Let’s Talk Climate Creativity

Here is Stephanie Kaza's February column.

Yes, it’s true, 2016 was the warmest year on record for the planet. And that was also true for 2015 and 2014.  The trend lines are pretty clear from the basic temperature measurements. And for those of us still relying on a fact-based world, these numbers are a wake-up call.  Things are not miraculously turning around and getting better on their own, at least temperature-wise.

This could be a call for more anxiety and concern or it could be a call for more creativity. Let’s go with that as a basic policy – how can we apply our fantastic human imagination to climate challenges and be even more creative than we’ve already been? How could we reduce fossil fuel dependence AND, for example, also increase affordable housing?

One potential answer lies in the emerging “passive house” or net zero movement.  It is now possible to cut energy use almost to zero through advances in building sciences and technologies. New materials for walls and roof structures such as high density foam can be used to make an energy-tight building envelope to minimize heat loss.  In the Portland metro area, a model building project, the Orchards complex is expecting to achieve nearly 90% energy reduction for heating and 60-70% reduction for energy use overall when compared to a similar Northwest building. The design includes triple-paned windows, a heat-recovery system, and a super-insulated building envelope.

The “affordable” part of this complex come from not just the tremendous energy savings but from efficiencies gained in building multi-family units with shared walls and a shared building envelope. Through the leadership of REACH community development, units in the Orchards project are projected to be available for families with incomes under $30,000/year.  

Builders know about these ultra-energy efficient, fossil fuel reducing options, but they are not mandated requirements in the building code at this point, mostly because the experiment is still pretty new...in the U.S. In Germany and Brussels, however, cities have jumped to the next step and made it policy that ALL new multi-unit dwellings must be built to net zero standards. The “passive house” movement is alive and well in the European Union, giving U.S. builders plenty of examples to learn from.

Building innovations are important but pairing them with housing options and affordability is even more creative in the long run. We know that Portland needs more affordable housing options and that the City will be commissioning some of these building projects. Why not insist they be built to net zero standards and show off our local creativity in the policy arena as well?

This is not pie in the sky craziness, but a really forward-looking and creative solution to addressing climate change and social needs together. This is the way we need to think now – not in one creative silo or another, but across domains, to generate even more creative ideas and have fun working outside the box at the same time.

To learn more about net zero building and affordable housing, please join us for the 2017 Let’s Talk Climate series. On February 15, we will be hosting guest panelists Michael Armstrong, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability; Alexander Boetzel, Green Hammer; Josh Salinger,  Birdsmouth Construction; and Jessica Woodruff, REACH Director of Housing Development. The program takes place at TaborSpace in the Copeland Commons room, 5441 SE Belmont, from 7:00-8:30pm.

For more information, see this post.

Stephanie Kaza is professor emerita of University of Vermont where she taught for 24 years and most recently served as Director of the Environmental Program. A native Portlander, she has returned home to add her voice to local climate and sustainability actions.


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