The recent report delivered to the United Nations by the International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) paints a dire picture of what will happen to the world if global temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a threshold that scientists now believe could happen by 2040. Thousands of species will go extinct. Wildfires and food shortages will increase. Over 90% of the world’s coral reefs will disappear.
According to the report, the world may be able to avoid this level of catastrophe by reducing greenhouse pollution by 45% by 2030 and 100% by 2050. That’s an enormous undertaking. And while there are many ways to go about enacting this reduction, those of us in the design industry have an opportunity to make a positive and lasting impact on the built environment.
Luckily there are some simple steps we can take to help. Here are our top 5:
1. The intersection of form and performance
Thankfully, the building industry is long past the point where the shape and look of buildings are governed by narrow aesthetic considerations. Now, building performance is the key driver of design. We now approach every project with plans to implement cutting-edge strategies for using less energy and minimizing water consumption. That said, we have lots of room to improve. Our buildings and cities will have to experiment with new climate responsive forms, and in many cases, the built environment will require dramatic shifts to achieve true resilience and continue working towards a carbon-neutral society.
2. Reducing energy consumption
One of the key takeaways from the IPCC report is the need to reduce the amount of energy we consume. For large structures, operational energy has by far the largest impact on the climate over time. Reducing our energy demand now will allow us to be selective in the low or zero carbon utility supply sources we need to pull the trigger on. It’s no secret that low carbon power generation isn’t inexpensive and not reducing our projected consumption will paint us into a very tight corner that might require we implement them all. That forced “choice” bears the bulk of the cost of carbon mitigation efforts.
3. Changing policy at the local and state level
We think city and state governments have a huge role to play in setting the standard for resilience. Today, building codes in some municipalities are making huge leaps forward in response to the imminent threat of climate change, and these leaps have vastly accelerated the pace of change and introduced a new normal. California is a prime example of this. The state is developing codes that will require all government buildings to drastically reduce emissions in several ways, the most impactful of which is a push toward Net Zero Energy buildings. This stringent mandate is heightening awareness of the importance of performance expectations.
4. Creating intelligent buildings
New sensor and network technologies are helping us create higher-performance buildings. Our spaces, buildings, and cities will learn to leverage real-time data about occupant behavior, air quality, and temperature and then be responsive to make buildings more efficient. This responsiveness will significantly reduce the amount of energy required to operate the built environment.
5. Addressing embodied carbon
We may be focused on reducing energy consumption in our finished buildings, but we can begin reducing our carbon footprint by selecting low-impact materials before construction even starts. From a macro perspective, this entails raising awareness of the benefits of alternative building materials like wood, which stores absorbed carbon and requires less energy to transport.
Another way we can cut down on carbon emissions from building materials is to simply improve and reuse existing buildings. If done correctly, the adaption of existing buildings can have a more positive impact on the environment than focusing solely on the performance engineering of new buildings. And clients can still change the look and use of an existing building. Significant design interventions can present a whole new character or experience for users without starting over. These “hacked” buildings can be the best of both worlds—they can preserve materials to reduce environmental impact while adjusting the building’s form to accommodate new use cases or operational realities.
Our impact on the environment is becoming an issue we can no longer ignore, and design has a responsibility to implement changes that will curb our impact sooner rather than later. We need to start considering changes to our carbon diet to ensure that we are not inadvertently putting an expiration date on the human race.
More from Author
Gensler | May 18, 2023
How can we reimagine live sports experiences?
A Gensler survey finds what sports fans' experiences have been like returning to arenas, and their expectations going forward.
Gensler | Apr 17, 2023
The future of the 20-minute city
Gensler's Stacey Olson breaks down the pros and cons of the "20-minute city," from equity concerns to data-driven design.
Gensler | Mar 16, 2023
Three interconnected solutions for 'saving' urban centers
Gensler Co-CEO Andy Cohen explores how the global pandemic affected city life, and gives three solutions for revitalizing these urban centers.
Gensler | Feb 16, 2023
Insights from over 300 potential office-to-residential conversions
Research from Gensler finds that, surprisingly, the features that result in an unpleasant office often make for a superlative multifamily product.
Gensler | Sep 4, 2020
The office building of the future should be an essential part of its community
When the dust settles, the office is going to look and feel like a different place than the one we left in March.
Gensler | May 12, 2020
Understanding the touchless workplace
In the workplace, digital solutions and platforms have eliminated some of the noise by improving guest check-in, conference room booking, company communications, wayfinding, food and beverage service, and more.
Gensler | Mar 27, 2020
Designing healthcare for surge capacity
We believe that part of the longer-term answer lies not just with traditional health providers, but in the potential of our cities and communities to adapt and change.
Gensler | Mar 18, 2020
We are in the midst of a paradigm shift for higher education
The question for higher education is, what will the university of the future look like?
Gensler | Mar 15, 2020
Designing office building lobbies to respond to the coronavirus
Touch-free design solutions and air purifiers can enhance workplace wellness.
Gensler | Mar 15, 2020
In the face of the coronavirus, workplace wellness is key
Here are a few considerations employers should keep in mind in creating plans for a healthy and effective work environment.