08/16/2010 11:14 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Sustainable Buildings: What Are We Waiting For?

I speak to groups all around the world on green issues and sustainability. In my travels I get to meet all types of people, from hotshot politicians to corporate bigwigs to average citizens.

Regardless of what part of the social ladder they occupy, I've noticed that many people are gamblers at heart; they have an abiding faith that somehow a big-bet, cure-all is just around the corner to deliver us into a greener and more sustainable world. It must be true - the logic usually goes - because there is too much money to be made; or there are huge benefits to reap. When such advancements do not arrive on schedule, it's a conspiracy, of course.

Now, I am a huge believer in technology and its ability to help mankind leapfrog to a better future, but it seems to me we're fooling ourselves if we put too much faith in deus ex machina solutions for our complex environmental problems.

We're not going to become all-solar, all-the-time; and the replacement for the internal combustion engine - which has been "just around the corner" since I was a kid - will take more time, apparently. In the meantime we can make incredible progress towards a more sustainable future using the tools we have and the inventions that already exist - because some of them are quite powerful.

Take a gaze out of your window and you'll likely see one of the most glaring environmental problems that can be rectified now, with the tools we have - the commercial buildings and structures that populate our planet. There are about 5 million of them in the U.S. alone.

The HVAC system, the lights, the water, the elevators, the power and cooling for technology, the heating and cooling for people: all contribute to making buildings a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions--and a leading energy user. Lights blaze and air conditioners hum in empty offices at night, and lawn sprinklers turn on even during a rainstorm. Commercial buildings can lose as much as 50 percent of the water that flows into them.


  • The building sector is responsible for more electricity consumption than any other sector, 42 percent, and 15 percent of all greenhouse gas (GHG) Emissions.
  • In the U.S., buildings represent 72 percent of all energy usage and 39 percent of greenhouse gas emissions (pdf). Yet, up to 50% of that electricity is wasted.
  • In New York City, buildings account for 80 percent of carbon emissions.
  • By 2025, buildings will be the single largest energy consumers and emitters of greenhouse gas on our planet.

Technology already exists that will allow us to utterly transform our buildings' impact on the environment. It's called the Internet. Along with cheap sensors (less than a penny each in some cases), the Internet becomes a network that can allow these buildings to be controlled for maximum energy efficiency; monitored for compliance; and customized to work better for inhabitants - floor by floor, room by room.

This is already happening today. Check out this example with the Calgary city school system in Canada.

We don't need any new inventions or legislation to solve one of our biggest environmental problems. What are we waiting for?