A workplace with circular overhead lights, blue walls, blue furniture, and large windows.
SmithGroup designed an office for financial technology company Affirm. Courtesy SmithGroup

Charging Towards Electrification: Decarbonizing Buildings

To decarbonize the build environment, we need to start planning for electrification today.

With worldwide automobile companies moving quickly toward an electric vehicle future, electrifying buildings, old and new, is an increasingly urgent topic. A July 22 Think Tank panel took on this subject in a discussion moderated by Metropolis editor in chief Avinash Rajagopal. The event was hosted by SmithGroup San Francisco.

Rajagopal began with the oft quoted, but troubling statistic that the design and construction industry account for about 40 percent of all carbon emissions. “Our sector,” he said, “has an especially important role in the fight against climate change.”

“The greenest building is the one you don’t build from scratch.”

Stet Sanborn, principal, engineering discipline Leader, Smithgroup

Dane Parker, former chief sustainability officer and vice president of sustainable workplaces, General Motors, said “Reduce, reuse and recycle continue to be relevant. And furthermore, how we use the space we have is step number one.”

Indeed, true to the aphorism that “the greenest building is the one you don’t build from scratch,” Stet Sanborn, principal, engineering discipline leader, SmithGroup, opined: “It’s important to reuse and renovate existing buildings. But doing so is messy and hard. They are difficult to retrofit to electricity. Developers often say it’s just easier to build a new greenfield project.” The reason for this, Sanborn explained, is that old systems have to be removed to be replaced by new ones. With a greenfield project, you’re starting fresh and from scratch with no existing systems to extract.

Sensitive to this challenge. Rachel Kuykendall, senior programs manager, Sonoma Clean Power, stated that “we incentivize our customers to switch to efficient electric systems.” And it doesn’t stop with building retrofits. Another incentive is using an electric car battery as a backup to a house’s power connection. Parker, true to his background as a former car man, chimed in to say: “We know that 80 percent of charging happens in people’s homes. It would be a shame if that as we electrify transportation, we don’t link it to housing.”

Parker pointed out the large carbon footprints that exist in the United States: “As Americans we take up too much space, in our offices and our homes. I’ve heard about 5,000 square foot ‘green’ houses. There’s no such thing”

There’s a divide in this country between areas with greener energy sources and inland states more dependent on “dirty” energy like coal. “When I talk about electrification,” Sanborn said, “there’s a big difference between California and West Virginia.”

“We have to make electrification smart and use it for all of its advantages,” Rajagopal said as the conversation winded down. “We have to convince the public of all of the benefits of electricity. We need programs like Sonoma Clean Power’s incentives. Like electric vehicles, all-electric homes are an idea whose time has come.”

An office with open work areas and couches, as well as private meeting rooms.
Courtesy SmithGroup

The Think Tank discussions were held on July  8, 15, and 22. The conversations were presented in partnership with Corona Group, GROHE, and Trendway.

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