Whether or not the U.S. decides to take action on climate change, the shape of the country—its towns, offices, homes, schools, roads, farms, and more—is on the brink of a radical transformation. This transformation could be borne out in two ways. The first is external: Escalating storms, floods, droughts, mass migration, food scarcity, and economic instability could dramatically alter the physical landscape and economy. The other is internal: A national effort to retrofit millions of buildings and rethink the way communities are designed could help Americans withstand the ravages of climate change and make the country more equitable.

The resolution known as the Green New Deal, published by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey in February, wants to bring about the latter. The Green New Deal framework describes the monumental changes needed to decarbonize the American economy by meeting 100% of our energy demands with zero-emission sources in the next decade. It will require overhauling major industries like energy and agriculture, but also transforming America’s buildings and construction sector.

It’s easy to miss just how destructive and inefficient land development is, given its ubiquity. Existing buildings hoover up about 40% of energy consumed in the U.S. and emit about 29% of greenhouse gases. The Green New Deal calls for retrofitting all of them—every last skyscraper, McDonald’s, and suburban ranch home—for energy efficiency within the next 10 years. It also addresses the role of the construction industry, which accounts for about 11% of all emissions globally, by recommending investment in community-led building projects oriented around decarbonization issues like resiliency, transit, and land preservation. And crucially, it demands family-sustaining wages, the right to organize, and a “just transition” for everyone affected by the transition to this decarbonized world.

House Republicans quickly declared the resolution a “boondoggle” in an official statement. It was an ironic choice of words. Whether the GOP realized it or not, that term emerged in the 1930s, when critics of the New Deal used it to characterize the project of putting broke Americans to work on hundreds of thousands of projects. It’s true that the Green New Deal’s goals—to reshape the country’s homes, workplaces, and economy, and provide equity for all—sound radical in a country ravaged by the housing crisis, worker exploitation, and stagnating wages, but from a technical, structural, and architectural standpoint, they’re entirely feasible. Despite what politicians would have you believe, we’ve done it before, and we have the tools to do it again.

As Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who is leading the creation of policy around the resolution, says, reaching them will mean thinking about transit, land use, housing, building regulations, and more. In short: “What will our cities and towns look like, moving forward?”

[Source Image: United States Library of Congress]

Designing a federal building project

According to the Energy Information Administration, there are roughly 5.6 million commercial buildings in the United States. Most of those are small; half are under 5,000 square feet—think of a fast food joint or a doctor’s office. There are also 138 million housing units, which includes both houses and apartment units. Reducing their carbon footprint will involve the crucial, economy-wide shift away from fossil fuels, but also tamping down the amount of energy buildings use in the first place.

Retrofitting tens of millions of houses and apartment buildings, which take lots of energy to heat, cool, and light, isn’t the Green New Deal’s most glamorous clause, but it’s one of its most pressing. As summers get hotter and the population (and thus the housing stock) grows, the urgency will only increase, as the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions reports. There will be trillions of lightbulbs to replace. Millions of HVAC units to upgrade, operable windows and automatic shades to install, rooftops to paint with heat-reflecting paint, shade-giving trees to plant and photovoltaics to hook up. Miles and miles of wiring and sensors and automation platforms to get online so it can all be monitored and controlled.

Who will do this work? Who will pay for it? How will it be regulated, in a country where building regulations are determined at local, rather than federal, levels? And perhaps most importantly, how will this work be done fairly at scale—for the workers who will need training to carry it out and contractors who will need help getting certified to do the work, but also for the millions of homeowners and renters who will be affected?

These are questions that Gunn-Wright is addressing in her role as policy director at New Consensus, the nonprofit that is now working to develop the Green New Deal. “The policy looks like a massive, federally led effort to upgrade all buildings and homes,” she says.

New Consensus is in the early days of this work, convening experts and studying potential policy strategies, so it’s too early to say exactly what shape that effort will take. It could establish a federal energy efficiency policy that acts like a baseline for what local building codes across the country must meet or exceed. Or, a federal program could work with states to encourage them to raise their energy standards locally through grant-making, Gunn-Wright explains. She also points to the promising emergence of prefabricated kits that make it easier and less expensive to retrofit homes to net-zero energy standards. A private-public project in the Netherlands has developed a prefab kit that transforms older public housing into net-zero homes in just a week—and pays for the work using the tenants’ eliminated energy bills.

Whatever shape this and other Green New Deal building projects take, it will involve a crucial focus on making sure workers, contractors, and homeowners aren’t burdened by it. “We have to be thinking about the potential adverse or unintentional consequences of doing these sort of upgrades, particularly for low-income families,” Gunn-Wright says.

Peggy Deamer—architect, Professor Emeritus of Architecture at Yale University, and founder of the Architecture Lobby—similarly cautions that Green New Deal policy will need to avoid avenues that emphasize technological solutions over the people affected by them. “Technology is essential in this, but [so is] making sure the technology is not seen as some utopian solution that leaves behind workers or decision-makers,” she says.

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