DesignIntelligence Media Group

On Climate Change and Hope: Despite Rising Carbon Dioxide Emissions, We Can Still Tackle Global Warming

by Rives Taylor and Brenden Jackson

The design profession, in its many guises, is resolutely optimistic. For a designer, no challenge is so large that he or she can’t develop a solution that will both overcome it and enhance the human experience.

Yet, given the recent onslaught of disheartening news regarding climate change, maintaining such optimism becomes something of a daily test. First, in August of last year, there was the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article titled “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” Penned by 16 climate scientists, the article warns that we’re much closer than previously thought to achieving the “hothouse” trajectory—i.e., a warming of 4 or 5 degrees Celsius—which poses “serious challenges for the viability of human societies.” That was followed in October by the much-publicized United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stating that at our current rate of warming we could potentially be just 12 years away from hitting the tipping point—1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—that would trigger the most horrific aspects of climate change. Now, thanks to a January 8, 2019 New York Times article titled “U.S. Carbon Emissions Surged in 2018 Even as Coal Plants Closed,” we can add to the litany of bad news this fact: “America’s carbon dioxide emissions rose by 3.4 percent in 2018, the biggest increase in eight years.”

It would now seem that the alchemy required to turn our dire situation into a golden outcome has grown substantially more complicated. Yet the big leaps on a number of fronts regarding climate change enable us to maintain at least some optimism.

For example, as reported in a December 18, 2018 Forbes article titled “6 Renewable Energy Trends to Watch In 2019,” more than 100 cities across the globe get at least 70 percent of their energy from renewables, and more than 40 operate on 100 percent renewable electricity. Scores more cities are working toward similar goals. At the building scale, techno-logical and legislative developments have made on-site electrical generation easier and cleaner, not to mention more efficient and affordable.

Furthermore, cities are slowly shifting their views on their relationship to nature and choosing to see themselves as part of a larger ecological system rather than as separate from—and, in some instances, bulwarks against—the natural world. This has resulted in forays into biophilic design in places such as Oslo, Portland, and, in particular, Singapore.

As more cities shoulder the responsibility of addressing climate change, architects, designers, and urban planners will have an abundance of opportunities to work alongside them in tackling the unprecedented global challenge that we now face. And the array of actionable measures that our industry can take runs the gamut from common-sense design that reduces humanity’s environmental impact to the adoption of the most cutting-edge tools, materials, and processes that are currently being brought to market.

For an example of the former, look no further than the return to classic urban planning principles that we’ve seen in recent years as a means of lessening our collective carbon footprint. Factors such as walkability and mixed uses, combined with a focus on transit-oriented design, make a car-free lifestyle not only attainable but also desirable: a 2016 study by real estate website found that for every one-point increase in a home’s walk score (when that home is compared to similar properties in less-walkable neighborhoods), there is a corresponding increase in home price by nearly one percent. Clearly, there is a demand for mobility options beyond just the automobile.

At the building scale, there are design processes that we can explore to create components that dramatically reduce energy consumption. It’s a well-established fact that forty percent of the energy produced in the United States is consumed in residential and commercial buildings. A significant component of a building that heavily influences energy consumption and is under direct control of architects is its façade. However, we now see a need for façades that are capable of adjusting to the moment-to-moment shifts in the natural environment.

One of the challenges in creating high-performance façades lies in utilizing an alternative-rich design process that is affordable yet easy enough to allow designers of all abilities to use it. That’s why our firm, Gensler, initiated a research effort focused on creating a simulation tool that enables the efficient design of more responsive and energy-efficient façades. The research resulted in a new workflow that leverages scripting developed in-house for Autodesk’s Revit/Dynamo platform. Hence, architects of all levels are now able to conduct performance-driven façade design through the rapid generation of geometric models, the running of simulations on them, and the performing of comparative analysis of the results.

When such environmentally responsive designs are paired with the latest sustainable materials, the possibilities for impact are multiplied substantially. Recently, we’ve seen the arrival of a host of new low-carbon materials that offer everything from cement that’s 30 percent less carbon intensive than the current standard to plastic that converts carbon into a reinforcing material.

We can now add to that list of sustainable materials modern mass timber products. A recent article titled “Why More Buildings Should be Made of Wood,” appearing on the website of The Economist, noted that the energy needed to manufacture a laminated wood beam is just one-sixth that of a steel beam of comparable strength. Furthermore, researchers from Yale and the University of Washington found that the use of more wood in building construction could cut global C02 emissions by 14 to 31 percent. Such products provide a glimpse into the kinds of materials the A/E/C industry will need to embrace to make further headway in the face of climate change.

Along with innovative new processes and materials, our industry can look to further explorations into the use of IoT-enabled components to make buildings that much more sustainable, smart, and responsive. The use of sensors and other IoT technologies are quickly infiltrating every phase of the building lifecycle, from design and construction to occupancy and management. With the refinement of these technologies, we’ll be able to fine-tune our ability to monitor and predict energy requirements, shut down systems that are not in use, and gather energy data that can be fed into BIM models to inform future sustainable design decisions. Already, such cognitive systems pay tremendous dividends. According to IBM, the use of cognitive building strategies can reduce a building’s energy use by 50 percent. As IoT technology advances, that number will only grow.

At this juncture, we need to also refer to the lifecycle operational implications, or at least one example that illustrates the proverbial nail that lost the battle. The curtain wall, in particular, has been noted as a source of operational difficulties—not the sort of armature to meet the challenge of long-term climate shift. We inhabit glass boxes from 10 and 15 years ago where the gasket technology is not only failing and requiring replacement, but is in fact exacerbating other issues as humidity enters the building. Furthermore, increased demand for mechanical systems to offset humidity and heat gain means increased costs at the outset and greater operational expense later. Building a glass box, which tends to have the ubiquitous four-side-same treatment, entails that at different times of the day there will be different challenges, be they from cold or heat, on those zones facing different directions. Throw in the human preference for perimeter offices, and you have a real design challenge for the lifecycle of our buildings in an era of climate unpredictability.

Even the very nature of constructing and maintaining our built environment will change dramatically when working conditions won’t allow workers to do their jobs. With climate scientists predicting far more days of excessive heat—and, as we witnessed in parts of the country this winter, a few days of amazing arctic cold—contractors are already viewing normal operations as a thing of the past. With construction challenges ranging from weather impacts on workers to limited materials availability and durability, it all adds up to a shift of both costs and schedule; we may all be building as contractors do in desert regions—at night.

Yet we must bear in mind that all of the concerns and actions that we’ve outlined above—and those of others who, like us, shape the built environment—do not exist in a vacuum. They are part of a larger program—one that has yet to truly get underway. To enact the large-scale change that is needed to ward off the worst of global warming, unprecedented policy changes will have to be enacted by a majority of the world’s governments. In a paper titled “Current fossil fuel infrastructure does not yet commit us to 1.5 °C warming,” recently published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers found that there is a 64 percent chance of staying below the warming threshold of 1.5°C if we immediately phase out all fossil fuels. Such a measure seems highly unlikely given the staggering effort of political will and economic restructuring that it requires of almost all national governments. But it demonstrates that the math is still, technically, in our favor, and there is still reason to be optimistic—for now. Thus, there is ample incentive for those of us in the A/E/C industry to recommit ourselves to action before it truly becomes too late.

Rives Taylor has more than 30 years’ experience in institutional and commercial architecture, with 25 years spent focusing on strategic planning, programming, and sustainable design, scaled from facility operations to campus and city planning. A Texas-practicing architect/educator, Rives directs Gensler’s Firmwide Design Resilience Task Force.

Brenden Jackson is a writer and editor based in Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office. Though he writes extensively about architecture and interior design, he is especially interested in issues tied to urbanism—from the ways that planning and design shape individual urban experiences to the challenges that cities face on environmental and social issues.