Smarter design — not novel tech — could be the real climate game-changer, according to Amory Lovins

The RMI co-founder and energy-efficiency evangelist talks tea cozies for houses, the physics of fatter pipes, and growing mangoes indoors in the Rockies.

Large yellow pipes with large diameters and smooth transitions.
(RMI)
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Amory Lovins built a house in the subarctic climes of the Rocky Mountains, more than a mile above sea level — without a conventional heating system. How? Energy-efficient design. Lovins, co-founder of think tank RMI, first wrote about the vast untapped savings that energy efficiency could unlock in 1976 article for Foreign Affairs. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.) 

The fossil fuel supply shocks caused by Putin’s war in Ukraine have brought those ideas to the fore once more. Lovins recently talked with Stephen Lacey of the Carbon Copy podcast about real-world efficiency measures that could be implemented right now to drastically reduce energy demand. 

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Here are some of the recommendations he and Lacey discussed, with photos included. The conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Capture extra energy with fat, short, straight pipes

Lovins: Half the world’s electricity is used to run motors. Half the motor torque turns pumps and fans that move fluids through pipes and ducts. But most installers and designers have paid little attention to rigging the friction out of the pipes and ducts. If you make them fat, short and straight, rather than skinny, long and crooked, you can reduce friction by 80- to 90-odd percent. 

A picture of thin pipes on the left and a picture of large diameter yellow pipes  on the right..
Thin pipes with 90-degree angles make it harder for fluids to flow than do wider pipes with smoother transitions. The design on the right is by efficiency engineer Eng Lock Lee. (Amory Lovins)

That means, in turn, that the pumping or blowing equipment can be 80- to 90-odd percent smaller and therefore cheaper.

So you end up with lower capital cost. You have this order-of-magnitude energy saving, sufficient to save about a fifth of the world’s electricity — or half the coal-fired electricity. 

And you recover your investment in typically under a year fixing old buildings in factories or instantly in new ones. 

Yet this method is not included in any government study, industry forecast, climate model or standard engineering textbook. Why not? Because it’s not a technology, which is what most policymakers look for; it’s a design method.

But actually, if you show a pipefitter how to lay out the pipes first and how to use big pipes and small pumps instead of small pipes and big pumps, any smart pipefitter or plumber will say, Oh my god, I could do that. And now I see why it makes sense, even though it looks weird.”

Build tea cozies for homes

Lovins: One of the techniques I think may be especially valuable comes from Holland, although it’s now spread across much of Europe and is being tested in the U.S. It’s called Energiesprong — Dutch for energy leapfrog” — and it’s a way of industrializing the creation of a kind of tea cozy that bolts on around your house. 

A graphic of a building with incoming floating insulated panels and an insulated solar roof attaching to the building.
The Energiesprong approach entails encasing an existing building with prefabricated highly insulated facades, installing smart heating and ventilation and adding an insulated solar roof. (Energiesprong.org)

And then you drop in an efficient heat pump core and a super-insulated solar roof. So it’ll convert badly insulated, air-leaky old houses into net-zero-energy houses. 

And then you stop paying your gas and electric bills because you don’t need that stuff anymore; you’re running on solar. But instead, you pay off the super-insulation retrofit over, say, 30 years. It’s a steady bill, and then you own it. This is just about self-financing now, and I think it could be scaled rapidly.

Super-insulate for comfort (and an indoor jungle)

Lacey: [To Lovins on video call] You have a lot of wonderful, luscious plants behind you.

Lovins: Behind me is a 900-square-foot tropical jungle. Not exactly what you’d expect, because I’m 7,100 feet up in the Rocky Mountains near Aspen, where temperatures used to go as low as minus 47 degrees F. 

Collage of images of Amory Lovins' sprawling home in Old Snowmass, Colorado.
(Amory Lovins)

Lacey: [To the audience] If you’re interviewing Amory Lovins in his Colorado home, you’re obliged to ask him about the bananas and mangoes he has growing prominently right behind him. The home has no mechanical heating system. It’s super-insulated.

Lovins: And it’s cheaper to build that way. Because you save more on construction costs by leaving out the heating system than you pay extra for the efficiency techniques that got rid of the heating system.

A diagram of the Lovins home floorplan.
The Lovins home floorplan in Snowmass, CO highlights features that make it energy efficient, including an air exchanger, fatter pipes, a passive solar heat source (the greenhouse) and LED lights. (RMI)

Lacey: [To the audience] Oh, and by the way, this home was built in 1982. It was totally possible to build a comfortable home or a commercial building without a heating system at all back then. And today’s technologies and design principles make it even more realistic now. 

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Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media.