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When the Bell Tolls: Building a Sustainable Future

By Rick Reynolds

When the comedian and talk show entertainer, David Letterman, retired after 33 seasons, he had time to think about more serious issues. Following a visit to India, where he said he was greeted by a smell he likened to burning furniture—an odor that never left him—Letterman was faced with a nagging question: He imagined his yet unborn grandchild eventually asking him: “Did you know about the dire consequences of Global Warming back in 2016?”

Yes, Letterman thought. “And what did you do about it?” his future grandchild enjoined. It was at that moment Letterman knew he’d want to be able to say that he had done X, Y, and Z, to do what he could to help forestall climate change. It was time to get involved.

Inexplicably, during the 2016 U.S. presidential debates, the subjects of global warming and climate change—arguably the gravest long-term threats to the natural environment since the Cretaceous Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event 66 million years ago wiped out 70 percent of all known plant and animal life on Earth—was never even posed by the moderators as a discussion topic!

Indeed, it was that last, great extinction event—an event that killed all non-avian dinosaurs—that permitted early humans to begin emerging over 65 million years later and eventually move up from the middle of the food chain, to the top.

But ironically, rather than the impartial and uncaring Earth-crossing asteroid that caused that last great extinction event, this time around it could very well be those emergent, large-brained humans, who, through overpopulation, consumption, pollution, and denial, may wittingly and willingly bring about the next mass extinction event—before, themselves, going the way of the dinosaurs.

It’s important to note here that evolution has no preference for so-called intelligent creatures. Rather, natural selection favors those who adapt to their environment and reproduce the fastest. With no natural predators save for microbes to “thin the herd,” Homo sapiens have been free to rush headlong, willy-nilly, towards overpopulation and its natural outcome, habitat destruction, pollution, and ultimately, climate change.

Moreover, since evolution never stops producing animate life forms of ever-increasing complexity, what future intelligent species a million years hence will look back on human extinction and wonder how such a capable, intelligent species could have chosen to ignore the obvious environmental signs of its own demise?

So what on Earth does this have to do with us as buyers and builders of residential and non-residential buildings? Interestingly, more than you’d think.

The Industrial Revolution was born by fire and fueled by combustible, carbon-rich sources; the very resources that have sequestered carbon from the atmosphere for hundreds of millions of years. Conversely, it’s the burning of those fuels— especially fossil fuels—that the vast majority of scientists now blame for the current, rapid rise in atmospheric CO2, the leading cause of global warming and climate change.

The good news is, with few exceptions (air travel being one of them), ground transportation, manufacturing, and stationary buildings can be fueled by electricity generated from renewable resources, using off-the-shelf technologies available today. Of all these prerequisites to modern living, the lowest hanging fruit in terms of forestalling climate change lies in our residential and non-residential buildings. Over 40% of all fossil fuel consumption in the U.S. comes from the manufacturing, construction, and operation of our buildings.

It needn’t be that way. Durable, highly-insulated, tightly-sealed, optimally-sited buildings, efficiently fabricated using sustainably-harvested, carbon-sequestering wood, can require little or no energy to heat and cool. And precisely because of their reduced energy loads, ultra-efficient, healthy buildings can be conditioned using small air-source heat pumps and Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) systems and powered by electricity generated by clean power sources, all compliments of the sun: namely, solar, and wind.

Back in the 17th century, an ailing English poet, John Donne beckoned, “Don’t ask for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee.”* As global citizens and heavy energy users, the imperative for action here in the U.S. is inescapable. That there is an accessible, practical protocol for mitigating the negative impact of the huge building sector didn’t have to be. That it exists and is available today is downright lucky. All that is needed is the will to embrace solutions nature and building science have given us.

Will transitioning to smarter building come at a cost? In short, yes, but in the words of Bensonwood founder, Tedd Benson, “That initial cost will pale in comparison to the cost of doing nothing.”

In a letter to their members, Boston Society of Architects/AIA president, Tamara Roy and Executive Director, Rick White had this to say following the controversial results of the 2016 U.S presidential election:

We believe that climate change is an existential threat to human civilization as well as most life on this planet. We promote the principles of sustainable design including increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy, materials building standards, and green waste management systems. We also see the impacts of climate change inequitably burden less privileged members of our communities. To be a truly sustainable society, environmental justice must shape the public policy and long-term vision of our cities, our region, and our nation.

If you’d like to learn more about low-load, environmentally-sustainable buildings, please visit and

*The phrase was later picked up by Ernest Hemingway in his seminal, 20th century novel on the Spanish Civil war: “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”