Paradigm Shifts and Green Building

We are all attached to our mental models of the world, our experience telling us, “This is how the world works,” even when confronted with plenty of evidence that we’re wrong. As Mark Twain wrote, “It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”[i] I might believe that all people are basically good, but this belief won’t show me how to respond in the moment if a homicidal maniac confronts me with a gun. Mental models are the primary tools we use to think about creating a more sustainable future, for example, but are they accurate or even useful? For example, will replacing gasoline-powered cars with electric cars lead to a truly sustainable future, if there are still a billion cars in the world and the electricity to charge them comes from fossil fuels?

In 1997 the systems researcher, Donella Meadows, published an influential essay, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” which described nine ways in which we could try to make changes in complex systems, including changing laws and implementing new regulations to protect the environment. Her conclusion: Changing “the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises” is the most effective leverage point in any system.

Magic School of Green Technology, at National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan

Magic School of Green Technology, at National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan

In modern society, there is a mindset (paradigm) that continuous economic growth is a good thing, no matter what the environmental consequences. Many people have observed that unlimited growth in a finite system is “the ideology of a cancer cell.” Green building advocates propose an alternative: a “circular economy,” in which we replace our need for unlimited growth by reducing our demands on the earth, using only renewable energy and recycling our waste outputs. This sounds a lot like what we “OAT Flakes” were espousing in the 1970s!

Paradigm shifts happen all the time. In science, Thomas Kuhn first articulated this phenomenon in 1962, with his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn pointed out that in science, old theories and perspectives hang on until the accumulated evidence that they no longer work is overwhelming; at that point they are rapidly abandoned for new theories.

Sometimes this process happens quite quickly. Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, both special and general cases, took fewer than 15 years from first publication in 1905 to a definitive proof in 1919, and upended Sir Isaac Newton’s physics, which had held sway for more than 200 years.

The theory of continental drift, widely accepted today, displaced the theory of fixed continental landmasses in a relatively short time in the 1960s. Any kid who ever looked at a globe could easily see that South America’s east coast and Africa’s west coast must have been joined together at one time, since they fit together like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. But no scientist at the time could understand how it could have happened, as established theories maintained that continents were fixed in place.

Paradigm Shift: Buildings and Global Climate Change

In energy and environmental fields, I have seen paradigm shifts take place on several important occasions. Paradigm shifts dramatically alter the conversation about how to deal with certain problems.

In the energy field, the young physicist Amory Lovins changed the paradigm around how to meet our future energy needs with his 1976 article, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” in the influential magazine, Foreign Affairs. In 1977, in Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace, he showed that increasing energy efficiency (i.e., reducing demand), rather than increasing energy supply, was a valid and cost-effective way to meet our energy needs. For example, we may buy electricity but our goal, e.g., to light a room or office, requires lumens, not a specific amount of kilowatt-hours, so nowadays LED luminaires (high lumen output, low energy input) can do that job more efficiently than incandescent light bulbs.

I first met Amory during the first Jerry Brown administration. Wilson Clark brought him to Sacramento to share his ideas with Governor Brown and to provide support for Brown’s anti-nuclear-power stance. Lovins maintained that adding renewable energy to the mix would allow us to avoid building (and paying for) vast numbers of nuclear and coal energy plants proposed in the mid-1970s to meet our future energy supply needs. This is exactly what’s happening today in the US, Canada and many European countries. Lovins also had a great impact on spurring energy conservation regulations in California, with almost one-third of energy “supply” to meet demands over the past 30 years coming from conservation efforts.

In green building, the most important paradigm shift occurred in 2003. In an article in Metropolis magazine, architect Edward Mazria first challenged our thinking about how buildings contributed to carbon dioxide emissions and therefore, to global climate change.[ii] He showed that more than 40 percent of these emissions (in developed countries) were directly attributable to residential and nonresidential building operations, mostly through electricity consumed in buildings. In fact, 70 percent of all electricity produced in the U.S. (with its attendant carbon dioxide emissions) is used in homes and commercial buildings. His article put architects on notice that they were directly contributing to climate change through their buildings and needed to do something about it.

In a way, Mazria directly applied Lovins’ “end use” approach to thinking about energy, and reoriented our paradigm from where energy was produced to where it was consumed, namely, in buildings, transportation and industry. Perhaps an additional 10 percent of global carbon emissions come from producing materials such as concrete, steel, glass and aluminum used first to construct and later to renovate structures.

After Mazria changed this paradigm, we had to consider that green building, energy use and environmental impacts from carbon dioxide emissions were not separate problems, but were interrelated. After 2010, my own research, speaking and writing focused specifically on documenting that buildings, especially new green buildings and existing buildings, could use much less energy (and generate far fewer carbon emissions). Co-authored in 2013 by Ulf Meyer and me, the book The World’s Greenest Buildings: Promise vs Performance in Sustainable Design, still stands as the only global study of the energy and water use in operation of green buildings.

[i], accessed April 9, 2018.

[ii], accessed April 8, 2018.