What are buildings, really?

Buildings are complex systems of systems (within systems, and systems of systems) which serve many, often competing, functions.  Buildings are controlled environments which mitigate the effects of aspects of outdoor environments- outdoor temperature, humidity, solar radiation, wind, airborne contaminants, noise, people, etc- and allow us to live and function in healthy, productive, comfortable ways.

What effect do buildings have on the world?

The LEED-certified Nationwide & Ohio Farm Bureau 4-H Center at The Ohio State University


Because most of us  7.6 billion humans live in them, work in them, eat in them, sleep in them, visit them, enjoy ourselves in them, buildings, in aggregate, have an enormous effect on every aspect of life on earth:

Energy and Carbon Emissions

The U.S. Energy Information Administration tells us, “In 2016, about 40% (or about 39 quadrillion British thermal units) of total U.S. energy consumption was consumed by the residential and commercial [building] sectors.” (EIA). This includes 72% of the electricity consumption in the entire U.S. (EPA). That’s more than passenger cars!  More than industry.  And it doesn’t even include the energy used to create buildings or drive to them.

According to the USGBC, buildings are responsible for 39% of the emissions of Carbon Dioxide in the United States, and unlike other sectors, this number is getting worse (EESI).  We aren’t projected to meet the targets necessary to keep global temperature rise under the consensus target of 2 degrees Celsius, in large part because of emissions from the building sector.

On the other hand, because of their ubiquity and thermal properties, buildings offer a great opportunity to store thermal energy and allow for greater integration of renewables into energy providers’ portfolios by shifting loads to times when renewable production is highest and away from those when it is least.


We as Americans spend 87% of our hours on the planet in buildings (Klepeis et al. 2001).  It’s easy to understand, then, why the overwhelming majority of our exposure to harmful airborne pollutants occurs inside buildings. The air we breathe in indoor environments can contain such things as particulate matter and ozone responsible for 1.1 million life years lost and 36,000 life years lost, respectively (Fann et al. 2011); volatile organic compounds such as formaldehyde, a human carcinogen (IARC); and biological microorganisms.


The quality of our indoor environments has an enormous effect on worker and student productivity.  One somewhat dated summary estimated potential annual savings in the United States alone at “$6 to $14 billion from reduced respiratory disease,; $2 to $4 billion from reduced allergies and asthma; $15 to$40 billion from reduced symptoms of sick building syndrome; and $20 to $200 billion from direct improvements in worker performance that are unrelated to health.” (Fisk, Chapter 4)