What can a building technologist do about climate change? Part 2

Core & Shell

In an earlier post, I wondered: How does one determine what to spend one’s time on, in a shift to focusing on climate change? Particularly one who has an obsessive interest in people’s experiences with buildings and the built environment, like myself?

I narrowed in on modular components that needed a deeper look:

  • Air conditioning
  • Space heating
  • Water heating
  • Building controls

And I spoke of the ongoing life of buildings, post occupancy. The world I painted (and still paint today) was one of building evolution. Of “technics and systems” (and the infrastructure of that infrastructure) that can adapt and evolve based on our current needs and capabilities. As our technologies become more capable, how do we use buildings as a medium for new decarbonized solutions, new collaboration methods, and/or new public health mechanisms… to better match the built world to human experience?

In that post, rather than elaborate on what this future of the built environment could be, I fixated my attention on a specific question: What would PREVENT that painted world from happening? I highlighted the following tactics to address such frictions:

Address interfaces

  • Integrated firms
  • Interface-dependent technologies

Address architectural change
Note: by architectural, I mean “systemic”

  • Standards (and really: Building codes)
  • Status (and really: Group identity)
  • Transfer mechanisms (and really: Incentives)

While I outlined areas for friction busting, I really struggled to articulate the actual problem today. (I still struggle with that dance to be honest.) Fortunately, over the past two months the shape of that problem has become more clear.

The problem: We don’t know how to evolve our personal infrastructure

We don’t know how to continually evolve our personal infrastructure. And we need to, to reduce and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Erika Reinhardt released an excellent post in January 2020 titled “A Data-Driven Guide to Effective Personal Climate Action.” In it she describes the need to address our “Personal Infrastructure”– particularly the electricity and natural gas in our homes and the fuel in our cars. Personal Infrastructure– I think the phrase has weight. These are the emissions from our personal building and transport decisions, in which our individual actions do matter. And matter not just at a single point in time, but EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

This framing has helped me better articulate the problem that has swirled in my mind over the past year. Ultimately: even once we do decide to make a change to our personal infrastructure, most of us wouldn’t know what to do to take the next step.

A return to the frictions

Now that we finally know what the problem is– that we don’t know how to evolve our personal infrastructure even once we know that we should– we can return to the hidden frictions slowing down possible solutions.

What are those frictions to evolving our personal infrastructure?

  1. Building codes
  2. The black box of distribution and maintenance, for modular and integral building systems

Whoa there, what now?

Let’s look at the residential market to start. If you are a resident wishing to ensure the operations of your home were emissions neutral (or even negative!), how would you get from today’s point A: emission-ful, to tomorrow’s point B: emission-less?

The answer is quite muddled. First, we need to describe the boundary condition of personal infrastructure: the generating systems and the end use systems that comprise the infrastructure of our homes. Generating systems are those that create energy– the localized solar on your roof, the community solar in your neighborhood, the clean grid from your utility. End use systems are the systems within the home that then use that generated energy… in addition to other emissions-ful elements, like refrigerants. (This is why in our emissions data, building emissions are spread across multiple categories: specific end use emissions, building emissions within the electricity sector, and– oh yeah– building materials.) Generating systems, i.e. indirect emissions from the electricity sector, account for 12% global greenhouse gas emissions. End use systems, i.e. direct emissions from buildings–particularly from systems that use natural gas, like your space or water heater–account for 6%. That amounts to roughly one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.

A focus on end use systems within the building

I’d like to focus our sights today on end use systems. If these systems create a load / burden that doesn’t match the progress of generating systems, what’s the point? (This is the same logic that has spurred the “electrify everything” movement.) While some may be quick to point out that 6% (direct) is insignificant compared to 12% (indirect), I think the impact is not isolated, and certainly not zero sum. Advancements in end use systems also create demand that spurs further development of emission-less generating systems. Moreover, the lessons we gain from addressing personal infrastructure has the potential for generous secondary benefit in non-climate related infrastructural gains, whether cultural or societal. (Curious about what I mean here? Reach out for more!)

Today, the pathways from point A (emission-ful) to point B (emission-less) for systems within the home are limited. Let’s assume for a moment that building codes and R&D (and the economics of that technology, both on its own and vs incumbents) are suitable– poised even– for a decarbonizing reality. The options that do exist, like: seek out rebate programs from your utility for broader efficiency measures, or: reach out to Tesla for a combo-pack of Solar, Powerwall, and Electric Vehicle still include lots of grey area. Not only is there a consumer transparency issue (intertwined with a sexiness issue), but there’s a distribution and maintenance issue as well. How do new technologies get into the home, all while overcoming existing split incentive hurdles, contractor gatekeepers, and financing head-scratchers?

It is THIS friction that I want to address: the friction that prevents people from addressing the personal infrastructure in their homes. Starting with the home is important. Homes are a place of identity. Homes can harbor sly split incentives, based on the tenant vs landlord relationship. Homes can also have significant lock in; the infrastructure of where we choose to live has huge implications to how we live. I want to reduce that friction for residents… so that moving from A to B is seamless, and downright desirable. By resolving frictions for the climate, we can apply gains for cultural and societal impact, too.

It all comes back to interfaces and org structure.

Art by Wu Guanzhong