Carbon accounting will only take us so far: The data reveals that architecture’s next challenge is to do more with less.

Architecture 2030 Is Not Enough

Carbon accounting will only take us so far: The data reveals that architecture’s next challenge is to do more with less.

(IDuke/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5)

In a series of short articles, Edward Mazria, acclaimed founder and CEO of Architecture 2030, has been periodically broadcasting updates on an encouraging trend in the building industry’s effort to reduce carbon emissions. According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), from 2005 to 2022 the U.S. building industry, despite adding 62.5 billion square feet to stockpiles, showed a remarkable decrease (28.4 percent) in operational CO2 emissions (those resulting from energy used to heat, cool, and power buildings), resulting in a whopping $1.8 trillion savings for building owners.

This data should strike a blow against arguments questioning the value, viability, and effectiveness of greening power grids and electrifying buildings, particularly in policy debates in states such as New York, where fossil fuel lobbies have waged a misinformation campaign aimed at swaying public opinion against an approved gas ban law. In New York City, real estate interests are also currently flexing political muscle in an attempt to defang one of the nation’s most ambitious programs, Local Law 97, which mandates extensive clean retrofits of the city’s most polluting buildings. The EIA’s data disproves naysayers’ contentions that the greening of power grids and the electrification of buildings are prohibitively expensive and ineffective.

What’s driving these improvements? As late as 2017, Mazria chalked it up to “the architecture and planning community and our colleagues in the building sector,” tracing the turnaround to 2005 and the formation of Architecture 2030. And Mazria wasn’t just blowing his own horn: It’s thought that in recent decades, improved building efficiency alone has staved off the need to build new power plants.

Does it Matter Who Gets Credit? 

Maybe. It’s clear much of the load is carried by improved building efficiency measures (better building systems, envelope design and insulation, widespread adoption of LED lighting, passive design strategies, etc.). Since 2005, Mazria shows, energy intensity (that is, how much energy per square foot a building draws) has dropped precipitously: 39.8 percent for residential buildings and 43.7 percent for commercial buildings.

So are we good? It seems obvious, as Mazria warns, that decoupling growth from emissions in the U.S. does not decouple it from environmental pressures and impacts in general. Most markedly, unquestioning allegiance to spatial expansion weds our work to material extraction and ground coverage over greater areas, driving ecosystem damage not captured by emission calculations alone. The problem, however, is not just overfocusing on emissions. Nor is it the lack of ameliorative, mitigative, and adaptive solutions offered by the building industry. The problem, more fundamentally, is that current economic and political frameworks mostly limit the implementation of reforms to those accommodating capitalist mandates.

Carbon Accounting Is Not Enough 

Irrespective of whether past reductions are due to a combination of cleaner power and building electrification or efficiency improvements, building efficiency improvements in the future will deliver a decreasing percentage of returns as electrical energy generation continues to become cheaper and cleaner. This means that embodied carbon will represent an ever-growing percentage of building emissions. (It currently comprises about half.) Mazria is optimistic about the building industry’s potential to reduce these because of the emergence of extensive, ambitious, and, of course, proprietary data-collection and life-cycle accounting software. However, despite aspirations of scientific management and comprehensiveness, life cycle analysis and similar programs remain, for now, considerably more art than science. They suffer from low participation, lack of standardization, and lack of transparency, as well as “system boundary problems,” which refers to the challenge of gleaning quantitative data from boundlessly complex, interrelated, dynamic systems. One wonders if their greatest impact will be as a delivery mechanism for the U.S.’s $83 billion market for green building products, assemblies, and services, which is expected to double by 2030. Having emerged as a cottage growth niche itself, carbon accounting remains a mostly unproven mitigation tool. A strategy we know will work, in contrast, and in keeping with a precautionary principle for development, is to slow spatial expansion, build quantitatively less, and spatially contract.

Living in the Sprawl

The problem, however, is that building creates externalized costs not captured in GDP as direct emissions or energy use. In the U.S., floor area has consistently increased faster than population since the postwar period. Homes have nearly doubled in size since the 1970s, while the median household size has diminished, along with average lot sizes. Currently, 90 percent of buildings in the U.S. are single-family homes, composing 60 percent of the country’s total floor area.

Courtesy Architecture 2030/U.S. Energy Information Administration

These tendencies form the DNA of urban sprawl, loss of agricultural land, and extensive swaths of ill-formed, exurban sprawl, with residents separated within detached buildings tethered together via private transport and reliant on forced air heating and cooling, all the result of cheap, plentiful fossil fuels. The overbuilding of detached single-family houses also may be the primary contributor to increased social isolation and sedentary lifestyle in wealthy countries. Simply put, the building industry’s provision of housing for the country’s population has been largely insufficient, deleterious, wasteful, and alienating.

The most urgent reason for reducing building area, however, is what climate economists term the time value of carbon. Reductions now are more valuable than reductions later, and reductions in the past would have been more valuable than they are now. Atmospheric carbon is a stock, not a flow, problem. That is, while a pivot to lower-carbon materials will reduce the amount of embodied emissions per added square foot of floor area, atmospheric carbon is additive, against which a gradualist approach will only slow the rate.

The other problem is that not all building requires spatial expansion. Mazria uses GDP and floor area together to represent “growth.” This makes intuitive sense. Adding floor area requires mobilizing extensive industrial networks, from resource extraction to waste disposal, entailing enormous quantities of energy, material, land, and labor. It’s important to note that EIA data, however, shows GDP and floor area increasingly diverging, the former faster than the latter.

Unquestionably, certain expansion is warranted, not the least of which is the urgent provision of housing in the face of a shortfall of an estimated 6.5 million units. But within wealthy nations, there are obvious reasons for employing strategies of spatial compaction at the urban and architectural scales, including preserving permeability, biodiversity, habitats, and arable land.

The subtle conflation of economic growth and spatial expansion betrays a bias toward additive strategies. Such bias perpetuates externalization of the costs of climate damage, foisting them onto society and future generations. It normalizes the failure to monetize avoiding harm, which is instead diffused and socialized. And it accepts as given the artificial depression of true building costs.

It’s true that cohousing and downsizing dwellings might be a big a pill for some Americans to swallow. But in comparison to exclusive reliance on proprietary accreditation systems to incentivize the reduction of embodied carbon, a strategy of minimizing spatial expansion can be counted on to more quickly, effectively, and predictably minimize the addition of embodied carbon to buildings.

Improving Buildings Versus Improving Building

Present economic and policy frameworks fail to sufficiently support the adaptive, ameliorative, and passive energy design measures architects and planners have recommended for decades. Architecture 2030’s Palette platform is attempting to answer these: However, in practice, 2030’s Palette serves less as an artist’s toolbox than as an attractive hors d’oeuvres platter that (1) municipalities cautiously pluck from, purchased with whatever resources can be pried away from coffers reliant on real estate taxes, and (2) developers avoid, unless incentivized, as they don’t want to ruin their diets.

Under current regimes, each strategy is rated not according to its potential to generate social value but according to metrics of derisking, ESG valuation, and efficiency of marketing expenditure. Without a drastic shift toward radically more democratic control over planning, planning shifts from market chaos to “industrial planning,” which looks a lot like the state acting as a crutch for capital by providing derisking incentives for private financiers to invest in green power development projects and the speculative development of green building industry technology, products, and services.

Creating legislation robust enough to drive investment in public housing, green infrastructure, and a green construction industry that prioritizes people’s needs requires clarity from the architecture profession and, likely, organized action and acts of refusal. It will require the transformation of not merely the built environment but the building design professions. We must undergo a shift from a heroic, form-giving practice to one prioritizing stewardship and repair. What’s needed is a transformation of how we monetize social value. It’s crucial to decouple is the link between profit and planning. We need to recognize the value of doing less and, when needed, of doing nothing.

Martin Weiner is an architectural worker in New York City.