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Corey Squire

Why Do Buildings Use Energy?

Posted by on 6/15/17 at 02:44pm

Ask “why did the chicken crossed the road?” and you’ll likely hear a common answer, “to get to the other side”. This may be true, but it’s only part of the story.

Aristotle described four “causes” that govern the process for change.

Not only is the “why” or Final Cause important, but also the “what” (Material Cause) and the “how” (Formal Cause and Efficient Cause)

Aristotle and his peers saw single events happening for diverse reasons. This is a useful framework, providing the ability to see a problem from multiple “causes” rather than just one. For example, using this framework:

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Material cause (what): the chicken
Formal cause (how, first level): using her legs
Efficient cause(how, second level): powered by the energy of her feed
Final cause (why): to get to the other side

The energy contained in the chicken’s feed was just as important for getting her across the road as her ultimate goal of arriving on the other side. Focusing only on the “why” or Final Cause blinds us to many underlying component of the problem and limits our ability for creative problem solving.

Chicken

Now, a question with a more architectural application with a unique solution for each of the four causes.

Why do houses use energy?

Material Cause of energy use: Fuel being burned, ect.
“Because energy is generated”
Solution: Generate less energy globally and ration

Formal Cause of energy use: Energy-using appliances
“Because system are powered by energy”
Solution: limit or improve efficiency of energy end users

Efficient Cause of energy use: Energy being supplied to the house
“Because cables supply energy to the house”
Solution: limit amperage of energy service

Final Cause of energy use: To provide human comfort
“Because people desire comfort”
Solution: Cut energy uses that don’t provide comfort

If we want to decrease the amount of energy that a home uses, we now have many choices beyond simple energy efficiency. Society could just generate less power, or generate a fixed amount and then ration it. Along these same lines, the electric feed to a house could be capped at say 200 Amps. Houses can’t uses more energy than the cables can physically deliver. Homes can also use systems and appliances that don’t run off of energy, such as a clothes line rather than a drying machine or a light switch rather than a lighting control system. Finally, since the ultimate cause of electricity in a house is to provide comfort, we can eliminate all uses that don’t meet this goal (energy use when no one’s home), or we can just change our comfort expectations.

wirespants

Where to go from here? First off, the theory behind societal energy generation needs to be explored. If the problem is “global carbon emissions produced by generating energy”, switching out a CFL for an LED seems a like a disproportionately small approach. Maybe we don’t need to be burning all that coal in the first place. What if a fixed about of energy was generated and then high users could buy energy credits from low users at the social cost of carbon or a price set by the market.

powerplant

On a smaller, more practical scale, we can explore the energy feed going to each house. Typically, we decided what appliances and system a house will contain, and then size the feed, 200A, 400A, 600A, etc. accordingly. What if we start at the assumption of a 200A feed and then design systems and appliances that fit within that constraint?

As a profession, architects should start to explore all of the “causes” that govern an action as a tool to solve design problems. Otherwise, we might be missing the larger picture and produce solutions that aren’t adequate to the scale of the problem.