Buildings Emit Greenhouse Gases: Older buildings and homes are the culprit

Green Living — By on February 1, 2009 11:40 AM

By Alix Shutello
“Why haven’t we been designing buildings to reduce energy consumption all along? Many of the green solutions should have been second nature to any good designer in the first place. It seems that this has taken a global scare to get people to use the common sense they had all along.”
Designer Kevin Tilley, of RCC Architects
Buildings, according to the design and construction industry, are touted as the single largest contributors to global warming, accounting for 48% of all energy consumption and annual greenhouse gas emissions globally.  A report, published by Design Build+Construction, entitled Green Buildings and Climate Change, (November, 2008) takes a comprehensive look at the impacts of homes, schools, churches, corporate buildings, and malls on global warming. 
The industry, represented by architects, engineers, builders, property owners, and real estate developers is bound by self-imposed and government instituted building codes and regulations in construction practices.   These regulations, which are constantly changing, – hopefully, are moving forward in a manner that will reduce environmental impacts. Over many decades, the industry has been looking to establish greener development policies and practices by incorporating green energy codes and regulation into future construction around the nation.  The main green issue is not so much the building of new buildings with new environmental standards as it is retrofitting existing buildings with energy-saving technologies.
The Green Buildings and Climate Change report was inspired by existing data about the industry.  In particular, the findings of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who reported that buildings contribute significantly to high green house gas emissions (GHG) and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (September 2008) report which states that the rate of GHG emissions have increased nearly fourfold globally since 2000 IPCC report; due to the building of coal-fired power plants, most notably in China and India. And while China has passed the U.S. as the largest emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2), individuals in the U.S. emit more greenhouses gases (GHG) than anywhere else in the world. This is why President Barak Obama has made the greening of old government buildings a priority in his administration.
Architecture 2030 – Promoting Change

While many companies wait for incentives to change such as government incentives, tax breaks, and advancements in technology, many in the industry are taking it upon themselves to promote change.
Architecture 2030 (, or the 2030 Challenge Stimulus Plan is a plan adopted by the U.S. Government to reduce fossil fuel consumption and become carbon neutral by 2030. The U.S. Government owns more buildings than any other entity in the country and has set targets for a 55% reduction in fossil fuel consumption and GHG emissions by 2010 with a goal of complete carbon neutrality by 2030.
The government seems to be taking this seriously.  Barbara DeRosa-Joynt, a long-time employee of the State Department, said that in her office there are no light switches. Lights are set on motion sensors so that no light remains on when people leave the room. This and other energy-saving techniques will allow the government to stay on track to meet their goals.
Many if not most old buildings aside from government buildings such as, churches, retail stores, supermarkets, and residential homes in the U.S., are not retrofitted with modern energy saving devices and technologies.  These buildings make up 98% of all the buildings in the U.S. While great strides are being made to build new buildings with environmentally friendly technologies, such as Bank of America’s new eco-friendly LEED-Platinum Plus skyscraper in New York City, older commercial buildings and residential homes emit huge amounts of GHG emissions.   The Green Buildings and Climate Change report suggests that making many low-cost improvements to millions of existing homes and buildings may be more effective that trying to achieve zero emissions for new buildings.
Moving Forward
It will take a huge national effort to reduce the impact of buildings on the environment. We are all responsible for making our homes more energy efficient; even if that means putting towels in front of the doors to keep the heat from escaping in the winter or turning the thermostat down at night and using more blankets.  In some states, there are tax breaks for purchasing solar panels or purchasing energy efficient windows. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) Web site,, offers great sources of information for the public on everything from light bulbs to Energy Star products.  There will always be a cost, whether we do something or do nothing. Just remember, it’s always more costly emotionally and fiscally to repair our environment than to preserve it.
Examples of the type of buildings in need of energy-saving renovations:
College/University Buildings
Government/military buildings
K-12 Schools
Labe or research facilities
Office Buildings
Hospitals/healthcare facilities
Mixed use commercial facilities
Airport/transportation facilities
Religious buildings
Sports/entertainment/convention facilities
Industrial/manufacturing buildings
Retails/shopping centers
Restaurants/fast-food chains
The Green Buildings and Climate report lists the top six energy wasters in existing buildings and homes:

Equipment, such as computers, running more than needed
Cooling or heating air more than needed
Cooling or heating water more than needed
Heating and cooling at the same time
Moving/running too much air
Moving/running too much water
Simple solutions from insulating walls, installing new eco-certified windows and solar water heaters, purchasing Energy Star appliances, putting heat and cooling systems on timers, and using less water and energy will have a profound impact on energy use in this country. When affordable, we should at least try to make changes in our own homes, while supporting our local communities as they work to do the same.
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