This article is a contribution to Honda’s “Racing Against Time” thought leadership series.*

Recently, I was approached by Honda to tackle the topic of “peak oil” in relation to the normal conversation on Jetson Green.  This site is devoted to green building innovation, and you may be thinking the subject of peak oil — specifically, the idea that oil is a finite resource — is a little tangential.

But it’s not.  In fact, oil is used to make all sorts of products and to power residential and commercial buildings.  Honda’s invitation has given me an opportunity to brainstorm on the subject and, after some contemplation, I believe there are six ways the building, design, and construction industry can eliminate the use of oil entirely.

#1: Ultra Conservation at the Outset

Recently, Bill McDonough said, “efficiency will not save us” and “being less bad is not being good.“  There’s a point in these bold statements, regardless of whether you believe incremental effort is helpful or mandatory for environmental progress.  So I want to be clear.  When I say “ultra conservation,” I’m not saying we should seek greater efficiencies.  I’m saying we should use extreme conservation as a path toward eliminating the use of a resource entirely.

Perhaps the Passive House standard illustrates my point.  Generally, a Passive House is extremely airtight and ultra efficient.  These cutting-edge homes are primarily heated by warmth from people, equipment, and solar gain.  In other words, a Passive House is designed and built to nearly eliminate heating and cooling equipment.  A house that doesn’t need an active HVAC system is a house that doesn’t use energy and won’t need oil.

#2: Bridging the Gap with Technology

Ultra conservation, however, shouldn’t require that people stop moving, working, and doing.  Lifestyles may change, but a spartan living will not create the kind of movement that would eliminate the use of oil.  After ultra conservation, we can and should tap renewable resources — sun, wind, earth — with available and reasonably priced technology.

Technology such as solar panels, small wind turbines, and geothermal systems all present viable opportunities to power the built environment with something other that oil (or replacement fossil fuels).  Indeed, energy producing buildings can sell extra power to the grid or use that energy to power the next generation of vehicles.

#3: Controlling Transportation Energy Intensity

Even if a building is a net non user of energy or produces energy, it’s important to examine the environmental impact associated with the location or siting of the structure.  The transportation energy intensity of a building, which is the amount of energy expended in getting people to and from a building, can’t be ignored. This is where a lot of oil is consumed through vehicles.

Commuting to the average office building accounts for roughly 30% more energy use than the building uses itself, according to Environmental Building News.  For the average new office building, commuting accounts for more than twice the energy used by the building itself.  For this reason, folks scrutinize density and proximity, so that people can access work and services without traveling large distances.

Building users should think through their choice of where to live and work, if possible.  Why not live within five or 10 minutes of your office, church, and services?  The closer you are, the more likely you will be to walk, ride a bike, or use mass transportation — eliminating the need for oil-based energy.

#4: Sourcing Local Materials Properly

Similarly, materials used by a building’s occupants or incorporated into a building are transported only by the use of energy.  Though some forms of transportation are more efficient than others, it’s impossible to ignore the amount of energy used in hauling materials around the world.

This concept, localism, if you will, regularly surfaces with the discussion of bamboo from China, natural stone surfaces from Italy, or FSC certified wood from some remote country.

LEED certification, for example, rewards projects that use “regional” materials that have been extracted, processed, and manufactured within a 500 miles radius.  This is good and where possible, the radius should be shortened. Nevertheless, we should recognize that a large amount of oil is burned getting materials around, so steps can be taken to entirely avoid this environmental impact entirely.

#5: Sourcing Natural Non-Petroleum Materials

Materials are also made with petroleum in some cases.  Asphalt, plastics, some forms of insulation, etc.  An asphalt surface may be durable, but is there an equally durable surface made with a natural material?  Spray foam may provide a tight seal and ultra-efficient envelope, but is there a soy-based alternative or something else that can be substituted?

May I suggest an effort toward naturalism.  Petroleum is sourced from the earth, but it’s not the kind of natural material we need in our products, furniture, or homes.  We need natural materials that don’t have toxins and harmful volatile organic compounds in them.  We need materials that are not full of oil.  A movement that rewards natural materials is necessary to extricate oil from all materials.

#6: Function Like the Natural World

In nature, animals don’t take and burn oil to build, move, or live.  Janine Benyus, a pioneer and leader in the biomimicry movement, explains: “The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone,” according to the Biomimicry Institute.

This is the premise and the promise of biomimicry, which is the science and art of emulating nature’s best biological ideas to solve human problems.  AskNature, an open source project and website, is one place where “bio-inspired breakthroughs can be born.“  For example, by studying photosynthesis, maybe we can find better ways to absorb sunlight and convert it to usable energy.

Nature is full of ideas, yet it is our responsibility to learn them.  I believe this is an area that can and should be instructive going forward as we look for inspiration to avoid using oil.

The Future is Bright

Oil pervades all aspects of the built environment.  However, the world is changing.  The smartest innovators are working on electrical vehicles, energy storage, innovative materials, and new technology to power both buildings and cars.  Consider this: we now have the technology to live in an energy producing home that’s powered by on- and off-site renewable energy.  We now have the technology to drive around with non-oil fuel sources.  The technology of the future exists now, though we have to take action to use it.

*Jetson Green was selected to provide a unique perspective on how we should approach the discussion of oil as a finite energy source. During the first week of October 2010, five individuals provide their own thoughts on the subject. These independent contributors were not compensated for their participation and as such their views are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Honda. Details and links to what others are saying about “Racing Against Time” can be found at