Global Resources and the Built Environment

author: John Fernandez, Department of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: May 23, 2013,   recorded: June 2007,   views: 3150
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Description

With staggering statistics, John Fernandez persuades his audience that rapidly expanding urban centers are consuming too much of the world’s resources, setting the stage for global crisis. Yet Fernandez counters his own bleak picture with some bright examples of design that could help humans live within their environmental means.

Fernandez talks of the buildings we use for shelter at home and work, and the infrastructure that connects these. Energy is consumed to construct (and demolish) these places, to move materials, and sustain people when inside, with light, heat and ventilation. A typical U.S. citizen today will consume the equivalent of 3.6 million pounds of minerals and fuels in one lifetime. The U.S. has 130 million residential buildings, and we’re adding 1.8 million residences annually. But that’s nothing compared to China, says Fernandez. Shanghai adds more building space annually than exists in all of Manhattan. 80% of CO2 emissions are caused directly or indirectly by people living in cities, and it’s estimated that when the global population hits 9-10 billion by 2040, that will add another 2.5 billion people to the three billion who currently live in cities. The earth, quite simply, may not be able to support the needs of an overwhelming and energy hungry urban populace.

Fernandez describes humanity’s “ecological footprint.” He notes that in the late 1980s we passed one “ominous threshold,” when humans began devouring planetary resources unsustainably -- “digging into the natural capital,” as Fernandez puts it. Old growth forests chopped down for houses can’t spring back and ecosystems collapse.

Yet even as we continue consuming ourselves out of our global home, Fernandez sees possibilities of holding demand steady in our global built environment. He shows examples of passive homes (pioneered first in the 1930s by MIT) that recover and circulate heat produced by people; windows in which enamel is baked on to glass designed to maximize solar heat gain in winter; materials with 10-20 times the thermal resistance of today’s home insulation; solar homes and commercial high rises that shield and shade themselves; micro wind turbines and power grids in community developments -- which, taken together, might keep our material and energy demand steady even as global population and affluence rise.

The “elephant in the room” is climate change, which may overwhelm these nascent efforts. Fernandez also sees a dire need for investment in R&D by the $600 billion-per-year U.S. construction industry, which astonishingly invests one-tenth as much in forward thinking as do comparable industries.

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