As global temperatures reach record highs and polar ice caps dwindle, people increasingly understand that climate change not only endangers their health and well-being but also threatens their future and livelihood. But climate challenges often feel too large and unwieldy to tackle. That’s where decarbonizing design steps in.
Engineers, scientists, and designers around the globe are racing to create low-carbon products for homes that make a significant, measurable difference in curbing emissions. These forward-thinking creators are seeking out ways to help decrease consumers’ negative impact on the planet. Here, investigate three potential solutions that—if adopted and scaled—could help people fight the devastating effects of climate change.
1. Upending Traditional Utilities With Better Machines
Start big, not small. That’s Vince Romanin’s message. He cofounded Treau, a San Francisco–based company that makes affordable, eco-friendly heating and air-conditioning units for the home user.
By crunching numbers in the latest studies on residential and commercial energy and emissions, Romanin estimates that heating and cooling people and food accounts for 15% of global energy use—currently more than the carbon impact of transportation. Plus, the growing global demand for air conditioning in emerging economies means energy use and emissions will only increase.
“Data shows that most people buy the cheapest system, so making cheap systems more efficient has a bigger impact than making high-efficiency systems that are costly,” Romanin says. “We have to jump off the curve at ‘cost versus efficiency’ and get much higher efficiency at the same or lower cost, because that’s the only way to increase adoption of efficient systems.”
Romanin and the scientists at Treau are trying to get ahead of heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and refrigeration (HVAC&R) growth in order to decarbonize the industry. Treau’s small, affordable units—which Romanin says should hit the market within a year—comprise more efficient materials, eco-friendly refrigerants, and a heat pump that’s about three times more efficient than units relying on climate-heating fossil fuel. In addition to making units at a price point average consumers can afford, Treau designs its products for easy installation (no specialty technician needed) and inexpensive maintenance.
“The only things that matter are electrifying your home, electrifying your car, and putting solar on your roof.”—Saul Griffith, Treau Cofounder
When people make this first big home-infrastructure change, Romanin believes it will be the catalyst to tackling the other elements individuals can control within their personal lives.
“The only things that matter are electrifying your home—in particular, the HVAC, electrifying your car, and putting solar on your roof,” says Saul Griffith, founder and chief scientist of San Francisco–based Otherlab and Treau’s cofounder. “They are the only three big levers households have, and every other eco-product choice is tiny by comparison, distracting, and less capital-efficient at removing carbon from your life.”
2. Creating Greener Spaces Inside the Home
The work with HVAC&R systems doesn’t stop with a new unit. As these appliances become more prevalent, designers have a unique opportunity to develop products that create healthier interior environments.
Hooman Koliji, founder and CEO of Sausalito, California–based eco-design firm CREO, says his company’s biggest initiative to date is a smart green ecosystem for indoors. CREO has developed plant-based structures designed to improve the built environment. This works from both a physiological standpoint—plants absorb unhealthy chemical compounds in the air—and an emotional one. Living in a space with vibrant, green plants can have a positive impact on well-being.
Working out of the Autodesk Technology Center in San Francisco as part of its residency program, Koliji says these green “walls”—vertical grow spaces with a minimal footprint—help replace mechanical air-purification devices, improve humidity in homes, and likely reduce air-conditioning units’ overall energy demands.
“In the future, we will see green biotech filtration extensions of HVAC systems,” Koliji says. “All of the air circulated in the interior spaces actually goes through these green systems and gets naturally purified to control the humidity of the space. You wouldn’t need to use a lot of air conditioning, so that will eventually contribute to lowering a building’s energy use.”
3. Reshaping Food Systems With Vertical Farming
Koliji, who is also an associate professor of architecture at the University of Maryland, encountered a statistic that stopped him in his tracks: “For every single calorie of salad greens we eat on the East Coast, 13 calories of fossil fuel have been burned just to transport it from California,” he says. “That’s when I realized something was wrong here.”
The CREO solution: a smart green ecosystem that provides food and cleaner air.
“If a family of four can produce all of their greens so that the next time they go to the grocery, they don’t have to go to the herbs and lettuce section, think of how much money they’re saving,” Koliji says. “[Think of] how much we globally save in terms of carbon footprint and how much that contributes to the family’s habits, such as being more conscious about what they want to eat, how they plant for that, and not wasting food.”
CREO researchers and Autodesk are working together to find materials for these standing home farms that produce smaller carbon footprints.
“Hemp is the fastest growing plant in North America,” Koliji says. “The faster a plant grows, the more CO2 it absorbs from the atmosphere. But hemp is also one of the strongest natural fibers known to humanity. And if you add an additive to hemp-plastic, it will be compostable.”
Ultimately, Koliji points out, the story of his and many other low-carbon products isn’t just how they can lower carbon impacts—and utility bills—in the short term. The real work of stopping climate change is understanding every element of a product’s lifecycle, down to material and design choices. This keeps the carbon cost low from start to finish and results in a more inspiring product for eco-conscious consumers—one that has a more meaningful impact.