Make Buildings Part of the Solution

Millions of Americans woke up this morning in a house or apartment building. Parents sent their kids to learn in a schoolhouse, workers clocked in at office buildings and stores, travelers checked into hotels, patients recuperated in hospitals. This weekend, many of us will relax in a movie theater, engage in retail therapy at a shopping mall, and then pray in a house of worship.

Buildings play an integral part of our daily lives; there’s a good chance you’re reading this inside a building right now. According to the EPA, we spend 90 percent of our time indoors. Constructing and maintaining these buildings employs millions of people, and running them uses 40 percent of all energy produced in the country.

Yet in the federal policymaking process, buildings often get short shrift. Take the recent CNN climate town hall. While every Democratic presidential candidate that participated passionately vowed to tackle climate change, they failed (with few exceptions) to highlight the fact that buildings account for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. This is not an aberration: Infrastructure debates on Capitol Hill routinely focus on roads, bridges and cyber systems. Discussions on how to reduce energy point toward the transportation industry and electricity generation. Those sectors matter, and yet buildings – which consume 70 percent of the electricity we generate, far more than the industrial and transportation sectors – often are overlooked and underrepresented.

Why do buildings fail to garner the same level of focus as other sectors? There are a few reasons: First, there is no Cabinet-level department for buildings as there is for energy and transportation to help concentrate attention on them. Unlike roads, most of the country’s building stock is in private hands. And to the extent buildings are regulated via zoning and building codes, those are handled directly at the state and local levels.

But none of that means federal policymakers can afford to ignore buildings. Kids can’t get a good education without safe, functioning school buildings. Health care access and quality depends on having high-performing hospitals. And any effort to address the impacts of climate change must acknowledge the oversized role that buildings play in emitting carbon into the atmosphere.

The good news is that we know how to create and retrofit high-performing buildings. We have the tools, technologies and skills to design and construct homes, schools, offices and everything in between that save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide healthy places to live, work and play.  When I served in Congress, I co-founded the bipartisan Congressional High-Performance Building Caucus to raise awareness about how building-related policies help address our energy and environmental challenges. That caucus and the efforts of countless organizations and businesses to press for smart policy has made a big difference over the years in spurring efforts to make buildings better.

But as our building stock ages, the need to repair and rebuild will only grow. By some estimates, as the world’s population grows and urbanizes, the total square footage of the globe’s building stock will double by 2060. That’s the same as building a brand-new New York City every single month for the next 40 years.

Yes, we must fix our highways, bridges and water systems. And we need to invest in cleaner sources of energy. But if we neglect the structures in which we spend most of our time, and where much of the energy we produce is used, we are missing a key part of the puzzle.

Making buildings a priority is not just good for the environment — it’s good for the economy. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, energy efficiency in buildings accounted for more than 2.2 million jobs in 2018 –  more than 40 times the number employed in coal mining. As fears of recession increase, what better way to help cushion the blow than in investing in well-paying jobs in design and construction? It’s time for a national call-to-arms to transform our buildings.

What’s more, the public agrees. According to a 2018 survey of 800 adults nationwide conducted by Lake Research Partners, 8 in 10 Americans support passing laws that make both cars and buildings more efficient. And it’s not just Democrats: nearly 7 in 10 Republicans support such laws.

There are numerous policy ideas out there that will help us make buildings better, from tax incentives that overcome the upfront costs of green buildings to research on better building codes and technologies. But for these ideas to move forward, we need policymakers to recognize the central role that buildings play in order to get them to the top of the national agenda.

That is why I am working with a broad group of stakeholders to build a national coalition to push ahead policies that create a better, smarter-built environment and the jobs that go along with it. Our alliance, which includes design and construction companies, business and labor groups, product manufacturers, faith-based organizations and many others, will launch early next year with the goal of making sure that buildings are part of the discussion in 2020 and beyond.

The upcoming campaign gives us the opportunity to make sure those who want to lead our country agree that buildings are a priority. When candidates pledge to fix our crumbling infrastructure, we should ask them how they will ensure that schools and hospitals are repaired as well. If they offer plans to combat climate change, we will challenge them to explain how they will help reduce energy consumption in the building sector. And when they promise to create jobs, let’s remind them that putting people to work making our buildings greener is a win-win for everyone.


Russ Carnahan represented the 3rd Congressional District of Missouri in the U.S. House from 2005-2013 and co-founded the Congressional High-Performance Building Caucus.

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