Sustainable Design

How Can Architecture Help to Mitigate Climate Change?

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How Can Architecture Help to Mitigate Climate Change?

It is very hard to imagine living in a world without the modern style of architecture we all live and work in today. The built environment is an essential part of our livelihoods, and the majority of people are very rarely far from a building or structure that has electricity and running water. However, buildings and construction have a significant impact on the planet and on climate change. The global buildings sector is responsible for more than one-third of global energy use and CO2 emissions, with 8% of global emissions caused by the production of cement alone.

As well as the generation of greenhouse gases through the construction of buildings, architecture contributes to climate change through the use of non-renewable energy sources for heat, power, and light, with 82% of the global energy consumption in buildings coming from fossil fuels (Walsh, 2020). 

The affect climate change is having on our planet is already profound, and it impacts our ability, and that of future generations, to live in a peaceful and prosperous world. Scientific research proves that the earth’s surface has warmed significantly since 1880, with the 10 warmest years on record occurring within the past 12 years. The National Center for Environmental Information (NCEI) reports that global upper ocean heat is rising, glacial volume is shrinking, and climate extremes such as storm intensities are increasing (Gentler Research, 2016). Beyond the data, however; is the physical evidence of the change to our environment. With sea levels rising, for example, coastal cities and towns are having to invest more in improving seawall defences against flooding and erosion. In a recent report published by the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI), it was estimated that defending against rising seas could cost US communities $416bn over the next 20 years. In order to manage climate change and prevent further global warming, scientists have been saying for years now that we need to cap global temperature rise at 2°c, and in order to achieve that target, buildings must drop total emissions by 77% by 2050 (Gensler Research, 2016). 

So how can architecture be a part of a global climate change strategy? Improving the built environment to meet benchmarks for environmental stewardship and sustainability isn’t just about putting solar panels on a building’s roof and calling it a day; it involves finding solutions to much bigger questions regarding key social issues. By focussing on the connections between climate change and the built environment, we can turn our attention to creating new dynamic models that tackle energy usage, urban density, potable water conservation, and sustainable environments. 

Some groups and organisations have already taken to setting goals to tackle these broader issues, such as the non-profit group Architecture 2030, and the American Institute of Architects (AIA). They have brought together firms and organisations to work towards making all new buildings, developments, and renovations carbon-neutral by 2030. The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has also acknowledged AIA’s 2030 commitment, and has developed their own 2030 Climate Challenge to help architects achieve net-zero carbon emissions for new and retrofitted buildings by 2030 (RIBA, 2019). 

As more and more architects and organisations come together to tackle climate change, we have begun to see novel and innovative buildings emerge that all claim to be better for the environment. Buildings such as the CopenHill waste-to-energy plant that doubles as an urban ski slope in Copenhagen, Denmark, or the Shanghai Tower in China, that features an insulating, transparent second-skin and 200 wind turbines, have caused a lot of attention in the media for their original approaches to energy reduction and conservation. 

Whilst it is crucial that these large-scale projects are paving the way and setting an example for a new generation of sustainable buildings, the architectural community is still not making the most of the opportunities to mitigate climate change. Currently, participation in climate commitments such as the AIA and RIBA’s is voluntary, and it is up to firms to self-report their projects’ energy-use reductions and carbon emissions. Out of the 600 signatory firms that had committed to AIA’s 2030 goal, only 252 reported their data in last year. Whilst is it the firms’ onus to push for progress, they also must comply with buildings codes at local, state, and international levels. Although these building codes can be seen as a roadblock in the way forward, they are also a chance for leading global bodies, such as the International Code Council, to set new standards for environmental targets. Both the AIA and RIBA have used their positions in the industry on both sides of the Atlantic to help shape the language used in recent bills to support the design of resilient and hazard-resistant construction and buildings, and to provide incentives to individuals and businesses for disaster-mitigation expenditures (Stamp, 2020). 

Self-reporting and setting climate-considerate regulations are just the tip of the iceberg of problems the built environment faces when tackling climate change. Cost is also another challenge that the built environment is up against. It is a well-known fact that architecture is slow and expensive, and the projects are often very risk-averse due to the enormous budgets that are set, resulting in many corporations not wanting to implement new environmental approaches to construction that haven’t yet been tried and tested. And although new standards for construction may be pivotal moving forward, it is not just new construction that needs to be addressed - in the US alone approximately 95% of all buildings are more than a decade old, and were built before energy codes for design and construction were modernised (Stamp, 2020). Despite these daunting problems that many firms have to overcome, converting and designing buildings to mitigate climate change won’t just help the environment - in the long run, the operational costs will be much lower. 

Given the scale of the challenges that architects and engineers currently face, it may well appear overwhelming to try to envision a way for the built environment to actually change and help slow global warming. In order to meet the upcoming benchmarks set for 2030, 2040, and 2050, architectural firms and organisations will need to commit themselves fully to the mitigation of- and resilience against climate change, by testing new technologies and techniques for effectiveness, and by constantly questioning ways in which they can improve. Architecture has always been at the forefront as an industry to look to for ingenuity. By generating big ideas, and rejecting the status quo, new standards for design and architecture can be set that will become easier to replicate, and will - over time - create a new normal for the built environment that is less damaging to the natural world. 

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