The cities of the future used to feature flying cars. A warming world demands new dreams. – The Washington Post
Ned Cramer is the editor in chief of Architect magazine.
Last week, temperatures neared 110 degrees across Europe, where only 1 in 20 households has air conditioning. Such record-breaking fits of nature are increasingly the norm. To maintain our quality of life, which is to say, civilization, we must transform our way of life, starting with the built environment.
Yesterday’s visions of the cities of tomorrow were big on bravura, with giant robots, flying cars and mile-high skyscrapers. As the principles of a more ecologically balanced architecture and urbanism take shape, it is evident that utility, not flash, will be the dominant theme. But just because the possibilities for transforming our built environment now being tested in tech labs and design studios offer less spectacle, that doesn’t make them any less remarkable.
Our first concern in a heat wave such as this recent one may be how buildings can keep us cool. But our built environment plays a worrisome role warming the world. The construction and operation of buildings are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
The same techniques that have given us some of our most visually distinct architecture are helping us tackle this problem. Architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid used modeling software to design buildings with radical and expressive forms. Increasingly, however, architects and engineers are using computation to model and monitor building performance, so buildings can manage light, water, temperature and airflow with less energy, and provide healthier conditions for occupants.
Structures can now be made to operate so efficiently that they produce as much or more power — via solar panels, geothermal heat pumps and other renewable sources — than they consume. At the American Geophysical Union headquarters near Dupont Circle, work is nearing completion on Washington’s first net-zero energy building renovation.
Some innovations will reduce our dependence on technology. For instance, no one has yet found a way to make air conditioning significantly less energy-intensive. So to reduce dependence on climate control, homes will simply need to be better insulated — and people will also learn to live within a slightly broader indoor temperature range. And much of that insulation will be made of natural materials such as wool and cotton, recycled from discarded clothes.
But design can get us only so far: Other changes will need to couple virtuous design with major changes in taste and behavior.
Take those tree-hugger cliches, solar panels, which are getting both more affordable and more visually discreet. If solar panels that look like roof shingles take hold on the typical house, we could distribute the surplus electricity via community-scaled microgrids.
And electricity isn’t the only resource we could produce ourselves. It would take both changes to the physical environment and a willingness on behalf of ordinary citizens to capture rainwater in barrels and cisterns for drinking, cooking and bathing, and to filter the wastewater for use in our gardens.
Perhaps the most challenging change would be for America’s tear-down culture to give way to an ethic of repair and reuse. Buildings can no longer be treated as disposable. They entail massive expenditures of cash, energy and carbon, and we have to make them last. When a structure outlives its original purpose, we can’t just rip it down and send the refuse to the trash heap. We must either adapt it or carefully disassemble it and redeploy the materials. That isn’t just good environmental policy: In cases such as Redskins owner Daniel Snyder’s efforts to trade 22-year-old FedEx Field for a new stadium, it’s good fiscal policy as well.
Perhaps the most difficult-to-stomach change will come with the necessity to retreat. Extreme weather will lead insurers to avoid disaster-prone areas, making it infeasible for families and businesses to rebuild. As New York is doing in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, authorities will allow places at risk to revert to nature as swamps, wetlands and mangrove forests that provide a buffer against subsidence, storm surge and other effects of climate change.
It may be hard to let go. But for all it threatens to take away, climate change could encourage a different pace of life, a kind of slow urbanism. We might travel long distances less often, explore digital realms to slake our wanderlust, and get around day-to-day on trains, bikes, scooters and our own two feet. Definitions of productivity and prosperity could shift. A renewed sense of common purpose — of neighborliness — could augment Americans’ innate spirit of individualism and entrepreneurialism, with cooperative marketplaces, both physical and virtual, formal and informal, allowing people to trade goods and services.
These are enormous changes to contemplate. But as last week’s heat wave illustrates, a newer, hotter world is coming, whether we like it or not. Before it arrives in full force, we should ask our politicians for something more radical than more air conditioning.