Climate Change & Building Maintenance: The Chicken & the Egg

As we know, climate change has far-ranging effects on everything from polar ice caps to coastal shorelines to expanding deserts around the world. The steadily warming planet also affects man-made structures, including the buildings we live in. All the materials that go into building construction—bricks, mortar, steel, and glass, as well as sealants, coatings, and a huge array of other structural and weatherproofing elements—are all designed with climate in mind. In the deserts of Arizona, for example, engineers designing and choosing building materials must take into account that temperatures there can easily reach 120 degrees during the hotter months. By the same token, developers in Miami and other coastal cities must consider how to reinforce their properties against increasingly frequent, increasingly violent hurricanes.

But what about the flip-side of this equation? We may be adjusting how we construct housing in the face of a rapidly changing global climate, but how have our previous choices of building materials—and the ways in which we maintain them—contributed to climate change and its acceleration? What can we do to both lower the impact of buildings on climate change and to protect them from the effects of it?  

Chicken or Egg?

Fredric Goldner is president of Energy Management & Research Associates, an energy consulting firm located in East Meadow, New York. He believes the problem of sorting out and reducing the environmental impact of multifamily residential buildings is more complex than a simple analysis of a given building’s carbon footprint. The overall picture is multi-layered, involving both initial construction, maintenance after the fact, and the impact of climate change on existing buildings.

“I’m not certain what effect current building construction has had vis-à-vis climate change,” says Goldner. Rather, he says, it may be more instructive to ask, “What have current operational practices done to compound the problem? While building components, type of construction, and equipment can have an effect on energy use—and that in turn has an effect on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change—the way one operates a building has a much greater impact than any of the hardware. We’d all like to think we are doing better construction today than years ago. However, I think most professionals would agree that buildings built many years ago were made to last—perhaps more so than today, though perhaps not intentionally. If you look at a 100-year-old building,” and compare it to something built within the last few decades, Goldner says, “I’m not sure new buildings will stand that test of time. Old buildings are thermally heavy. They have a lot of physical mass: thick walls, multiple layers. They retain heating and cooling better. They are for all intents and purposes more energy-efficient. So in that respect, newer is not necessarily more efficient or better.”

Goldner goes on to say that while our goal should be to build buildings better, “Current operational practices are what’s important. Not the buildings, but what we do with them. It’s a matter of having appropriate independent third parties do tests—combustion efficiency tests for boilers to keep them running at optimum efficiency, for example. What we need to do differently is that we actually need to do it. One of the contributing factors that brought us to this point is that people don’t take care of their buildings. As much as we preach, the number of buildings actually doing [adequate, consistent systems testing] is small.” He says that even if every building adopted and adhered to a rigorous inspection/testing calendar, the problem of a warming climate wouldn’t simply disappear; it’s both more systemic and more complex than that. “But had this been done consistently and correctly,” he says, “the problem wouldn’t be as bad as it is now. An ounce of prevention, as the saying goes. A greater participation rate would slow the climate problem and buy time to come up with more alternatives.”  

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