Just under a decade ago, I reviewed a Las Vegas development called CityCenter for ARCHITECT. After listing some of the center’s green features, like low-flow showerheads, which had helped it earn a LEED Gold rating, I wrote: “Yet it’s hard to imagine anything less green than 18 million square feet of air-conditioned space in the Mojave Desert. Admirable as some features of the complex may be, the only truly sustainable decision would have been not to build it.”
I didn’t know it at the time, but 40 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere can be traced to buildings—more than to any other source. And a sizable portion of that 40 percent is the sunk cost known as embodied energy: the energy used for construction (including the mining, manufacturing, and transportation of building materials).
As an architecture writer, I have been disheartened by the lack of attention the profession has paid to this reality. It’s as if architects believe that embodied energy, which is, of course, invisible, can be wished away (or at least offset with minimal effort). This idea is reinforced by designers who declare their buildings green while either ignoring embodied energy or claiming that operational efficiencies somehow make it irrelevant—a kind of fairy tale some of us are all too happy to believe. I’m equally disheartened that architecture critics have, for the most part, failed to expose this myth in their reporting.