28 sep 11  | Huffington Post

A Call for Urban Doctors

by Gordon Gill


After a long day and an ensuing headache, an aspirin can be a welcome remedy. We take a medicine that targets an area, and the pain goes away. For a relatively simple problem like a headache, the concept of taking a pill for the pain is quite effective and seemingly straight forward.

However, sometimes treating symptoms can be ineffective, especially if you don't understand the system or the patient's particular conditions. Doctors are discovering a host of medical conditions known as "great imitators," which seem to be caused by one thing, but are actually the cause of a large systemic, internal failure.

Much like the human body, cities are complex, dynamic systems. Continually treating the symptoms without addressing the systems and thinking that the same prescription will work for everyone, will never result in a healthy solution.

It is no secret that moving toward a post-carbon age will require acknowledging the role that the built environment will have on our efforts to reduce energy use and curb carbon emissions.

In the United States, buildings are responsible for between 40 percent and 80 percent of carbon emissions in major cities. In China, those estimates are reported to range from 19 percent to 33 percent; and as the world's most populous country continues to grow at an unprecedented rate, those numbers will only rise.

Projections indicate that in 2050, the world will be home to over 30 "megacities" -- metropolises with populations over 20 million people. As the built environment grows at an unprecedented rate, finding a way to markedly improve building performance will be a central problem for both architects and engineers.

We must understand that the same solution for one city cannot necessarily just be replicated elsewhere. Mitigating the effect of the built environment will require a comprehensive methodology, one that combines a technological approach with a deeper understanding of our planet's natural systems and an understanding of local climate and conditions.

Building integrated wind turbines may work well at one location, but their performance could lessen significantly at a site in another city, or even just across town. Once we've established a site's potential and understand solar, wind and geothermal conditions, we can design site-specific buildings that combine simple design strategies and state-of-the-shelf, readily available technologies to achieve these unprecedented levels of performance.

Today, we are well on our way to advancing building design and systems to achieve higher levels of efficiency and energy performance. Buildings are currently being conceived that have a net draw of zero energy from the electricity grid. In some cases, we've been able to design buildings that will actually exceed their draw.

But merely improving building performance and increasing the mix of renewable energies will do nothing to address the existing decaying, underperforming building stock in our cities. These two "great imitators" are unfortunately the only issues that many architects, engineers, and urban planners focus on today. In reality, only 1 percent to 3 percent of our building stock is represented by new buildings. Thus, the overwhelming majority of the system is being ignored.

To truly improve conditions in our cities, we need to rethink not only how the built environment is constructed, but how it's conceptualized. I believe, as Jeremy Rifkin posits in his new book, Third Industrial Revolution, in the future, we will think of all buildings as power plants. If we can achieve it, repositioning the existing building stock will have great financial as well as environmental benefits, creating job opportunities and a new economic engine for our cities.

One approach to spur carbon reduction is to tap into the latent potential in existing buildings, and leverage that energy as a commodity to the marketplace. In other words, after retrofitting a building for energy savings and installing renewable energy technologies -- so that the building can become a power plant -- through carefully planned and purposeful renovations, these energy savings in individual buildings can be passed on to owners or tenants, or even traded.

To achieve the greatest economic and environmental impact, we must stop thinking of the existing building stock as a collection of individual assets, and begin to think of it as a series of larger networks, allowing the benefits of renovation to have a greater effect.

When new buildings are integrated into the existing built environment, they require power and utility plants for operation -- plants with delivery systems that have their own inefficiencies that can be expensive to both users and utility companies. Modernization of existing buildings reduces existing energy loads, allowing new buildings to "come online" without this added infrastructure. At the same time it transforms outdated, inefficient buildings into more modern, more desirable, more efficient environments.

In Chicago, the projected savings from the renovation of the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower, are equal to annual savings of 68 million KWH per year, which is a 45 percent savings compared to the overall building. A renovation of this scale is equivalent to allowing approximately 10,000 new single family homes or more to come online -- with a net zero impact to the grid.

By looking at our building stock as an integrated whole, cities will be able to leverage energy savings more broadly. Of course, the degree to which buildings can benefit from modernization varies. Some buildings will be able to achieve significant savings through modernization, while others will only realize minimal reduction of energy usage. By creating clean energy districts, cities can measure performance of all buildings within a certain area, allowing for higher-performing buildings to offset lower performing ones.

From a strategic perspective, setting goals for district performance instead of individual building performance will allow for improved infrastructure and utility planning. It will also allow utilities to manage costs of new facilities to accommodate growth, and cities to manage issues related to density and population. Ultimately, this integrated approach will result in carbon reductions and economic savings.

The economic benefits of building modernization extend beyond savings in energy and utility costs. Performative building design, for both existing and new buildings, focuses on energy savings and lower maintenance as a model of sustainability. It's a model we know can work. But it's also a relatively new model, and one that requires a network of intellectual capital across several disciplines.

In addition to designers, engineers and development experts, the education and advancement of building management and services staff is imperative to the success of modernized buildings. Beyond creating new jobs, the integration of these systems into the building stock will advance local labor forces and provide job security into the future.

The benefits of an integrated, networked approach are in no way limited to the building stock. Similar approaches to systems for transit, waste and water would further benefit our communities. By looking at our assets holistically, we can create a fully integrated, intelligent approach to the greening of cities, one that combines carbon savings with an increased quality of life.

To achieve this, we need to look the city as a whole, understanding that all its systems are connected, like the organs and systems within our bodies. We need strong leadership at all levels, but particularly in our cities, where immediate action can be taken.

Current estimates show that globally, 60 million people are migrating into urban areas every year, and statistics show us that cities are by far the most sustainable places for humans to live. Shouldn't we be doing everything we can to make our cities not only efficient, but desirable places to live in a post-carbon age?