The Green New Deal—an Opportunity for the Green Building Industry

Achieving the goals of the Green New Deal will be tremendously challenging—but not impossible.

April 2, 2019

Alex Wilson, Founder of BuildingGreen

Alex Wilson, Founder of BuildingGreen

Photo: BuildingGreen, Inc.
A lot is being said about the Green New Deal—a broad and intentionally vague vision laid out by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. This proposal for transitioning the United States to a carbon-neutral economy in ten years has already been a huge success: by spurring a lively discussion about climate change, by energizing the environmental community, by uniting social equity interests with environmental interests, and by bringing the word “green” back out of the shadows. As Joel Makower, a thought leader in the environmental business community and editor of GreenBuzz, pointed out in a recent article about the Green New Deal, “It’s time to dig in; this is our moment.”

Achieving the goals of the Green New Deal will be tremendously challenging. It will involve an effort akin to the mobilization that occurred during World War II—when automobile manufacturers were retooled to produce military craft, when massive recycling programs were instituted to collect raw materials for the war effort, when millions of homeowners created “Victory Gardens” to grow much of their own food so that more of the nation’s agricultural output could be committed to soldiers and foreign aid. World War II was an all-hands-on-deck initiative that had buy-in from the vast majority of the country. That’s the sort of effort we need with the Green New Deal.

There will be a role for everybody and every industrial sector in the Green New Deal. Automakers will have to retool to convert their factories to electric vehicles. Researchers will have to concentrate on the battery, power generation, and renewable liquid fuel technologies to come up with new materials and systems to help achieve these goals. Policies will have to reward innovation and the transition to a carbon-neutral future. And, significantly, we need to do this in a way that improves the quality of life and economic wellbeing for those who have been underserved in our society.

The building industry’s outsized role in the Green New Deal

No industry will have a more important role to play in the Green New Deal than our design and construction industry. Our buildings account for about half of U.S. carbon emissions—more if you factor in energy consumption getting people to and from the buildings and communities we create—and especially if they're placed outside of existing population centers. We must shoulder a lot of the responsibility in this broad goal. We have to bring the carbon emissions from the building industry to zero and/or figure out ways to compensate for our collective emissions through carbon sequestration. A significant part of this effort will involve dramatic reductions in the embodied carbon of our building materials.

So how can we do this? How we can transform the building industry to bring net carbon emissions to zero by 2030? Fortunately, we have a head start. Ed Mazria and the Architecture 2030 organization have articulated an important part of this goal: to achieve net-zero energy (and net-zero carbon) with new buildings by 2030. Nearly 550 architecture firms have signed onto the 2030 Commitment (the American Institute of Architect’s take on that vision), and about half of those are reporting their progress toward that goal.

Existing buildings will be a far greater challenge. The 2030 Challenge calls for making a significant fraction of existing buildings carbon-neutral by 2030; the Green New Deal goes much further, going after ALL of them. For an average single-family house—of which there are some 80 million in the U.S.—achieving this goal will necessitate carrying out deep energy retrofits. That means reducing the energy consumption of those buildings to a low enough level that they can achieve net-zero-energy performance with modest-sized solar arrays and state-of-the-art air-source heat pumps for heating and cooling. Deep energy retrofits aren’t cheap, though, and they aren’t easy. For a modest-sized, single-family home in a moderate-to-cold climate, the cost of a deep energy retrofit is on the order of $100,000 to $150,000, plus another $30,000 to $40,000 for the photovoltaic system to achieve net-zero-energy performance.

Society will have to come up with a mechanism to pay for this. Spending $100,000 per house for 60 million houses (assuming that some portion of homeowners could carry that cost themselves) would cost $6 trillion dollars. That’s an almost unimaginable amount of money—but it’s about what we’ve spent on the Gulf Wars over the past 18 years, according to researchers at Brown University, who put the cost at $5.6 trillion.

Unlike our expenditures on the Gulf Wars, though, investments in deep energy retrofits offer a return on investment (ROI). By spending money on added insulation and air tightening and solar arrays, we spend less money heating and cooling and powering those buildings. We earn a payback. It will be a long payback, in many cases, but we can calculate it, and our calculations can help us justify it economically.

A workforce to retrofit buildings: making the case for an Environmental Service Corps

At least as challenging as coming up with the money for insulating tens of millions of houses will be the workforce needed to carry out those deep energy retrofits. This challenge is what led BuildingGreen to propose in 2007 the creation of a national service program, which we described as an Environmental Service Corps. This Environmental Service Corps would be a sort-of hybrid between the Peace Corps, launched in the 1960s, and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which President Franklin Roosevelt launched in the 1930s during the Great Depression. It would be targeted primarily toward those just out of high school or college, but it could extend beyond that.

As envisioned, such an Environmental Service Corps would involve two years of service for the country to carry out a variety of activities, including these deep energy retrofits and solar installations. This could be a mandatory public service program, like the military draft, or a voluntary program. I believe that the challenge of global warming is great enough to warrant a mandatory program for young adults—who could choose military service or the Environmental Service Corps. I recall watching on television a town hall discussion between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, in which a national service program was discussed, and I recall there being general consensus about the merits of national service—though an environmental angle for such service wasn’t a key part of that discussion, as I recall. People coming together to work toward a common goal can offer other benefits, such as building community and healthy social bonds.

Alternately, that Service Corps could be voluntary with incentives to spur participation. For those of college age, participation in the Environmental Service Corps could be tied to a free community college degree—the sort of program that some politicians, including our own Senator Bernie Sanders, have proposed. But, in this model, those students would have to earn that free tuition. In exchange for that two years of service, these volunteers could earn a two- or four-year college degree. For those of us who are mid-career, participation in an Environmental Service Corps could be incentivized by other benefits—for example, receiving lifetime health insurance. (Universal healthcare is already included in the Green New Deal, but having that be tied to participation in a national service program might make that healthcare more palatable.)

Involving the design and construction industry in this vision

While the Environmental Service Corps, as described here, would involve a smorgasbord of service options—from insulating existing buildings to wetlands restoration—that aspect of the Corps focused on retrofitting the nation’s housing stock and erecting solar panels would, by necessity, involve architecture and construction professionals. The building retrofit program would have to draw heavily from our community for the building science and energy design expertise that would be required to succeed. I would envision tens of thousands of builders and designers being recruited to train and lead work crews. We already have a shortage of construction workers, so getting more people into this line of work will have to be a priority—that could be a goal of the community college programs mentioned above.

We will also need to develop new building components and systems for these retrofits. We need modular exterior insulation systems that can be used to wrap our existing buildings. We need easy-to-apply soffit and window-jamb extensions to compensate for the thicker walls. Think of the Manhattan Project from the WWII mobilization (the effort that created the atomic bomb) as a model for the sort of R&D effort needed—but the resultant products wouldn’t have the risks that the development of nuclear bombs embody.

One could argue that the goals of the Green New Deal are too far out of reach to be realistic. That could be. But the same was said of President Kennedy’s 1961 call for landing a man on the moon and returning him safely in ten years. The Green New Deal offers an inspiring target that we in the green building community—and everyone else—can unite behind.

Let’s do it!

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April 4, 2019 - 12:20 am

Nice Article Alex.  Existing buildings certainly are a greater challenge but they also offer much greater opportunities. Our 310 billion sf of under performing, existing buildings are responsible for more than 2 billion tons of GHG. The new buildings we build each year, if they are reasonably efficient, emit something like 50 million tons, so we really need to focus on existing buildings. You mention the 80 million single family homes, but there's a whole lot of multi-family housing and over 90 billion sf of commercial buildings that also need deep energy retrofits, and those will definitely need architects and contractors to help implement. As far as the Green New deal being unrealistic, keep in mind that being realistic is what got us in this mess in the first place. Let's be be unrealistic and make it happen!  Larry Strain

April 4, 2019 - 2:38 pm

Yes, it is far beyond time for a Green New Deal, if we haven't realized it yet. But I believe the solutions are available and could go beyond what we imagine. Geopolymer-based biocomposites (think hempcrete) sequester a large amount of carbon in the form of biomass that might otherwise be burned or composted, and it is a renewable resource. Fastening R8-R10 panels on the outside of existing building will need some research to complete and be effective, but certainly not to the scale of the Manhattan Project. This is low-energy technology that is already performing in Europe that could easily help mitigate the issues that we are seeing for energy inefficiencies in buildings. And, will be easy enough for anyone to install in an Environmental Service Corps program. 

The time is NOW, and we have the solutions!

April 9, 2019 - 9:20 am

Some of our building stock, especially that built before 1970 when energy was especially cheap, have unbelievably low insulation levels.  We have found college dorm buildings with R2 walls and school buildings with 1" of fiberglass roof insulation.  The payback of envelope upgrades is often lengthy, but in this case it was found to be less than 10 years for a building that was already 50+ yeas old.  The opportunities are endless, and the need is great.

April 13, 2019 - 12:31 pm

I think the biggest hurdle is going to be to educate the industry and the public about how well our buildings can be made to perform. The industry is going to have to discard old notions of diminishing returns and learn about the synchronicities involved in using integrated design and realized that making our buildings tight and super well insulated with the most efficient lighting, HVAC and control systems is the only responsible way to go, both for energy efficiency and for the health and well being of the people using the buildings. Integrated design has to become a required part of every architect, engineer and contractor's tool kit.
Having done deep a energy retrofit that lowered heating and cooling costs by 80% even after expanding the size of the building 20% with an addition, what the owner likes the best is the extreme comfort!
Jimmy Carter had the right idea, but instead of wearing a sweater, we need to put one around our house!