On climate train, green architect talks blueprints for future

On Sept. 18, days ahead of the 400,000-strong People’s Climate March, the People’s Climate Train was a hub of activity in its own right. Of primary import during the trip were environmental workshops, in which experts from all walks of life – yet part of the same struggle – talked about solutions to climate change and environmental degradation. Among those speakers was Pete Gang, who explained that a very important form of activism lay not just in building a stronger movement, but building in general.

Gang, who is an architect, explained, “It was humbling for me to realize that the area of human enterprise that has the largest effect on the environment is buildings. Here in the U.S., buildings account for 40 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gases,” which is to say, those directly caused by human activity. That statistic comes from data collected by the U.S. Air and Energy Administration.

A big leverage point

Gang has taught what is called ‘green building’ for the last 15 years, and in 2001 co-founded the Redwood Empire chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit confederation that promotes sustainability in the design and operation of buildings. What is green building? According to Gang, it’s about “acknowledging that our influence” on greenhouse gas emissions through buildings also “offers us a big leverage point,” in that people can drastically alter that 40 percent by changing how these structures are made and used.

“Climate change,” said Gang, “is something I’ve been talking about for years, and I see it as being right at the heart of architecture.” Over time, he noted, “Green building has emerged from the fringe and the sidelines into the mainstream. At this point, the general public seems to have an understanding to some degree of the importance of environmentally conscious building.” But it’s still not enough, and in fact, he stressed, there could be real solutions to global warming waiting to be found in the field of architecture. “Building in a way to drastically reduce climate impact would not be that difficult if it had more support. And this is an issue that can even overcome partisan divide,” he added, hinting at the drastically different opinions the Democratic and Republican parties have on the environment.

A large part of the solution involves upgrading to renewable energy to power buildings, and to modify them to eat up less power. For example, he said, “In commercial buildings, 50 percent of energy is used to heat space and water.”

Managed by human stewardship

In an interview with Green Source DTW, Gary Olp, founder of Texas-based sustainable building group GGO Architects, said it is also important to ensure that building manmade structures doesn’t harm ecosystems or disturb wildlife. It’s an important thing to keep in mind, as that could further upset the balance that must be maintained, if there is to be hope for fighting climate change. “How and where we build may alter or affect the immediate environment,” he remarked. “I learned from an Apache elder that man isn’t by nature a destructive creature. Landscapes managed by human stewardship in pre-history times exhibited greater fish and game populations, healthier forests, and better water.

“But we also need to begin to address the full circle of individual responsibility. A diverse natural environment,” which is increasingly threatened by large greenhouse gas emissions, “can’t exist where there is nothing but concrete roads, sidewalks, and manicured landscapes with non-indigenous plants and rooftops. We need to rediscover a pedestrian way of life, and have communities that integrate our homes with the places we work, shop, and recreate; designing wild places that are integrated into the community fabric.”

According to GGO Architects, “Public buildings should reflect a sense of purpose greater than commodity, something more than just satisfying a needed public service. It should be guiding a way to the future and representing a sound logical environmental stewardship, and elicit a personal sense of wellbeing and an awareness of the effort each of us has [to make] as an individual citizen of our communities.”

Wooden skyscrapers, or “plyscrapers”

There is also the matter of resource depletion when it comes to the material used to make buildings. Michael C. Green, an architect based in Vancouver, British Columbia, said one effective and doable way to remedy this is with wooden skyscrapers, or as they have been nicknamed, plyscrapers. Green, who has talked about wood-based architecture for years, has just finished a new building for the University of Northern British Columbia, called the Wood Innovation and Design Center, where students will be able to learn about sustainable, wood-based architectural solutions.

This year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared it would invest $2 million in wood innovation efforts as a viable building alternative. Dept. Secretary Tom Vilsak, D-Iowa, said, “Wood may be one of the world’s oldest building materials, but it is now also one of the most advanced. Building stronger markets for sustainable wood products helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions and puts rural America at the forefront of an emerging industry.” Meanwhile, he added, the market created by wood-based architecture in the U.S. could “support more than one million direct jobs, many in rural America. As these markets expand, so will the economic opportunities.”

“Wood is the most significant building material we use today that is grown by the sun,” said Green. “When harvested responsibly, wood is arguably one of the best tools architects and engineers have for reducing emissions and storing carbon in our buildings.”

But will that ever catch on as a large-scale, economically feasible, culturally accepted solution? When it comes to the current Republican-dominated, climate change-denying political environment, perhaps hopeful activists had better knock on wood.

Back on the climate train, however, Pete Gang, who is no stranger to these alternatives, emphasized, “It’s not just about reforming building regulations and materials, or outfitting buildings with snappy new energy-efficient technology,” though those are important goals to strive for. “We need that, but we also need to get everybody on board. And that’s a tall order, because time is not on our side.”

Photo: At a brief Amtrak stop, Pete Gang (bottom, second from left), joins the rest of the climate traingoers for a picture after the session on green architecture. Roberta Wood/PW





Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a writer and production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the People's World home page. He has earned awards from the IWPA and ILCA, and his articles have appeared in publications such as Workday Minnesota, EcoWatch, and Earth First News. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill in New Orleans and the 2015 U.N. Climate Conference in Paris.

He lives in Erie, Pennsylvania with his girlfriend and their cats. He enjoys wine, books, music, and nature. In his spare time, he operates a music review channel on YouTube, creates artwork, and is writing a fantasy novel, as well as a self-help book and several digital comics.