7 Earth Day questions about green buildings & COVID-19

COVID-19 has upended just about everything in our lives. And because we’ve never lived through anything remotely like this pandemic, it’s impossible to get a good idea of where things will land when it’s all over.

That’s why it may be more helpful on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day to pose questions than to pretend? we have the answers.

Will science take a front seat in building design?

The elevated threat of viruses surely will boost the role of science in designing and operating buildings. After all, who but scientists can we depend upon to tell us what we should do to reduce the risk of pathogens in buildings?

Conveniently, a building-science method has grown up in recent years around sustainable design and construction. It’s not just that building information modeling (BIM) and other data-based approaches take precedence in green buildings, or that mechanical and structural engineers often play as large a role as architects.

It’s also the process of designing a green building: Integrated project teams force architects to test their ideas against the perspectives of others — an on-the-fly version of what peer reviews are for scientists. Materials are vetted for performance data, environmental impacts and health hazards. And the standards themselves incentivize tested materials and methods rather than seat-of-the-pants design decisions.

It sounds sort of like the kind of process that’s needed to tackle a complex challenge like the indoor spread of infectious diseases.

Organizations that have helped to set higher sustainability standards clearly view the threat posed by viruses as part of their missions. Soon after COVID-19 hit, ASHRAE convened a task force to adjust some of some of its heating, cooling and ventilation standards. The International WELL Building Institute appointed its own panel to tweak its WELL certification platform.

But will the campaign for an evidence-based approach toward viral threats carry evidence-based approaches toward climate change and toxic hazards on its coattails? Sustainable design advocates certainly hope so.

Will energy efficiency take a backseat to antiviral safeguards?

Building science will surely be applied more rigorously to indoor air quality. But what happens when reducing the risk of infectious transmission — by raising minimum humidity levels, for example — conflicts with energy efficiency? Or when antimicrobial materials present toxic risks? Or when the most effective cleaning products start poisoning people?

“These are things we are going to have to work through on a case-by-case basis based on specific science,” physician, architect and building-health advocate Stephanie Taylor said in a recent interview.  “But human health needs to be front and center.”

It’s difficult to argue with Taylor. For now at least,  any Hobson’s choices will default toward reducing the viral threat. And I don’t think that’s going to change in the near future. While toxic chemicals often present acute health risks, most of the discussion about healthy building materials focuses on long-term threats such as cancer, heart disease and respiratory conditions.

Healthy building advocates are quick to point out that the chronic health problems associated with toxic chemicals are precisely the risk factors that make people more vulnerable to the worst COVID-19 outcomes. But it’s always been difficult to get human beings to focus on conditions that may or may not be in their futures, as opposed to the threat that demands our immediate attention.

The same goes for climate change, only moreso. Climate change is a broad, long-term trend not a sudden pandemic, and health impacts such as disease and malnutrition are even harder to pin to climate change than are forest fires, hurricanes and other environmental impacts. 

Even though we know that the health impacts are, and will continue to be, huge and far reaching, those impacts are generally indirect and often invisible. Viral infections couldn’t be more here and now.

Will remote work fill homes and hollow out offices?

One of the safest bets about our post-COVID-19 world: A lot more people are going to work from home once the pandemic is over than were working from home before the crisis  began.

Even in the BC (Before Covid) era, telecommuting had been on the rise. In a report based on U.S. Census data, Global Workplace Analytics found that the number of Americans working from home grew by 173 percent from 2005 to 2018.

In survey after survey, both employers and workers express favorable interest in the idea. 

Businesses are attracted to it because they spend less money accommodating employees. Employees like it because,hey, doesn’t everyone want to work their pajamas?

Still, only 3.6 percent of U.S. employees actually worked at home in 2018. While there are legitimate concerns about teamwork, time management, security and access to resources, the main reason remote work wasn’t more widespread may have been inertia.

Regardless, we can be pretty certain that 3.6 percent will no longer be the norm. While many people will return to the office as social distancing eases, the experience of remote working and lingering fears about being in close quarters with colleagues are expected to cause many temporary telecommuters to convert for good. 

In addition to the traditional benefits there’s now an added incentive: Employers want to be more prepared and resilient in case of another epidemic.

“Our best estimate is that 25-30 percent of the workforce will be working-from-home multiple days a week by the end of 2021,” Workplace Analytics President Kay Lister said in a statement.

The impact on building operations, real estate and construction could be dramatic. Predictions  abound: There will be a shift in new commercial constructions to retrofits. Offices will be converted to live-work lofts. With fewer in-office workers, employers will be able to space out workstations so that people can practice “cubicle distancing.” Employers might adopt the idea of “hoteling” workstations so that employees can work part-time at home and part-time at a desk that another worker used the day before. 

The most Earth-shaking shift could hit owners and developers.Developers already are scrambling to downsize projects or to scrap them altogether — not because of the recession, but because they don’t expect office space demand to catch up with supply for years.

Will energy demand drop permanently?

Did you notice that the price of a barrel oil dropped the other day below zero dollars?

Thanks to coronavirus, demand for gasoline has found its floor and is drilling down from there.

The price drops began when Saudi Arabia and Russia decided at just the wrong time to flood the market in an attempt to get higher cost U.S. producers to cap their wells. Then, drivers all around the world sheltered in place, and demand plummeted. Oops.

Earlier this month, the world’s major oil producers finally agreed to cut production. But demand has continued to go down. An astounding 30 million barrels less of oil is being sold every day than was being sold before the crisis. 

That’s very good for the environment. Cities around the world are reporting cleaner air, and, at least now, there are fewer carbon emissions to contribute to climate change. (At the same time, electric power demand is down as well — apparently because of all the shuttered stores and offices.)

The long-term impact could be negligible — or it could help to bend the curve on greenhouse emissions. This isn’t just because people in general and remote workers in particular could get used to driving less. It’s also because it could further loosen the influence the domestic oil industry has on U.S. energy policy.

American producers are being forced to cap their wells. Oil workers are being laid off. Texas bankruptcy courts are bracing for an onslaught of new filings.

While that’s economically painful for oil companies and their workers, one possibility is that it could speed our transition away from an oil-based economy.

In the volatile world of oil, however, things could flip in the other direction. Low prices could cause more individuals and businesses to buy less fuel-efficient vehicles. A recovery-fueled uptick in demand could give oil companies an incentive to start producing again — and we’d be right back where we started.

Will sprawl enjoy a resurgence?

Since the turn of the century, urbanists have been celebrating the comeback of the city. Led by millenials, both renters and owners voted with their feet to replace suburban sprawl with density as the development pattern that has defined the last two decades.

From an environmental standpoint that was mainly a good thing. Yes, sprawl continued. But even more of it would have happened if it weren’t for the popularity of cities. Urban residents use less electricity, consume less water and throw out less garbage than suburban and rural dwellers. They also drive less, and their homes, shops and offices gobble up less natural land. 

Will COVID-19 flip that happy narrative? Suburbs and rural areas certainly are having their outbreaks. Confirmed cases of the disease are overwhelmingly focused on urban areas — which is unsurprising given its tendency to spread quickly in crowds.

It’s easier to socially distance in the backyard of a house in a subdivision than it is on crowded city sidewalks, in apartment elevators, or on buses and streetcars. Congregating in a trendy, crowded restaurant suddenly seems more threatening than bowling alone

In truth, major metro areas have been seeing less growth in recent years. Higher expenses began to drive working-class families and young professionals out of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities. While growth continued in the largest metro, the fastest growth was in medium-to small-sized  destinations like Austin, Texas; Raleigh, N.C.; and Bend, Oregon. Might the virus cause this trend to carry further?

“If there was ever a moment where living in a major city becomes too much, it’s this moment,” a booster in Tulsa, Okla., was quoted recently as saying.

That remains to be seen, however. Who’s to say that small cities won’t lose their cache, and that real growth won’t shift to the suburbs.

Anthony Kane, CEO at the Center of Sustainable Infrastructure, notes that trends seldom toggle over one factor. While urbanism never was the “silver bullet,” a demographic counter-trend isn’t likely to be either.

“I don’t see cities going away any time soon,” Kane explained. “If we all suddenly decided to move out and try to live on five acres of land, we’ll have a whole lot of other problems.With sustainability, we’ve always been aware that there are tradeoffs. … No solution is perfect. The whole point of sustainability is that we’re trying to chart a path that navigates through the challenges.”

Will we allow a “good” crisis go to waste?

The Obama Administration fashioned the 2009 American Recovery Act to help jumpstart the renewable energy industry. It was that sort of transformation that then-White House chief of staff was referring to when he revived a quote attributed to Winston Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Environmental groups and some industries have been pushing to incorporate similar ideas into the massive spending bills that have passed Congress and those that are likely to be added over the next year.

So far, they’ve had little success. The Trump Administration even went out of its way to apply exceptional Small Business Administration rules to a small business loan program so that a coal company would be exempt from the 500 employee cap for companies to apply for the loan.

Most hopes are being pinned, however, to the possibility of a true stimulus package that might come down the road. There are murmurs that Congress finally might enact a long-awaited infrastructure package.

That would present an opportunity to incorporate sustainable practices and design into roads, trains, power grids, water lines, sewer lines and other infrastructure that could be in place for the rest of the century.

Ideas run from favoring nature-based designs, to offering grants and loans for clean energy research, to mandating low-carbon materials concrete on certain projects.

But political conditions will determine the size of that opportunity. The most obvious variable: Who’ll be president if and when an infrastructure bill passed?

Will treatments render coronaviruses irrelevant?

Remember the “end to irony” that was supposed to come after 9/11? That in itself has become ironic.

In the midst of any crisis, we tend to think that the world has changed forever. As the crisis recedes, things tend to revert toward normal. 

Right now, the covid-19 pandemic seems different. All of us already have undergone the kind of dramatic change to our live that we’re unlikely to shove anytime soon to the back of our collective conscience. Lockdowns. Social distancing. An end to eating out. The spurning of the handshake.

But what if an effective vaccine is developed relatively quickly? Or if the virus mutates, as viruses sometimes do, to become less deadly? What if pharmaceutical companies develop antiviral medications that are good enough to render all coronaviruses less threatening?

Right now, it feels as if COVID-19will change our society more profoundly and more suddenly than has any other crisis in most of our lifetimes. Setting aside the economic downturn that’s already wreaking havoc, there does seem to be a chance that unforeseen developments in medicine or in the disease itself could diminish that impact. Then, of course, we’ll still have to deal with climate change.

Workers wearing masks install an antennae at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. U.S. Air Force photo by Cynthia Griggs.


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