle wouldn’t fly until 1981, but it was promised to follow in the footsteps of the Mercury and Apollo programs. Science and Science Fiction, as evangelized by magazines such as Popular Science,  were promising an acceleration into a kind of Technological Utopia that followed from the booming economy and population of the post WWII era, yet was tempered by the Oil Crises (1970, 1973, 1979), The Vietnam War, and the sobering reflections of Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring. At the same time as unbridled enthusiasm for the future and its technology, the modern Environmental Movement also emerged.

The first Earth Day was held in 1970 as a direct result of the new global perspective we had reached, on looking back at the Earth from the Moon. So in this zeitgeist, there was an interesting group of developments in Canada such as the New Alchemy Institute’s 1976 ‘Ark’, (shown below, left) inaugurated by Pierre Trudeau, and the first R2000 Home (shown below, right) formerly known as the Saskatchewan Conservation House.

These projects and hundreds of ‘mass and glass’ lookalikes from this era were featured in the pages of Popular Science,  and promised that by taking a more scientific view of how houses were designed, from insulation, to orientation, the conventional reliance on non-renewable energy sources could be done away with. As a kid obsessed with the spaceships and planes and cars and homes of the future, it only seemed natural that a high tech, high performance home would be a desirable thing, and that these homes of the future would someday be my home of the present.

In this context, doesn’t it seem odd that housing design in Canada in the actual year 2019, the very distant future of my childhood dreams, seems to be focused on a kind of investment calculation that is best described by the largest volume of space that can be delivered for the least capital outlay? Or housing and neighbourhood design that best fits some anachronistic notion of the perfect 1950’s subdivision replete with automobile-centred access and homes boasting French Provincial or pseudo-Victorian facades? What is with the fake historicism? What happened to performance? What happened to technology and alternative energy and indoor gardens and smart waste processing systems? Where are the homes of the future we were promised in the recent past? Could it be that we are repeating what happened after the fall of the Roman Empire, when Passive Solar Design was largely forgotten? Prior to even the rise of that ill-fated Empire, even Aeschylus wrote, “Only primitives & barbarians lack knowledge of houses turned to face the Winter sun.”

The Popular Science ‘Home of 2000’ devised as a passive and active solar residence in 1976.

To be fair, there have been dozens of environmental building performance standards and rating systems developed federally and provincially and privately, from LEED Buildings, to R2000, CBIP (now defunct), EnerGuide, Passivhaus  , NovoClimat, BuildSmart, and many more. But these kinds of buildings are still unfortunately the exceptions and not the norm. To use a car analogy, these buildings represent the two Teslas in the mall’s parking lot on a given holiday weekend. Given that we have a massive uphill battle to limit GHG emissions globally, Nationally and Provincially – we really ought to have a better and simpler program, mandated and administered by either our Federal or Provincial Governments. Not strictly because such buildings are better for the environment, but because high performance buildings are also better for the economy, for architects, designers, builders, owners, operators and even human health and as such, green buildings are a cornerstone of any proposed green economy. But if these buildings demonstrate so many benefits, why the heck aren’t they the absolute standard way of doing things? Well, in Germany – they are, but Germany’s leadership in this area has a long and interesting history which I won’t get into here, but let’s just say there seems to be a moral imperative and an obligation to continue the arc of ‘Naturwissenschaft’ vs. Rationalism in Science, or in other words, blame Goethe – but that’s for another blog another day.

Let’s just say we were making slow and steady progress towards a smarter architecture until this all got political. Sure, some of the principles of ‘mass and glass’ solar design were misguided. We learned how to prevent the materials in the assemblies from rotting from bad vapour detailing and we learned how to provide fresh air with heat recovery. We also learned how to prevent overheating.  With the proper amount of insulated glass and appropriate shading, and most importantly air-tightness and a better understanding of pressure and vapour control, and completing the ‘house as a system’ with controlled ventilation systems that included heat exchangers – the green design of today is better than it has ever been, even if it’s relatively uncommon. Why then aren’t the ‘masses’ demanding this? I think the biggest problem here is that the ‘masses’ really don’t even know that green design exists, is better than ever, and is either cost-neutral or comes with only a marginal premium. From a recent talk by Jonathan Kearns, founding partner of Kearns Mancini Architect, the added cost to reach Passivhaus levels of performance is on the order of 0 to 15%. In our practice – we are aiming to reach these levels of performance at well below the costs of conventional construction. It’s possible – but it’s still not popular. This may in large part be due to dirty energy that is still too cheap, or because we still don’t have a National or even Provincial measuring stick to determine building energy performance criteria – such as I have written about in How Many Miles Per Gallon does your Building Get?

But let’s step back a bit, how is an ‘Energy Efficient’ building even defined? What is ‘Green Architecture’? There are so many metrics, so many aspects to consider when defining a building, especially one that is now so much more than just a fancy pile of carved rocks. Simply put, let’s just return to the term ‘Sustainable’ for a moment, and recall that what is sustainable is to build today what does not rob the future of resources, energy or opportunity. I have always understood that to mean a building that is designed with less materials, more durable materials, less toxic materials, and that uses ‘natural assets’ such as the sun and wind and location/orientation to maximum advantage – so that energy inputs for heating, cooling, cooking and other uses is reduced to an absolute minimum. But there are thousands of ways to design such a building, so many things to measure, so many standards one can comply with, so many variables, and so many competing interests that wish to guide, challenge, administer and certify architectural design in exchange for a branded ‘stamp of approval’ – all of which requiring their pound of flesh. Which one is ‘best’? Which standard is the most appropriate?

Building Related World GHG emissions are on the order of 15% even without considering the impact of development or construction materials which can add as much as another 10-15%.

I think it is safe to say that a single driving priority has emerged that can help answer this question of too many variables: Carbon Control.

Our atmosphere is composed of four principal gases, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Argon, Carbon Dioxide and a bunch of other stuff. CO2 comprises only 0.03% of the total, but as we know, it has an extremely potent effect on climate, most notably warming. The consensus on a safe level of CO2 in the atmosphere is 350ppm (parts per million). We have now surpassed 410ppm. Studies show that in 45years we are on track for an increase to 1,370ppm and with this an increase in the global mean temperature of over 4.9ºC. This would result in climate armageddon, which we can see has already begun at 400ppm and with 0.9ºC of warming. On another note, prolonged exposure to high CO2 levels in indoor environments (600ppm) can lead to physical health symptoms. 2,500ppm, and 5,000ppm are considered asphyxiating levels of CO2 over periods longer than 8hrs, but as of yet there has been no long term studies of levels of CO2 over even 400pm, the jury is really out with respect to the period and concentration of CO2 toxicity en masse, for us air breathers. For the oceans – this acidification is already proving lethal. The last time the Earth witnessed CO2 levels this high, Humans did not yet exist.

The fact is, the emission of CO2 as a by-product of combustion appliances in buildings for space heat, hot water, power production and transportation can easily be, and need to be substantially reduced (80-100%) – to allow us to get back to annual global emissions to levels that we saw in 1990. I can say easily because my own experience on several projects (including my own house and car)  has shown that building related operational carbon emissions can be 100% avoided, as well as a 100% reduction in operational transportation related carbon emissions. Easy for a committed individual, less so for a global economy, which is why we need leadership now more than ever.

Pie chart showing the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Credits: Patti Isaacs Management and Production

Pie chart showing the chemical composition of the atmosphere.
Credits: Patti Isaacs Management and Production

All of this should be beyond argument at this point, and while massive carbon reductions is easy to do in new construction, 80% of the buildings we have built using outdated technologies will still be with us in 45years and beyond – and so we will need both deep energy retrofits to the existing stock (such as the OAA Headquarters). Where deep retro-fits aren’t possible – then green energy offsets like what Bullfrog Power offers should be utilized. New buildings will need to be either net zero carbon or carbon negative – and soon. This is why it is absolutely imperative that we stop squabbling over whether climate change is happening or not and get to the business of accelerating design to the next level. We have wasted decades and we do not have decades left to transition our AEC sector back to that path we started on in the 1970’s.

The Province of British Columbia should be commended for taking a leadership role in this respect, and I for one applaud the breadth and depth of their approach, which I’ll write in a subsequent blog on their ‘Step Code‘, which essentially compiles all of the various standards and programs for green design and energy efficient buildings into a single tidy framework that recognizes the overarching metric of energy performance in the absolute terms of TEUI – or Total Energy Use Intensity as a function of Building Area over the course of one year, as defined by the unit kWh/m2/yr. They have also provided a reasonable transition, or grace period, before mandatory compliance locks in. There is no real need for complex predictive energy models, or comparisons to notional reference buildings, but rather just straight-up energy performance. The ‘black box’ or method of arriving there is entirely at the Architect’s discretion – it just needs to prove itself – with utility bills. May the best buildings, and the best building designers win!

Andy Thomson

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