Building Sustainably in the Face of Overpopulation and Climate Degradation

Kazuo Uyehara


            One of the greatest challenges of humanity is maintaining our growing 6.5 billion population without also destroying the very environment that we inhabit.  Global warming, pollution, destruction of ecosystems, and our reliance on fossil fuels make this a daunting task with no obvious single solution.  However, it is apparent that we must not only find alternative sources of energy and hope for the advent of new technology, we must also change our lifestyles to be more mindful of our ecological impacts.  Changing the very structure of our current buildings, towards higher efficiency and sustainability, is an integral step in the path towards environmental protection and the accommodation of the growing population.  With our current technology, the construction of these “green buildings” would have an enormous effect on energy use, pollution, building costs, water inefficiency, the use of sustainable materials, and even how we hope to feed our cities.

            According to statistics cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are more than 1.8 million residential buildings and 170,000 commercial buildings constructed annually.  In fact, of the 1.983 billion acres of the continental Unites States, 107.3 million acres are developed – a 24% increase over the last 10-year (EPA).  The enormous role buildings have in our lives and their expanse over much of the world makes them also one of the most polluting aspects of our society.  In the United States, buildings account for 39.4% of energy use, 67.9% of electricity use, 38.1% of CO2 emissions, 12.2% of water use, and their construction and demolition are responsible for 60% of non-industrial waste generation.  However, our buildings do not have to be the prodigal goliaths that they are today.  By making strict guidelines for building efficiency, we could potentially change buildings from being one of the most wasteful components of our society to one of the most environmentally friendly.  By transitioning our residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural structures into examples of human ingenuity and resourcefulness, we could limit our negative impact on the environment, improve our air quality and overall health, increase worker efficiency and save money.

            Green buildings often utilize a variety of techniques to reduce their ecological footprint.  The use of sustainable and non-toxic materials, correct building placement, clever heating, cooling, and air circulation design, recycling water systems, and alternative energy all contribute to many modern feats of environmentally aware architecture.  Building with recycled materials, sustainably grown bamboo, and blocks of hay, along with reducing the use of toxic and volatile organic compound-emitting materials and paints all contribute to healthier and less parasitic structures.  Architects are also utilizing newer designs that require fewer resources.  These buildings can also facilitate the regulation of temperature and air circulation by taking advantage of their location.  Other additions like green roofs and built-in gardens not only make the buildings look aesthetically pleasing, but also cut down on the heating costs and water run-off.  Improved water systems allow buildings to recycle and clean their own water and there are even toilets that operate by exploiting composting bacteria.  In addition to becoming less wasteful, green buildings can even generate some of their own power by using solar or wind power.  By using these techniques we can begin to make our workplaces and our homes accommodative to our environmental quagmire, and start to live with the Earth instead of on it.

            A particularly interesting way to maximize space is the prospect of vertical farming.  As proposed by Columbia University professor Dr. Dickson Despommier, these 30-story urban skyscrapers would house layers of sustainable food with the output to feed 50,000 people.  As agricultural space is very limited, and industrial farming is unhealthy and destructive, vertical farms could potentially solve the problem of substantial year-round food production.  Since these vertical farms could be made on a square block in an urban area, the costs and consequences of food transportation would be decreased, and some previously farmed land could be reforested to promote the reconstruction of natural ecosystems.  Although a vertical farm has yet to be constructed, Despommier asserts that they are feasible and efficient.  The vertical farms could conceivably be powered by energy from a combination of wind, solar, methane (from composting), and biomass (created from pellets processed from the inedible parts of crops).  They could grow vegetables, fruits, grains, as well as, fish, poultry, and pigs.

           Furthermore, the farms would serve as a water purification system.  Black water from city sewers could be cleaned through a series of filters to form grey water, which would be used to water the crops.  Then pure water could be collected from the condensation within the farm.  Another benefit is that the sludge from processing the black water could be treated using a special process to create topsoil for the crops.  Thus, the vertical farms could not only feed populations, but also effectively use their waste.  The enclosed nature of the farms would protect them from environmental damage, help prevent crop failures, and end the need for pesticides.  Overall, the potential that Despommier contends would make vertical farms a fantastic use of space and technology that could help ease Malthusian food pressures.

            Presently, there are 55 U.S. cities, 20 states, and 8 federal agencies that have policies promoting or requiring various levels of sustainability in new projects (Burnham).  The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is the current benchmark for green buildings being used by organizations and agencies.  There are specific guidelines for various levels of LEED certification.  Buildings such as the Hearst Tower in New York are examples of large corporate buildings that are being built environmentally consciously.  The American Institute of Architects (AIA) believes that governmental policies enforcing levels of sustainability for all new construction, tax incentives for following green guidelines, and more funding for green projects are necessary to move the United States towards sustainability.  For example, “if only 10% of homes in the United States incorporated solar water-heating systems, 8.4 million metric tons of carbon emissions would be avoided each year” (AIA).

The new buildings that are using green architecture and technology are also taking advantage of the internal benefits of such buildings.  “About 23% of U.S. office workers experience some form of ‘sick building syndrome’ symptoms – such as nausea or throat irritation – each year.  The same study found that improved air quality, achieved through better ventilation, recycled carpet, and low-toxicity interior finished, lowered symptoms by 20 to 50 percent” (Burnham).  Using green building designs “could produce up to $20 billion in annual savings from reduced sick building syndrome, as well as up to $125 billion from improved worker performance in the United States” (Burnham).  Green buildings have not only proven themselves as less ecologically damaging than current designs, the monetary benefits of the buildings would make them less expensive in the long-term.

           In conclusion, the advent of green technology in our residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural buildings could be integral in our culture change towards conservation.  The enormous impact of our buildings could be reduced greatly by implementing current technology and innovative design.  However, there must be either a societal change to emphasize the construction or conversion of buildings, or governmental policies to influence the investment necessary to make green cities a reality.  Green cities could be exponentially more efficient in their utilization of space, energy, and resources, and some structures, such as vertical farms, could even have a net positive effect on the environment.  If we humans fail to drastically decrease our consumption of non-renewable resources and wasteful lifestyles, our lifestyles will be forcibly changed for us.  Although changing our buildings and urban design would be an enormous step towards sustainability, radical changes in policy and public perception are necessary to avoid environmental destruction and the inevitable deaths of many.

Works Cited

Burnham, Michael.  “Green Building: Energy, climate concerns shape new generation of skyscrapers.”  Greenwire, Environment and Energy Publishing.  October 4, 2006.

Chamberlain, Lisa.  “Skyfarming.”  New York Magazine.  2007.

The American Institute of Architects.  “Green Buildings and Sustainable Architecture.”  Issue Brief.  August 2006.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Green Building Workgroup.  “Buildings and the Environment: A Statistical Summary.”  December 20, 2004.


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last updated 4/5/06