Going Down: The U.S. Energy Administration’s latest projection for buildings' energy consumption through 2030 is nearly 70% below its 2005 estimate.
Going Down: The U.S. Energy Administration’s latest projection for buildings' energy consumption through 2030 is nearly 70% below its 2005 estimate.

The built environment in the United States is moving toward significant reductions in energy consumption at a faster pace than had previously been projected, even taking into account the slowdown in new construction and remodeling over the past several years.

Since 2005, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has published its projections for energy consumption by buildings. Its 2011 projection for residential and commercial buildings, which it released recently, is nearly 70% less than its projection in 2005 (see chart).

Using its latest calculations, EIA estimates that consumers will spend $3.66 trillion less on energy between 2012 and 2030 than EIA projected in 2005 that they would spend over that period. And if the country’s architects and builders adopt the most efficient building technologies, those savings would exceed $6 trillion.

At this rate of improvement, the building sector would still fall short of reducing its energy consumption to where it would be carbon neutral by 2030, a goal set in 2003 by Architecture 2030, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization whose mission, according to its website, is “to achieve a dramatic reduction in the climate-change-causing greenhouse gas emissions of the building sector by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed, and constructed.”

But Edward Mazria, the organization’s founder and CEO, still thinks this goal is achievable through an aggressive application of energy-saving design techniques, which he points out EIA does not factor into its projections.

In an interview with Builder on Monday, Mazria says EIA has been able to consistently lower its projections for buildings’ energy consumption because the country’s building sector has become increasingly receptive to the logic and economics behind making residential and commercial structures more efficient. “Historically the sector is transformed when its leadership creates a new set of guiding principles. We’re beginning to see that happening now.” What’s needed, he explains, is to put those principles into a “visual language” that can be easily aggregated and disseminated to the design and construction communities.

An equally important factor that impacted EIA’s projections are state and federal laws that mandate efficiency. For example, in 2007 a federal law—the Energy Independence and Security Act—went into effect that requires all federal buildings, new and renovated, to reduce energy use by 30% by 2015 versus 2003 levels, and further improvements after that date.

Since that law went into effect, “we’ve seen an explosion in green building,” says Mazria, manifesting itself in several ways, including the AIA+2030 professional educational series, a program of 10 four-hour sessions teaching strategies to effect reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions from buildings. That program—which started in Seattle in 2007—stems from a partnership between that city and Architecture 2030, the American Institute of Architects, and BetterBricks, a website that promotes energy saving business practices. Twenty AIA chapters now offer this series.

Other factors played a role in EIA’s latest projections, including the nation’s prolonged economic recession, which put a major crimp in new construction. Owen Comstock, an EIA research analyst, told InsideClimateNews that everything from Americans migrating to warmer states to changes in how worsening climate change will affect energy use down the road lead EIA’s lower consumption forecasts.

But even when one takes into account that fewer buildings would emit less greenhouse gases, Mazria says EIA’s Energy Outlook is still good news. For example, when the administration made its projections in 2005, it estimated that the addition of building floor space would increase, on a percentage basis, at roughly the same rate as buildings’ carbon dioxide emissions through 2030. However, in its 2011 projection, EIA estimates that while building floor area would increase by nearly 39%, energy consumption would grow by only 13.7% and CO2 emissions would increase by only 4.6%. And if the building sector uniformly applied the best-available technology, energy consumption would actually decline by 9.2% and CO2 emissions would recede by 16.5% (see chart).

This is where design could play a critical role, predicts Mazria. “As codes are tightened you can only get so far with prescriptive measures, like adding more insulation to a wall. But as codes become more performance-based, that’s where design becomes more important.” He believes that 50% to 80% of a building’s energy consumption can be reduced through design.

Mazria says Architecture 2030 is less concerned about holding architects and builders to rigid formulas for achieving energy reductions in buildings. “Our concern is essentially moving the ball downhill quickly and letting others pick it up.” However, he also points out that as this transformation toward efficiency takes greater hold, it is going to attract scrutiny that inevitably will require architects and buildings to prove their efficiency claims.

John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Seattle, WA.