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Why Jay-Z’s new $200M house sucks
Sure, it’s ugly. But it’s also made of one of the least climate-friendly materials on Earth.
Living in Los Angeles, I see a lot of celebrity news. For the most part, it doesn’t interest me.
But late last month, I came across a story about Jay-Z and Beyoncé that I thought may have interesting—or at the very least, undiscussed—implications for the fight against climate change.
The story was about the billionaire couple’s newly-purchased, 40,000-square-foot concrete mansion in Malibu. Covered everywhere from the L.A. Times to Page Six to TMZ, most of the headlines focused on the fact that this was the most expensive residential real estate deal in California history, and the second-most expensive residential real estate deal in the country. A few also focused on it being kind of ugly.
But the news caught my interest for a different reason: A little while ago, a structural engineer friend of mine mentioned in passing that concrete was one of the biggest climate polluters in the world. So I wanted to know: What does it mean to purchase a huge mansion made out of this decidedly climate-unfriendly material? Just how bad are purchases like these for the planet?
I brought the idea to Emily to see if she might greenlight some further reporting. She did, and we decided to format the story as a conversation, as we did with our Brazen Beef newsletter last month. Like last time, I kept all my reporting a secret from her until our conversation. Her main question to me: Should this recent purchase of a massive concrete home cement Beyoncé and Jay-Z as climate criminals?
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Emily Atkin: I would love to know why Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s house sucks. You said concrete is among the most climate-unfriendly building materials. What else did you find out?
Arielle Samuelson: Concrete is probably one of the least-talked about climate villains. I feel that very few people, myself included, know that concrete is bad.
EA: I certainly didn't know, and this is my job. But how big are we talking?
AS: Let's start with a mind-blowing figure. Cement, which is the main ingredient in concrete, accounts for around 7 percent of the entire world's carbon dioxide emissions.
EA: What? Is it made of coal or something? Why would that be true?
AS: The first problem is that concrete is the second-most consumed material on Earth. It is second only to water. Concrete is in every single piece of infrastructure we have, because it's very strong and it's very reliable. It’s also in the foundation of every building after 1920, regardless of what that building is made of. You don't want your house to fall down.
The world last year produced 4 billion metric tons of cement, and that is about 1,125 pounds of cement for every person in the world.
EA: Obviously, that’s a lot of cement. What is cement, and why is it so carbon intensive?
AS: I spoke with a structural engineer and a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Jay Arehart, and he described it this way: If concrete is the cake, then cement is the flour you use to make the cake.
Cement accounts for 90 percent of the carbon emissions of concrete. So cement is the real climate villain in concrete. The process of creating cement is what releases carbon dioxide, and it does it in two ways. First, to make cement, you have to use a big kiln. This isn't like a pottery studio kiln. I found one estimate that said a kiln can be the same size as a 40-story building. The kiln is used to heat minerals to the temperature that you need to turn them into cement, somewhere around 2600 degrees Fahrenheit or 1400 degrees Celsius. And heating to these very high temperatures is burning fossil fuels and releasing greenhouse gases.
The second way cement releases CO2 is really interesting. Now, I'm going to get into the chemistry of making cement, which I hope you're excited about.
EA: I've never been more excited for anything in my life.
AS: You start making cement by taking crushed minerals, like limestone, and then you heat them to this very high temperature and grind them down. And it creates calcium oxide, which in the industry they called “clinker.” Which I love, because “clinker" sounds like what it is. This clinker is the basis of cement, and creating clinker starts a chemical reaction that releases carbon dioxide. And that reaction actually releases more CO2 than the fossil fuels that you're using to heat the kiln. So CO2 is actually a byproduct of creating cement.
EA: Okay, so to summarize: The energy intensity of concrete comes from cement, which makes up around 90% of concrete’s CO2. And cement is extremely energy intensive because it's made in these massive, building-sized kilns that use a lot of energy. But also because the kilns are filled up with minerals that are made into this stuff called clinker. And that process itself releases a shit ton of carbon.
EA: I have to imagine that there are also problems with that that are not simply carbon.
AS: Oh yeah. We could go into a whole conversation about pollution, or how much water is used to create concrete. But I focused on the emissions because I was really boggled by the percentage.
EA: All right, so Jay-Z and Beyoncé have a house that's made of concrete. Do you know anything about that specific concrete?
AS: I don’t. I reached out to the Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who is famous for building with concrete, but received no reply. But this house was commissioned by soap opera scions William and Maria Arena Bell in 1999, so that is well before the United States started looking at low-carbon concrete alternatives.
But one of the things that Arehart told me is that the most sustainable building is one that is already built. If you look at it that way, the mansion is considered a green purchase because they are repurposing it. Jay-Z and Beyoncé did not hire an architect to build them a new building from the ground up. They bought one that already exists. Its carbon emissions have already gone into the world and so they're not adding any more.
So you can rest easy because Beyoncé is not a climate criminal for buying this house. Maybe it's a tacky house, but that's beside the point.
EA: I’m sure she's still a climate criminal. She's very, very rich. I hate to say it, because I know this isn't going to win me many friends, but you can't be like an ultra-rich person and not be a climate criminal. It's like how Jesus said it's very hard for a rich person to get to heaven. I think it's very hard for a person as wealthy as Beyoncé to not be, in some ways, a climate criminal.
I get what you're saying, though. It's a used house. It's like the least carbon-intensive piece of clothing that you can buy is something from the thrift store, or second-hand.
AS: That’s exactly what I said, that this is like sustainable fashion where you reuse things.
EA: Of course. But then people buy a bunch of new accessories to style their vintage clothing, just as I'm sure that Jay-Z and Beyoncé will buy a bunch of new furniture. But that's beside the point, I think.
EA: Another reason I wanted you to look into this story was because, not only have Jay-Z and Beyoncé purchased the most expensive house in California and it is made out of a very climate-unfriendly material, but they purchased it in a place that's very vulnerable to climate change. Do you think they purchased a concrete house because it’s more fire-proof than wood?
AS: This house is in Malibu, which if you don't live in California, I will tell you, catches fire almost every year. Which is ironic, because it is also a place where some of the more expensive homes are located because it's very beautiful. You can look out over the ocean. It's also very much in the path of wildfire and has had a lot of evacuations in the past.
I asked the structural engineers if concrete is a way of making your house fireproof. While it is more resistant to fire than, say, a wood house, the sense that I got when I asked this question of multiple people is that it wasn't really one of the major factors when building. My friend, who's a structural engineer, was telling me that having a concrete home is actually very in vogue right now. It's fashionable to have a house that incorporates a lot of concrete.
EA: What concerns me about concrete being a trend, even if it's not because of its fireproof-ness, is that it's in vogue to use a material that is one of the biggest contributors of climate change in the world. And it just so happens that this trend will also protect you from the very effects of the problem that it causes. So while concrete may be in vogue for fashion reasons, I think it would be naive to assume that if you buy a home in one of the most fire-prone regions in America that you're not thinking, especially with the most expensive home ever purchased, “What's my risk of this home burning down?”
AS: I hear that. And maybe that'll be a factor in people's decisions going forward, but I don't think the issue that's driving our concrete production is the dozens of celebrities that can afford $200 million homes. Concrete is in everything. It's in every house foundation that's built after 1920. It's in our bridges. It's even in our statues. Concrete is ubiquitous worldwide.
But what the world is doing, and the United States is finally catching up to, is making more climate-friendly concrete. So creating lower-carbon cement or substituting cement with something that releases less carbon dioxide. For example, one of the more interesting ones is they use byproducts of coal-powered plants to replace cement. It's called fly ash.
EA: Like coal ash?
AS: Yes. That's one where you can actually take a byproduct of a whole power plant, recycle it and use it instead of cement. What's interesting is that it is becoming harder to come by as coal power plants are being shut down. But another recycled ingredient that they sometimes use is called granulated blast furnace slag.
EA: Granulated blast furnace slag is the name of my punk band. What is it?
AS: It’s a byproduct from iron and steel production. So not only are you subbing out something less energy intensive, you're also recycling waste.
EA: Okay, good. But in both of these cases, though, those are also processes that in a net-zero world we probably have to do less of. While it's great to be able to recycle the waste from those processes to make a green product like climate-friendlier cement, this brings up the same problem that I have with things like Hungry Harvest. They sell the ugly produce that doesn't make it into the grocery store as a way to save food waste. On the surface, yes, it reduces the amount of waste from the food industry. But at the same time, it also incentivizes the waste stream.
AS: Yes. But I think it's less of, in this case, “this would incentivize keeping coal power plants open” and more that we need to branch out and think bigger in terms of decarbonizing cement. There are companies making cement alternatives or lower-carbon versions. Like one company called Prometheus Materials is making concrete out of blocks of algae, which is very cool. Another company called Blue Planet, in California, is making low-carbon cement by capturing carbon and then using that to make the cement in a chemical process that I absolutely cannot explain to you, even though I read it several times. Internationally, blended cement is also popular. When I say blended cement, it's when they use more ingredients like limestone in the cement, which releases less carbon dioxide than your typical cement.
I will say that the United States is far behind other countries in the world. The EU has been using blended cements since the 60s. The U.S. just started putting in place these standards for low-carbon cements. China—even though it produces more than half of the world's cement—has been experimenting with different kinds of kilns, so their cement production is lower-carbon than the United States. We are behind. And the professor that I spoke with, Jay Arehart, said that the biggest barrier he sees in the construction industry in the U.S. is education.
EA: I mean, that makes sense. Even covering climate change for the last 10 years, I did not know that cement was such a big climate change problem. So thank you Jay-Z—and you, of course—for bringing it to my attention.
AS: I like how we keep dropping Beyoncé because we're both like, we know she's too cool to drag into this. We love Beyoncé.
EA: I respect Jay-Z as well. I just would rather bash Jay-Z if I had to pick one of them.
Correction: a previous version of this story misstated the conversion of 1400 degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit.
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