In Pope Francis’ recent visit to the U.S., he referred to several interesting touchstones in America’s spiritual history, including Thomas Merton. Merton was a prolific writer who often emphasized the importance of community and our deep connectedness to others as a nurturing aspect of spiritual life. The importance of connectedness is not only true of spirituality, but also applies to ecology, an idea we continue to relearn. We cannot throw anything out, because our discard comes back to us in the water we drink, the food we eat or the air we breathe. Our society is intimately connected; we all depend on the same resources to survive.
As the world’s leaders debate political solutions to our current climate crisis, brought about largely by our neglect of this idea, we can look to some very practical solutions within our built environment to protect and enhance resilient communities.
In buildings, these broader connections to community exist as well. Buildings traditionally have emerged from context, been built out of local materials, fit into the contours of the landscape and made use of the local climate to help heat and cool the structures. Almost inevitably, these buildings show a climatic response, drawn from the genus of place, mixed with human inventiveness. Between people and place a dialogue is evoked, a call and response that started long ago and continues to evolve today.
This conversation has a science to it as well. In the mid-20th century, many architects dove deep into the rationality of design, rediscovering how buildings can be designed to optimize their relationship to people, climate and place. Bridging technology, climatology, biology and architecture, the science of bioclimatic design was given quantitative documentation in "Design with Climate," the 1963 text written by my father recently republished by Princeton University Press. The interdisciplinary approach to design that book describes remains the fundamental approach to designing high performance buildings today.
But today’s high performance buildings often are functionally isolated from our neighbors, from our community. Rather than emphasize connectivity, we have built our utility network on the idea that our buildings are at the consuming end of a wire. We aspire to make our buildings independent, but objectively we remain largely interdependent. By recognizing our commonality, we can reimagine our activities so our buildings use connectivity to provide services that benefit the larger community as well as the building owner or occupant.
High performance solar powered buildings can use the electric utility grid to achieve net zero energy use over the course of a year. When building PV systems generate more electricity then they need, they can push it back into the grid, and when they need electricity, they can pull it from the grid — in essence, using the electrical grid as if it were a large battery.
While this is quite reasonable from a building end user perspective, what happens if we are drawing energy when the electricity is in great demand and pushing electricity onto it when there is already an excess of electricity? Looking at the system from the grid perspective is a different point of view. High performance buildings can make utility electricity problems worse.