Climate change threatens almost every aspect of our lives.
Unless it can be slowed or stopped, it will impact where we live, how we live and how we work.
And we in the desert Southwest, are at ground zero.
That means what we do, or how we change or adapt, could provide a blueprint for many parts of the country or the world. But it doesn’t just mean using less water.
How we build will play a big role.
How we build sustainable has been Steffen Lehmann’s passion for years. He’s an architecture professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He’s also the director of the Urban Future Lab and CEO of the Future Cities Leadership Lab. Before joining UNLV, he was with UNESCO’s Sustainable Urban Development for the Asia-Pacific Region.
Bob Fielden is the longtime owner of RAFI Planning, Architecture & Urban Design.
"It's going to continue to be a major influence on our lives ... those who have lived here the past 10-15 years can certainly see the increase in changes over that time in terms of more temperature, more wind, less rain and moisture, less snow in the mountains, more traffic, more pollution on the air,” Fielden said.
We’re also going to continue to grow, he said, and resources will be fewer.
Lehmann echoed that: “We are in such a unique desert city, and what we can find here as a solution will be interesting for many other places that have similar extreme climatic conditions in the world …. We have to find unique climatic responsive solutions.”
What’s available now that could be used to change the impact of what and how we build?
Lehmann said solar power, with rooftop panels, have come down in cost significantly in the past 20 years. They also have guaranteed longevity of 20-25 years, which wasn’t true before now. Another, he said, was timber construction.
“I'm talking about mass-engineered, modular, prefabricated timber buildings up 10 to 20 stories that are coming from a sustainably-harvested forestry system, and they're entirely prefabricated buildings,” he said, leading to less construction waste.
Though, Lehmann said hybrid construction (timber, concrete and steel) is a new trend.
The last thing, he said, is to increase the longevity of the buildings we currently have.
Maintaining the existing fabric, to stop demolishing everything and just do tabula rasa and build new … something that is maybe alien to Las Vegas.
Building up would be a big part of this. He said any building with fewer than three floors is an unsustainable situation, a city that isn’t walkable with high car dependency.
Fielden said the value of buildings even six or seven floors high is using those buildings to shade the street.
“Then we’re starting to reduce our heat island, and here in the desert, is the biggest issue we have,” he said. “I know there's always the quandary about trees in the city. But in my thinking, trees are a necessity, especially if we use drought-tolerant trees that can provide us with the shade we need.”
Fielden said it’ll happen on a local government scale, but it may be some time.
We’re just now as a society within the desert starting to realize the impact that climate change has upon us.
Edward Mazia is an architect from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who just earned a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects for his climate activism, and his focus on effective architectural design that limits global warming.
The AIA credited him for speaking the word about how buildings and structures in the country now account for about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions – about 30% of energy used to operate year round, and 10% in construction. If you throw in construction of the roads needed, the infrastructure, that total number is closer to 50%.
In 2005, targets were issued for the building sector to reduce emissions.
“And what you see is phenomenal,” he said. While square footage increased nationwide, “energy consumption didn't go up. The entire building sector didn't go up. It went down about 5%. And emissions in the building sector are down between 26 and 30%.”
Lehmann said what could continue to reduce that, but isn’t yet done, are energy-positive or carbon-positive buildings, because we are so air condition-dependent.
“What we do is we build sealed-off boxes that then have a huge air conditioned plant on the roof to get cooled inside, and we have a concrete roof that traps and absorbs the heat. And so it becomes like a baking oven, that then we have a huge heat load we have to try to deal with and reduce down,” he said.
Solutions could be simple, such as the orientation of a building, or ideally, it should be solar powered, so the building can generate more energy than it consumes.
He also promoted rammed earth construction, typically seen in areas like Tucson, Arizona and the Sonoran desert. It’s technology from thousands of years ago, where the thickness of the walls provide insulation.
Fielden said it’s also changing attitudes, “and changing those attitudes and growing and developing and maturing in terms of knowledge and awareness.”
His company is currently working on a project for NASA that’s carbon-free.
“We're also filtering all of the air within the building so that that building can be reused again, because it's already at a lower temperature for the people that are working in the building,” he explained. “So it's easier to keep the costs and the operations of all electricity down within the building. And there's less demand on the air conditioning systems. And the way we do that is that we end up building an environmental box.”
Lehmann said going back to the basics works to some degree: “Low tech, and then add technology only where it makes sense.”
But are we too late? Has climate change gone on too long for solutions?
No, Mazria said. “Nevada actually has been dramatically moved away from coal emissions, down to almost nothing now – it's like 5%, or 7%,” he said.
But it makes sense to switch to solar.
“Why Nevada? Nevada absorbs about 40%, for example, more energy from sunlight than a collector in Wisconsin, or New York, or anywhere else … It's cheaper in Nevada to generate electricity. … The formula is electrification and renewables.”
“It will happen,” Fielden said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Steffen Lehmann, professor of architecture, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Robert A. Fielden, owner, RAFI Planning, Architecture & Urban Design; Edward Mazria, founder, Architecture 2030