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What Can Architects Do to Help Fight Climate Change?

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One of the biggest gatherings of world leaders in history, the massive climate change talks known as COP21, converged on Paris earlier this week, and the stakes are understandably high. Occurring amid increasing anxiety over the ability to achieve consensus in fighting global warming, the event, and search for a collective solution, suggests that everyone, and every industry, has a potential role to play. For decades, sustainability has been much more than a buzzword for architects, as better design and technology have improved building performance and energy efficiency. But can they do more? Curbed spoke with a group of architects, designers and builders about what their professions can do, and do better, to help the fight against climate change. Despite the challenges, they all expressed optimism that sustainable architecture practices were in a period of rapid evolution. "Human behavior shows that moments of friction usually create change," says Elliott Maltby, a principal at Thread Collective

Zachary Semke, Director of Business Development & Chief Evangelist, Hammer & Hand

"Architecture 2030 cites numbers that says buildingscontribute nearly half of the nation's CO2 emissions, so they're a big part of the problem, and therefore, a big part of the solution. We know that we can slash energy consumption by 60-70% if we reduce the load on heating, cooling and other systems. Architects and builders have a starring role in fighting climate change.

I think it's time to move beyond the checklist approach to sustainability, be really honest about the energy consumption of our buildings, and address it head on. There's no excuse not to, we have the tools to do it. There are thousands of examples of efficient buildings in Europe and North America. We get distracted by things like bamboo—and, nothing against bamboo, but we need to go further. The LEED approach to sustainability is broad and certainly adds value, but to address climate change, we need to delve deeper.

Passive House is a means to an end, which is a climate-friendly building. Another complementary certification is Net Zero Energy Building, particularly the certification offered by the International Living Future Institute, because it requires a year of performance data verifying that you actually achieved the energy targets. I think those two are really great, very accessible, and affordable approaches that can be applied to thousands of projects. They may cost 5 or 10 percent more to build, but often that increased expense can be financed by utility bill savings over time. The next step would be to do more full Living Building Projects. That certification also addresses goals like water, social equity, waste. It's an aggressive and comprehensive certification. that's not widely adopted, but it's certainly appropriate for many projects."

Ron Rochon, Managing Partner at Miller Hull (Seattle, Washington)

"Good, sustainable architecture is great architecture. It shouldn't be defined any differently. The Bullitt Center is a exceptional building, efficiency wise, because it has its own power plant and its own waste treatment plant, for lack of a better term. There's nothing in the Bullitt Center that hasn't been done before, they just haven't been put together in that way to achieve zero energy. For any standard building, you could reduce the energy loads in the building and use highly efficiency equipment and make it net zero ready. The thing people notice about the Bullitt Center is the last thing that we did, adding the renewables, such as the solar panels. But that was done after we drove the loads down and installed the highest efficiency equipment on the market.

When we're designing, we're always looking for programmatic synergies: can this space play different roles at different times, can this larger meeting room be subdivided into multiple rooms, can people work in an open office atmosphere? How can we get people to collaborate more within the space and increase efficiency? We're currently redesigning our office and reducing everyone's footprint from 180 square feet a person to 140 square feet a person. That doesn't sound like much, but with 85 people, it adds up. We designed a building for UC San Diego and put all the building circulation on the exterior. This is space where just floors need to be built, that doesn't need to be heated and cooled. People just circulate outside. A normal building like that could achieve 50% efficient; we designed the building to achieve 60% efficiency just by making that one simple move.

Something like 80 or 90 percent of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already here. There's a huge market for architects to work on renovating buildings. As cities get denser and land costs get higher, we'll see more of it. We're doing a project for the University of Idaho where we're deconstructing a building down to its core and wrapping it with a new skin. We're going to create a completely new building, but keep the core elements."

Gladys Ly-Au Young, Principal at SKL Architects (Seattle, Washington)

"Architects need to creatively think of ways to reuse our existing building stock where it makes sense. A large number of buildings are bulldozed to make way for new buildings in neighborhoods that you can no longer recognize. Older buildings are built with layers of cultural influences, and each one contributes to the character of distinct neighborhoods. It wasn't too long ago that when our appliance broke down, we would take it to a repair shop, fix it and use it again. Nowadays, in our "throwaway" society, not only appliances but even buildings are disposable after a very short life cycle.

Having said that, buildings need to be designed with the mindset that it will last a long time so not only do the spaces need to remain flexible for changes and inspirational to future generations, materials should be carefully considered for durability, and not contain harmful materials to human and the environment. Materials without toxins will enable us to reuse or recycle the building materials in the case that the building has outlived its useful life. We can further reduce our building embodied carbon footprint by "right-sizing" our structures. American have the largest average homes in the world. With the average size of 2,164 square feet, they're 2.5 times bigger than a home in Sweden (893 square feet) and U.K. (818 square feet). Architects should definitely help their clients imagine smaller but more efficient spaces. Adaptive reuse of our building, recycling toxin-free materials and right-sizing our structures are ways architects can help reduce the industry's energy use, as extracting material from our finite amount of resources has serious climate change consequences.

In terms of reducing our transportation energy footprint, architects can help by designing communities that are clustered around transit, jobs and amenities. These walkable, pedestrian-orientated neighborhoods will help reduce our reliance on fossil fuel transportation. Architects can also help protect our supply of water. The scarcity of potable water in many areas around the world is a very serious concern. Climate change definitely plays a role in this together with our unsustainable water use patterns. Architects can help by siting projects in areas that have enough captured precipitation to meet the projected water use and by reducing/reusing/recycling water, much like all our other resources."

Brandon Specketer, COOKFOX Architects (New York, New York)
"I think at the base level, it's our professional responsibility to create safe environments. But because we're at a point in history where climate change is creating extreme weather events—we're going to see another Sandy-like event in the city—architects and builders can't ignore the responsibility to create buildings that help create a better environment.

I don't think there's one silver bullet, but one of the things we stand behind is, don't cut corners. Build it well, and build it to last. There's a quote I'm going to paraphrase: sustainability is as much about keeping buildings in existence as it is constructing new, high-efficiency designs. Here in New York, we have icons that define the skyline. They've been here for 100 years and are built to last. We have to exercise a certain level of stewardship to keep them for the long run. If you build well and build beautiful, and build to last 100 years, you want the impact to be a positive one.

We've been working here in New York on the Zone Green Initiative, a zoning change that's incentivizing developers to retrofit or design much more efficient buildings, whether it's allowing thicker, higher-performing exterior wall assemblies or simple techniques such as brise soleil projections, which weren't allowed under previous zoning restrictions."

Elliott Maltby, Principal at Thread Collective

"Some of the most critical sustainability decisions are the least visible and least sexy. We do tours of our home and office (the Trout House) and we talk about the wall construction. Having a tightly sealed envelope is one of the most important things you can do for your building in terms of sustainability. For that project, we used reclaimed Coney Island boardwalk on the facade, and that's really cool and gets a lot of attention, but it's the whole wall the makes the big difference. The envelope is the most critical.

I think people are more fluent in the language of sustainability now, but the terms are so much more complicated. I'm trained as a landscape architect, and people's fluency in plants, and their use in achieving sustainability goals and contributing to larger environmental goals, is encouraging. The garden is becoming part of the larger sustainable agenda of the building, not just an add-on. People are asking, how can plants add habitat, increase food production and help cool the structure?

For all the bad news we hear on a daily basis, there's also good news. Our typical clients are looking for small projects such as condos and single family homes, but the big thing with sustainability is that people can feel a sense of agency with these small projects. There can be a sense of enormous problems and micro changes that seem insufficient. But architecture, on an individual scale, can feel more impactful than, say, changing light bulbs. I do think Sandy really brought the idea of resiliency in the mix. It galvanized an idea, "I need to take action in and around my local environment," which may be your streetscape or home. In Bushwick, where our studio is located, we've seen a slew of green infrastructure planters nearby. There are a lot of things happening in the city as a whole that are cumulatively impactful. One single planter isn't a big deal, but when you see 30 in a neighborhood, you begin to appreciate the impact of those small-scale interventions."

Climate Change Presents Preservationists With Huge Challenge [Curbed]
The Ski Industry Is Ready to Tackle Climate Change [Curbed]
The Secrets of a Super-Green Home in Oregon, Revealed [Curbed]
Here are the Most Impressive New Green Buildings in the U.S. [Curbed]