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On the second day of the conference, it was my turn to present and the topic was “The Future of Buildings.”  I don’t know exactly how this title came about, but it was a result of our discussion with COIPL Executive Director Betty Goebel.  We wanted to talk about buildings in the most global fashion, and to include religious facilities, residences, and other building types.  I asked myself “what do I wish everybody know about buildings and energy performance?”

The first key point was that buildings consume more energy, and produce more greenhouse gases, than either of the other two major economic activities in our modern world – transportation and industry.  In fact, buildings account for approximately 48% of energy use.  In short, buildings, and how we design them, really matter.

The second point was that all the religious facilities in the United Stated comprise approximately 4% of the non-residential building stock, but use only 2% of the non-residential building energy.  So, although we earnestly desire that every religious building be as energy efficient as possible, and contribute the minimum amount of greenhouse gas, doing so will not substantially alter the environmental problems we face.

Rather, faith based communities should do all they can to conserve energy for two other reasons.

  1. Conserving energy frees financial resources that can be dedicated to mission.
  2. Exercising stewardship in our own houses of worship sets an example for others to follow in other arenas of their lives.

I recently had the privilege of attending, and presenting at, the Colorado Interfaith Power and Light’s Creation Care Conference in Wheat Ridge, CO.  COIPL, as the organization is called, is an interfaith organization that attempts to call people of all faiths to action on behalf of the environment.  COIPL specifically focuses on issues related to climate change and global warming.

COIPL is a fascinating, and much needed, organization.  In our efforts to market sustainable building design to individual churches, we have encountered a surprising variety of attitudes toward the environment.  Some churches seem to have no interest, some worry that worship of Nature may be substituted for worship of God, and others are interested if there is a reasonable return on investment.  Only rarely have we encountered a religious organization that perceives Care of Creation as fundamental to its mission, or that views carelessness about Creation as a violation of religious covenants.

I like the term Creation Care, as it implies respect not just for all people, but for animals, plants, and even the inorganic matter that nourishes them all.  The Jewish community would prefer the term “Repairing the World,” representing both social and environmental awareness. Whether we call it Creation Care or Repairing the World, it is wonderful to see faith based communities working to become more sustainable and even working together to achieve this goal.

2011 certainly was an interesting one in terms of weather.  After record snowpack in the Rockies, the current winter has many wondering what is in store for the ski season this year.  It may be hard to remember, but August was one of the hottest on record in the Denver metro area.  Nationally, after the eastern seaboard shook off tropical storm Irene, a late fall snowstorm had people digging out.  Now, those Northeast backdrops for the GOP Presidential Candidates have something very unusual – no snow.  With all of these atypical weather patterns, it is a good time to discuss the concept of “Global Weirding”.

Global Weirding is a term that has been used to help explain a wide range of weather events that may be related to the rise in global temperatures.  These events may include violent storms, heavier snowfall, flooding, heat waves, and drought.  Further, these may trigger or aid in the spread of other events such as flooding, fires, and even economic loss.  Here is a reminder of some of the other weather and environmental extremes from 2011:

  • Record heat across the majority of Texas
  • Extreme drought conditions from Arizona across the gulf coast and into Georgia
  • Significant, if not record, wildfires in Arizona and Texas
  • Record flooding along the Mississippi river basin
  • An EF5 tornado with a 300 yard-wide eye that cut a destructive path through Joplin, MO
  • Extreme drought in the southeast corner of Colorado
  • Duststorms in Phoenix, AZ that stretched 100 miles long and thousands of miles high
  • Record blizzards in the Northeast the last two years

Often lost in the memory of these events is the cumulative national, regional, and personal cost that they incur.  However, the impact is not limited to just large weather events.  Long standing traditions and regional patterns based on seasons can be effected.  More often, we seem to be hearing anecdotal stories of unexpected weather, flowers blooming early, or even plants growing in regions where they formerly did not.  It may be difficult to pin any one of these smaller environmental events as weird, or even as a specific sign of climate change.  However, cumulative events across a region can begin to take on that effect.  These smaller impacts may be subtle, but the broader economic impact of the change can be significant.  A recent Associated Press article notes the impact of current weather on winter tourism on areas in Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York that simply have no snow.  Even here in Colorado, the tubing hills are seeing increased business, while many ski areas have bases only now approaching 24”. Obviously, the weather can quickly change with a series of spring storms, but more direct personal impacts are already happening.

So, what do we make of all this?  It may be years before we can track some of the recent patterns.  However, some indicators are already occurring. Nevertheless, taking the extremes of the past five years, it is possible to make a connection with ‘Global Weirding’ starting to occur across the country and the world.  Time will tell about what impacts these events may have on how we, as architects, analyze the local conditions for our buildings.  Despite the ongoing effort to politicize the debate about climate change and frame it away from scientific findings, these are issues worthy of our consideration.  How soon we’ll have to deal with them depends on how “weird” you think it is going to get!

By Alan Doggett

I recently came across a series of calculations on energy use that really caught my attention.  The analysis studied the rate of increase of energy use in the United States from 1650 to today.  That rate has been 2.9% per year.  Compounding. 2.9% doesn’t sound all that alarming, and by itself wouldn’t make a significant difference in global warming.

But what would happen if that seemingly modest rate of energy use growth were applied worldwide and continued to compound year after year? At some time in the not too distant future would it become insupportable and destructive to the global ecosystem?

The math is astounding! In only 1,390 years from now, that rate of energy growth would take Earth from a trivial rock orbiting the sun to an energy output EQUAL to the sun! If that is not surprising enough, continuing the trend another 1,600 years, our planet would have an energy output equal to our Sun plus every other star in our Milky Way galaxy!

Current concerns about global warming are mostly related to the greenhouse effect due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But before long the greenhouse effect will be insignificant compared to the waste heat generated by all that energy production.

It is all too apparent that sometime before the year 3501 we will have to curb our appetite for continuous energy output growth. That is far in the future and we could let our distant descendants deal with it. But should we? Don’t we who share this pale blue dot have an obligation to design our civilization in a way that avoids destroying the planet that nurtured us to begin with?