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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Interview with Ann Edminster

When the outlook is bleak, this green building leader focuses on solutions

Ann Edminster is a green building expert. She is also the founder and principal of Design AVEnues, a consulting and design practice in California.

Ann Edminster has been a green building leader since the movement’s earliest days. Her list of accomplishments is long: she is the founder and principal of Design AVEnues, a consulting and design practice in California; she has a master’s degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley; she has extensive experience with straw bale construction; she is the author of a 2009 book on net-zero homes called Energy Free: Homes for a Small Planet.

Mounting a successful revolution

Back in 2003, when I was editor of Energy Design Update, I interviewed Ann in connection with her work developing the LEED for Homes standard. During that conversation, she told me, “I started my green building advocacy working with straw bale and cob builders, and my heart is still there. I strongly believe we need them to be doing what they are doing, moving where we perceive the boundaries to be. But that is happening one home at a time—it’s not having much measurable benefit—and that’s why these days I am actively working more in the mainstream. In order to successfully mount a revolution, you need the guerillas, you need the moles, you need the people storming the gates, you need the quiet subversives—you need everybody.”

When I recently telephoned Ann Edminster for a second interview, I began our conversation by reading back what she told me in 2003.

Most new homes get an F

Martin Holladay: My first question is: Twenty years later, how is the revolution going?

Ann Edminster: It’s picking up steam. I’ve seen more change in the public realm in the last three years than in the previous 17 years—in terms of the public narrative, in what I hear at public meetings and observe in the media. Everywhere, there is a greater…

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  1. desave | | #1

    Martin, thanks so much for the opportunity to share my views!

  2. norm_farwell | | #2

    Interesting conversation.

    I’m trying to understand this statement: “It’s important to understand that 60% of our emissions are from transportation.”

    All the stats I usually see put transportation’s share of carbon emissions in the range of 27-30%. The most recent EPA inventory says the transportation sector accounted for 28% of emissions in 2021.

    So I’m confused by that. Can you elaborate?

    1. maine_tyler | | #3

      It also says that the other 40% comes from buildings. The fact that transportation and buildings supposedly account for 100% of "direct carbon emissions" in that county must mean the metric being discussed is more narrow than total systems-wide carbon emissions. Or, transportation and buildings have been defined so broadly so as to capture every form of emission. Not sure.

    2. user-1112646107 | | #5

      Ann said, "I live in a county where nearly 60 percent of our direct carbon emissions are from transportation and 40 percent from buildings." Counties differ. I assume that Ann has studied data specific to the county where she lives.

    3. desave | | #10

      Good catch, Norm -- and thank you, Martin, for clarifying. Martin is correct -- the comment was about my home region (Sonoma County, CA), ignores small contributions (e.g., from waste), and even more importantly, is limited to direct emissions within the region.

  3. Danan_S | | #4

    > We are tremendously frustrated. In some respects, the state housing mandates may be wrong-headed, but this is just going to happen.

    What is wrong headed about them? SB35 essentially forces job rich urban and suburban communities to stop preventing new higher density workplace-accessible housing to be built.

    1. user-1112646107 | | #6

      My interpretation of Ann's statement was that she was referring to her frustration with the fact that few builders consider the issue of embodied carbon emissions. It's probably true that most new construction is responsible for embodied carbon emissions that are hard to justify in light of our current climate crisis.

      1. Danan_S | | #7

        New housing may be responsible for a lot of embodied carbon, but at least in California we have a serious dearth of housing overall, coupled with large swaths of low density existing housing.

        The new housing is going to be built, because the alternative is worsening unaffordability. However, we're better off with it being built closer to the urban core than 1-2 hours drive away, which is what has been happening.

        Cities within a 20 minute drive of San Francisco or San Jose that have one dwelling per 1/2 acre lot maximum are the issue.

        1. desave | | #11

          I'm absolutely anti-sprawl and pro-densification -- up to the point it makes sense from a climate perspective. The part that I find wrong-headed is a lack of critical analysis of the drivers behind the tight housing market, such as growth pressure from corporations, and rates of population growth vs. in-flow/out-flow. I also don't see that we're doing nearly enough to convert existing, abandoned or underutilized properties to housing. We're not addressing the situation holistically at all.

  4. [email protected] | | #8

    I remember Randolph Croxton talking about "embodied energy" at an AIA Seattle seminar in maybe 1995. At the time, the ratio of operating to embodied energy in code-compliant buildings over their lifetime was on the order of 95% operating, 5% embodied. As operating energy has been reduced through improvements in the IEC, embodied energy has become a much bigger proportion of lifetime energy use. So we're making progress! Embodied emissions are the next frontier, for sure.

    That said, 'm wary of using embodied emissions to lobby against increasing density. As y'all know, multifamily buildings, particularly done to Passivhaus level (or "pretty good" level if you insist) are better than single family in both operating and embodied emissions per person, and more people living in dense, walkable urban neighborhoods means significantly less emissions from transportation. There is a sweet spot that is no doubt smaller scale than high-rise residential. I'm hoping we can find it in Washington, now that HB1110 has passed.

    1. Expert Member
      Michael Maines | | #9

      The central tenets of the Pretty Good House approach are to make improvements until they stop making financial sense, and to think holistically about the building. In multi-families, budgets are usually even tighter then they are for single-family projects, but they are also much easier to reach Passive House levels, so they are a case where Passive is also Pretty Good.

  5. BillWolpert | | #12

    I think the trades, as Anne said, are a weak link. It is too easy to substitute materials and specs and still have the building inspector sign off. Homeowners don't typically know the difference and if presented by the General Contractor as a cost savings, they say, "Sure!".

    Ann is the real deal. She is analytical with hands on experince. When she talks, I listen.

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