This house for sale for $34 million in San Francisco is absolutely beautiful. Go check out the pictures at Business Insider. I’ll wait…Not only does this house have unbeatable views it also scratches the itch of the future owner who is environmentally-friendly and wellness-focused. Per the description:

The home is sustainable, energy-efficient, and pre-certified LEED. The glass-enclosed staircase featured in the back of the photo was designed to spread natural light and air through each floor.

What’s not to like? The issue isn’t the ongoing costs, both in actual dollars and environmental impact, the issue is the existence of the house in the first place. No one is saying that if you have $34 million to spend on a house that this is a bad choice. The point is that whoever buys this house shouldn’t confuse their purchase with one that will actually make a difference.

The biggest part of the carbon footprint of this structure, or any modern structure, is that it is expended at the front end of the process – during design and construction. Not during the years of operation afterwards. Reed Landberg and Jeremy Hodges writing at Bloomberg note the contradiction:

“Everyone’s aware that we use electricity and energy to heat our homes and turn our lights on, but they might not have thought that loads of energy is needed in all the materials required to build the building in the first place,” said John Barrett, professor at the school of Earth and environment at Leeds University in northern England. “It’s a massive issue.”

Steel and cement, two prominent components in modern construction, together make up 12% of global CO2 emissions. This is not far behind that of cars and trucks which make up 14% of global CO2 emissions, as of 2017. Vanessa Dazen also at Bloomberg notes:

While architects and developers concentrate on the energy used by their buildings, it’s actually the materials supporting the structure that embody the biggest share of its lifetime carbon footprint.

It isn’t wrong to focus on the ongoing costs of operating a building, it is simply incomplete. We have a tendency to focus on what is easily measurable versus those things that are hidden from view or difficult to calculate. Taking small steps to help the environment, like eliminating plastic straws, is a good thing. However, unless we re-frame the arguments around this and many other environmental issues we will be guilty of picking up pennies in front of an oncoming steam roller.