Creating an energy efficient home does a lot of things – it makes you more comfortable, it saves you money on energy bills and it reduces your carbon footprint. But Alex Wilson will tell you it doesn’t stop there. He’s written extensively about green building design for decades and the value of creating an energy-efficient built environment. He started the Resilient Design Institute in Brattleboro, Vermont to explore creating more energy efficient, greener buildings in the larger context of building resilient communities that can readily adapt to a changing climate and extreme weather events. Alex blogs about everything from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s new tool for mapping coastal flood risk to the California drought to a vision of what a Resilient America Service Corps would look like. The Resilient Design Institute has an outstanding advisory board, including Bill McKibben, author, journalist and founder of grassroots climate campaign 350.org. Alex recently did a Q & A with Indow on resilient design and energy efficiency.
1. What inspired you to start the Resilient Design Institute?
I’ve been promoting green building for 30-plus years – I started BuildingGreen, Inc. in 1985 and had worked in renewable energy for seven years prior to that. I was frustrated that we hadn’t made more rapid progress in reducing the energy consumption of buildings–and carbon emissions. I saw resilience as a way to create a new motivation for building more energy-efficient, greener buildings and communities
2. Resilient design involves creating homes, buildings and whole communities that are resilient in the face of droughts, extreme heat and flooding posed by climate change
a. What does a new house look like that’s built with resilient principles in mind?
For one thing, it isn’t built in a floodplain; where we build is a big part of resilience. It has deep roof overhangs to keep water away from the walls and foundation. It is oriented to take advantage of sunlight in passive solar heating. It is designed to minimize overheating and air conditioner use through simple cooling-load-avoidance strategies; it may have shade trees or a trellis with sun-shading vines on the west. It is highly insulated and has high-performance windows. In drier climates, it isn’t surrounded by a lush green lawn in the middle of summer. Many of these strategies help to keep such a house from getting too cold in the winter or too hot in the summer if power outages occur or there are interruptions in heating fuel.
b.What do you do to make an existing house or building more resilient?
It is decidedly more difficult to retrofit an existing building for resilience than to build from the ground up, but most of the same strategies apply. If budgets permit, a “deep-energy retrofit” can be carried out. For example, the house can be wrapped in a four-inch layer of rigid insulation with window openings extended out and low-e storm windows added.
3. What role does energy efficiency play in creating homes and buildings that are resilient in the face of climate change?
I believe this is one of the highest priorities. A highly insulated building will do a far better job at maintaining habitable temperatures in the event of an extended power outage or interruption in heating fuel. And it’s worth noting that during normal operations, such a building will emit far less carbon dioxide, the leading contributor to climate change.
4. What do we need to change about how we approach the design of the built environment?
I’ve spent almost 40 years promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy to save energy, emit less pollution, and contribute less to climate change, but for a lot of people those aren’t significant motivations. For those people, my hope is that “keeping their families safe” will be the motivation that finally gets them to implement energy saving retrofits.
5. How would you describe climate change media coverage playing out over the last 10 years?
A significant portion of the American population either doesn’t believe that climate change is happening or doesn’t believe that human activities are causing climate change. Journalists have been a big part of the problem. There is always a desire by journalists to provide “balanced” coverage of a topic–to present the other side of the story. So even though 97% of climate scientists are convinced that anthropogenic climate change is occurring, journalists seek out the same handful of climate change deniers in their coverage of the science. Giving so much media coverage to the doubters has led a lot of Americans to believe that the jury is still out on climate change—that we still don’t know—and this, in turn, has prevented our elected officials from addressing the root causes of climate change. It doesn’t help that special interests from the oil, gas, and coal industries have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to cast doubt on the science of climate change and to put climate-change deniers in office.
6. What’s the single most important message that you’re trying to get out there right now?
I’m trying to convince people that enhancing the resilience of buildings and communities is important and that doing so not only will keep people safer, but it will also help protect the environment.
7. Given the challenges of creating an effective international agreement to limit carbon emissions, what is the role for individual and local government actions?
I have been tremendously disappointed in the unwillingness to either tax carbon or institute a cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions. I believe that raising the cost of something that is demonstrated to harm the environment makes sense, because it lets the free market take over in finding the best solutions. We know that there are a lot of “societal costs” of fossil fuel consumption: health impacts, air pollution, water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions. Taxing these energy sources to cover the costs that society bears through the use of fossil fuels would lead to cost-effective, market-based solutions, such as energy conservation and use of renewable energy sources. Special subsidies for conservation and renewables wouldn’t be needed, because the costs of polluting energy sources would go way up. The free market would lead us to solutions.
Given the reality that sensible taxation of carbon emissions isn’t politically feasible at the federal level, there is an important role that municipal and state governments can play. We are seeing some of this in the Northeast and in California, but state and local governments could go a lot further.