Most of the world still has very bad plumbing, where the distinction between the water to wash with and the water to drink has not yet been realized. Diseases related to impure water are among the top three causes of death in parts of India and Asia. Management of fresh water is a significant world issue, but few homes or communities do it well, let alone with joy or ingenuity. There are of course creative solutions. Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Sustainability, for example, devised a small greenhouse full of plants and snails that can thoroughly rid domestic wastewater of toxins; they call it a “Living Machine.”
Worse than water is the wanton use of electricity. Whether you’re at home or not, the typical electricity-guzzling U.S. house chugs away, burning power. It’s too dumb to know whether you’re in or out, awake or asleep. When it comes to saving power, a million-dollar home is dumber than the dumbest thousand-dollar laptop.
The United States, with less than five percent of the world’s people, produces a quarter of the world’s air pollution. And the number one cause of air pollution is: generating electrical power. More than half of U.S. electricity comes from burning coal, which dumps greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Bill Browning of the Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that buildings account for more than one-third of U.S. electric power demand. More than one-fourth of that energy goes into lighting.
You don’t need to be the brightest bulb on the tree to realize that energy-efficient lights, architectures that make better use of daylight and sensible approaches overall (like homes and offices that are smart enough to turn off the lights when the occupants leave) could reduce consumption enormously. Incandescent bulbs, once a bright idea, are obsolete yet still in heavy use. They are horribly wasteful: 90 percent of the electricity they draw goes out as heat rather than light. Compact fluorescent lights that fit standard sockets are four times as efficient and last 12 times as long. Efficiencies and savings with the use of new light-emitting diode technologies are likely to be even greater (see “LEDs Light the Future,” TR September/October 2000).
As power companies in California suffer under the load and embarrassingly brown out large parts of the state, it is hard not to wonder why people still design and use such dumb lighting systems. Why are incandescent bulbs used in the vast majority of homes? Are consumers so unaware? (Yes.) Does the high initial price of a compact fluorescent obscure the long-term benefits? (Yes.)
But there is a more insidious factor: force of habit. Even small changes in consumer behavior would have easily prevented the California blackouts. But bad habits are hard to break-and the Bush administration’s hostility toward energy conservation isn’t helpful. This is where smarter use of technology in architecture might serve us well. Unfortunately, most people tend to live with what they’ve got. Renters have no incentive to upgrade their homes. Homeowners find they’ve inherited a big box full of leaky pipes and running toilets and drafty windows and bad insulation that they don’t have time or money to fix. Even when design solutions exist, it’s been difficult for homeowners to obtain them. But the solutions are out there.