By Andrew Blauvelt and Joël Désiré
Our built spaces are taking a leap forward and bringing us into a new age of sustainable living. Cities such as Boston, Aspen, and Washington D.C. are focused on achieving net-zero emissions in their communities by introducing innovative technology into their buildings and infrastructure.
As humanity embarks on its next steps toward environmentally-friendly living and reducing the effects of climate change, now is the time to reflect on the ways past trends and breakthroughs have shaped our journey, influencing where we are today and where we’re going next.
The following “Eras of Sustainability” provide a bird’s eye view of American energy and construction practices over several centuries. The foundations of sustainable structures and how they inform the path ahead toward an eco-friendly world have been building on each innovation year-over-year.
Pre-Industrial Life Requires Sustainable Construction And Energy (Pre-1700s)
From early civilization through the 1600s, buildings had one basic purpose: to shelter humans from the natural elements. From the earliest Native American cities, such as Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, to the first colonial settlements on the East Coast, including the historic Senate House in New York and the White House Tavern in Rhode Island, these structures are built through a wide variety of natural, easily attained materials throughout the centuries, including clay, stone, wood, and bricks.
The accumulation of these materials, combined with their limited energy output, mean built spaces are by and large sustainable. Rudimentary, small-scale applications for renewable energy also exist—for example, windmills are used in the colonial period for grain production.
The Industrial Era Manufactures Unsustainable Cities (1700-1850)
From the birth of industry emerges unsustainable, polluting buildings. At the time, factories were built and operated without considering human or environmental impact. Coal is the most used energy source, and the high energy output of factories leads to localized pollution that causes major environmental issues such as ash and smog.
Simultaneously, workers move closer to their factory jobs, and the rise of urban cities begins. With the rapid growth and close proximity of commercial and residential buildings, these structures are primarily built to be cost effective. Buildings’ short- and long-term impacts on the environment and occupant safety are not initially known by developers—or prioritized.
Oil, Gas, and Electricity Usurp Natural Energy Resources (1850-1950)
As people begin to observe and experience the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution, scientists start studying pollution and its larger effects on the environment. This is the birth of climate science, with Eunice Newton Foote, in 1857, likely being the first scientist to study the warming effects of greenhouse gasses on Earth’s temperature.
In the following century, new energy sources are introduced and begin replacing coal, which revolutionizes the capabilities of everyday buildings. Petroleum is introduced as an energy source for homes and cars, and by 1945, the majority of American homes have electricity and running water.