Climate change isn’t coming—it’s already here: increasingly severe weather, climbing temperatures, and fires raging across not only California, but the Arctic, too. The U.N. says we have about a decade to avert climate change, otherwise we’ll push Mother Earth to the brink. If this sounds scary to you, you’re not alone. A variety of politicians and political organizations, most notably Sunrise Movement and Bernie Sanders, have rallied around a plan to avert this crisis: or, rather, a variety of plans all given the moniker the Green New Deal.
The “official” Green New Deal is the House of Representatives Bill 109, “Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal,” which was introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey in January. The Sanders campaign has given its climate plan the same name, and individual cities have their own green building initiatives as well. Rather than being one specific bill or initiative, the Green New Deal is better understood as a framework for a massive public works and jobs program aiming to decarbonize the economy and transition workers in the fossil fuel industry to new, greener work.
Named after the New Deal, implemented by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as an economic recovery plan from the Great Depression, a Green New Deal is an economic—and environmental—recovery plan for the anthropocene. Though the plan has earned headlines primarily for its proposals to transition workers in the fossil fuel industry to new green jobs and to decarbonize and revitalize our energy systems, a Green New Deal would touch our lives at every level, including at home.
One of the key elements of the Green New Deal is a call to make our homes more energy efficient through weatherization. Homeowners and building owners would receive incentives from the federal government to weatherize buildings by replacing energy-inefficient windows, doors, insulation, and service systems such as electricity and plumbing. Not only would this boost homeowners’ equity, but it would also reduce the cost of utility bills and make our housing stock resilient against the weather changes a warming world brings. And speaking of energy, we’re also going to be installing solar panels, and a lot of them.
Proposed changes in transportation are an underestimated element of the Green New Deal. All of the proposals see building robust, sustainable public transit systems and weaning us away from car reliance as keys to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As critics have noted, none of the proposed Green New Deal plans go far enough in this regard. But even these limited initiatives would have architectural effects: Imagine not having to waste so much square footage on a place to park your car. We could see a renaissance of the garage band, the garage workshop, and even the (properly weatherized) garage bedroom or apartment. Without car dependence, the aesthetics of new housing would be transformed by eliminating parking lots and decks on multifamily residential housing, and relegating the “snout house” (a house dominated by a front-facing garage) to the dustbin of history. Not only is this sustainable, it saves architects and homebuilders from the tricky task of trying to aesthetically integrate a massive garage.
Some plans, such as the Green New Deal proposed by the Bernie Sanders campaign, require the widespread building of new public and affordable housing. This would be a gift to the construction industry, to renters in increasingly unaffordable cities, and to the world of architecture. What would make these plans even better would be elaborating on land use, especially in cities. Our car dependence is partly a result of the ubiquity of single-family housing, which is less sustainable than dense, urban multifamily buildings.
Architecture has been waiting for this moment for decades. In the post-climate-control world, experimentation with passive solar housing, a technique for using solar power to create homes that use only the energy they produce, began in the 1930s with the solar house experiments of George F. Keck, whose techniques for window placement and photovoltaic cells were tried by none other than Frank Lloyd Wright. Interest in passive solar housing peaked at the time of the 1970s energy crisis, and the pioneering architect Edward Mazria published The Passive Solar Energy Book, a pattern book of solar housing designs, in 1973. We should once again use the pattern book model (now mostly implemented through online house plan websites) to provide homebuyers and homeowners with templates for beautiful, sustainable housing.
Unfortunately, with the beginning of the Reagan era, efforts toward solar housing were largely put on hold in the United States. But European architects continued to make strides toward ecological sustainability, developing the passive house standards of building throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Passive-house building standards remain at the cutting edge of sustainable building design, and feature thicker insulation, low-emissivity windows, airtight construction, natural ventilation, and geothermal heat as techniques to reduce carbon emissions.
Another eco-friendly construction system, zero-energy building, which refers to a building whose total energy consumption is less than or equal to the amount of renewable energy generated on site, was developed during the same era. Zero-energy building uses renewable energy generation via solar, geothermal, or wind-driven methods to compensate for its energy consumption. In a theoretical Green New Deal, both zero-energy and passive-house standards could be implemented to ensure that all new construction would be ecologically sustainable. Advancements in architectural thinking and building construction—limiting the use of unsustainable, energy inefficient, and carbon-intensive building materials such as glass curtain walls, concrete, and building materials derived from petroleum, and increasing the use of consumer technologies like composting toilets—could further reduce architecture’s carbon footprint. Architecture already has the means and technology to make this happen. It also happens that the results look good.
The Sanders plan also references a home feature that most of us don’t think of as ecologically harmful: our lawns. Lawns account for 40 million acres in the United States, and not only do they limit biodiversity by creating a monoculture of turf grass, they are also responsible for pesticide use that is harmful to pollinators and greenhouse gas emissions by means of lawn-care machines and fertilizer production. The Sanders Green New Deal proposes a solution in the form of subsidized initiatives for Americans across the rural/suburban/urban divide to cultivate victory gardens—gardens for food production or reforestation. Combining victory gardens with the implementation of long-time landscape architecture practices like xeriscaping would save innumerable gallons of water, not to mention prevent greenhouse gases and ecologically harmful pesticides from being released into the environment.
Appliances inside our homes matter, too. California has recently started exploring plans to phase out a number of appliances, such as gas-powered stoves and water heaters, aiming to replace them with induction cooktops and electric or geothermal heat. The elimination of gas-powered heating and appliances is a worthy goal, one that could be adopted by other states and in climate legislation writ large.
The bottom line for us as producers and consumers of buildings is this: A Green New Deal would revitalize our built environment. It would change the way we build our homes, through new standards of sustainability in regards to materials, construction techniques, and land use. Improvements in transportation would have tremendous architectural consequences. A Green New Deal would provide us with new homes and improve the ones we have. We would save immense amounts of money everywhere: in omitting the garage when building a new house (or changing an existing garage into an income property), in lowering our energy bills (from renewable energy investment and weatherization), in altering our landscaping (no more sprinkler systems, pesticides, or fertilizer). Stemming the tide of climate change requires systemic action; it can’t be done just by omitting the straws at restaurants or carrying a tote bag. The result of that action isn’t just averting catastrophe, it’s building a better world—literally.
Kate Wagner is the creator of the viral blog McMansion Hell, which roasts the world’s ugliest houses. Outside of McMansion Hell, Kate is a guest contributor for Curbed, 99 Percent Invisible, and Atlas Obscura. In addition to writing about architecture, Kate has worked extensively as a sound engineer.