Editorial: Spreading the Gospel of Sustainability

Peter Busby at work.
Peter Busby at work.

Peter Busby has for the past 30 years been influential in reconciling environmentalism with contemporary architecture. Long before LEED became an industry buzzword, he was figuring out how to make buildings that consumed fewer resources. He thinks big: leapfrogging over straw-bale houses and rammed-earth walls, Busby is known for his green high-rises, wood SkyTrain stations, and daylit university facilities.

Busby once designed an energy-efficient Walmart with wind turbines on the roof and natural light inside. It never went ahead–but it showcases the sometimes-tense meeting of contemporary realities with a sustainability agenda on which Busby has built his career.

The LEED Platinum-targeted Dockside Green in Victoria, British Columbia aims to reclaim 15 acres of industrial waterfront, setting a model for urban redevelopment. Vince Klassen
The LEED Platinum-targeted Dockside Green in Victoria, British Columbia aims to reclaim 15 acres of industrial waterfront, setting a model for urban redevelopment. Vince Klassen

The lessons of Busby’s practice are especially resonant this spring, with the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s fifth assessment report. One volume of the report focuses on mitigating climate change. Architecture has a crucial role to play. In 2010, buildings accounted for 32% of global energy use and 19% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions (by comparison, the transport sector was responsible for 27% of global energy use and 23% of greenhouse gas emissions the same year). The energy use of buildings may double or even triple by 2050 as billions of people in developing countries gain access to adequate housing. To keep these numbers in check–and to attempt to push them into decline–the IPCC urges the broad dissemination of energy-saving construction techniques and technologies.

The strategies they suggest have been advocated by Busby throughout his career, and include using low-embodied-energy materials, installing energy-efficient appliances, and employing passive solar heating and cooling measures. The report also discusses lifestyle changes, like relaxing business dress codes to allow office workers to shed stifling suits in the summer. The West Coast, Busby’s extended home base, was miles ahead of the game on that front.

As urbanization increases–from 52% in 2011 to an expected 64-69% of the world’s population in 2050–one of the biggest opportunities for mitigating global climate change will be in the building sector. Co-locating high-density residential uses with employment, investing in public transportation infrastructure, and creating compact urban forms are all recommended. In this context, Busby’s current work on transit-oriented developments incorporating district energy systems could become integral to climate action plans.

The IPCC analysis affirms that today’s best practices in sustainable building will more than pay back their investment cost through energy savings. As green building enthusiasts know, sustainable buildings also yield myriad side benefits: improved indoor and outdoor air quality, productivity gains for building occupants, and increased energy security–an important concern in many intemperate cities, where low-income people are at risk because they can’t afford adequate heat. However, notes the IPCC, “Strong barriers hinder the market uptake of these cost-effective opportunities, and large potentials will remain untapped without adequate policies.” Obstacles such as lack of awareness, transaction costs, and inadequate access to financing remain rampant. Policy changes are essential to spurring the shift towards sustainable construction.

Energy-efficiency programs have, historically, achieved 25-30% improvements at a low cost. Building codes, when climate-appropriate and tightened over time, are even more powerful. Currently, a large number of jurisdictions are considering strengthening energy performance requirements in their building codes. Even the notoriously polluting China has adopted codes that seek a 50% reduction from pre-existing levels, with increased provision for enforcement.

There’s urgency to these discussions. Because of the long lifespan of buildings, approximately 80% of the global energy use of buildings from 2005 is “locked in” until 2050. It’s critical that today’s best practices rapidly become the standard in new building construction and existing building retrofits.

In the decade since merging his practice with Perkins+Will, Busby has been bringing what he unabashedly calls “the gospel of sustainability” to an increasingly global set of clients. Demand for Busby’s breed of expertise is set to grow, and that’s a good thing. The world needs to get on board with the gospel of sustainability, and soon, if it hopes to be saved.

Elsa Lam elam@canadianarchitect.com