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Architects can lead climate change fight as U.S. pulls out of Paris Accord

To help save the environment, focus on a better built environment

A wind turbine in downtown Cleveland.

Business leaders, U.S. mayors, even the head of Goldman Sachs agree that President Trump’s decision to pull out of the historic Paris accord to battle climate change is a terrible one, and have agreed to double down on efforts to combat global warming. Part of Trump’s rationale, that he was elected to “represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” fell flat when the mayor of Pittsburgh said he supports the agreement.

It’s clear there’s a massive backlash over Trump’s decision, and many are looking for others to show leadership.

If any group leads the battle to fight climate change, it should be architects, who design the environment that we live in and can help make it more energy-efficient and sustainable.

As the Chicago-based group Architects Advocate for Action on Climate Change put it:

“We are on the front lines addressing climate change in a meaningful and impactful way, facing current issues such as energy efficiency, water conservation, sustainable land use, resiliency, and adaptive reuse”

Designing more sustainable, resilient, and energy-efficient buildings can make a significant impact on emissions and climate change. According to architect Edward Mazria, who founded Architecture 2030, a group seeking to drastically cut carbon emissions from the built environment, buildings consume nearly half of the energy in the United States, more than transportation or industry. In any effort to mitigate climate change, this is one sector with significant responsibility that can make a huge difference.

Architecture 2030

And the best part is, significant change in the architectural profession is already taking place. According to stats collected by Mazria’s organization, the International Union of Architects, with member organizations representing over 1.3 million architects in 124 countries worldwide, has unanimously adopted the 2050 Imperative, an Architecture 2030 declaration to eliminate CO2 emissions in the built environment by 2050. Over 350 firms in the U.S. have joined the AIA 2030 Commitment, a call for all new buildings, developments, and major renovations to be carbon-neutral by 2030, and individual architecture, engineering, and planning firms continue to make a commitment to design to carbon neutral standards by 2030, including top international and Chinese architecture and planning firms that have signed the China Accord, a commitment to plan and design cities, towns, developments, and buildings in China to low-carbon/carbon-neutral standards.

Progress is being and has been made, and must be accelerated. Architects need to advocate for better use of space, the use of more sustainable, more efficient designs and building envelopes, and green renovations for our existing building stock. Something like 80 or 90 percent of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already here, according to Ron Rochon, managing partner of Miller Hull in Seattle.

Architects also need to design around the big picture, and focus on creating more sustainable communities.

“In terms of reducing our transportation energy footprint, architects can help by designing communities that are clustered around transit, jobs, and amenities,” says Gladys Ly-Au Young, principal at SKL Architects. “These walkable, pedestrian-orientated neighborhoods will help reduce our reliance on fossil fuel transportation.”

Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, designed by The Design Alliance Architects.

Many in the profession have already spoken out to reject Trump’s decision. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) announced its opposition to withdrawal, with President Thomas Vonier stating that the move will put the U.S. behind global competitors and “damage our statue around the globe.”

"The AIA will not retreat from its long-established efforts to conserve energy and to deploy renewable resources in buildings,” Vonier said. “We will continue to lead in efforts to curb the use of fuels and technologies that needlessly pollute our atmosphere and harm our environment. This makes good sense economically, and it is in the best interests of those we serve: our clients and the public.”

Architects Advocate for Action on Climate Change issued an emergency alert yesterday afternoon, which has already drawn more than 300 signatures, asking members and allies for support and political action. The groups is collecting signatures in support of the 40 leaders in the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, and is encouraging the other 395 house members to join.

Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the Living Future Institute, which promotes the Living Building Standard, the world’s most sustainable building standard, said that “repeating a history that pillages the future for the next generation in the name of greed is not only short-sighted it is also proven to cost more in the long-term”:

Today we are even more grateful for our Living Future movement - regenerative designers, sustainability advocates, people with hearts that bleed green not because it is politically expedient, but because it is morally imperative. We will continue to harness and empower their vision for a truly Living Future for all in order to achieve the objectives of the Paris Climate Agreement, with or without the White House.

Oasia, a new green high-rise in Singapore that has a trellis-like exterior facade to help cool the building.
Albert Lim

Of course, architects still have to work for clients, who may not share the same values or choose to place sustainability above budgetary concerns. But in addition to educating and advocating more sustainable designs and solutions to those who pay their bills, architects, as well as planners, now have an important duty as professionals to push for building codes that favor more sustainable and energy-efficient solutions.

Local building and housing codes—important guidelines that aren’t set by the federal government—can promote density, remove parking minimums, favor transportation alternatives, and promote energy efficiency can not only help reduce the country’s carbon footprint, but lead to healthier, more sustainable cities and neighborhoods.

According to Michael Berkowitz, president of 100 Resilient Cities, an initiative of the Rockefeller Foundation, sustainable construction and planning can help cities respond to many of the challenges faced by climate change.

“If done right, solutions used to address the shocks of climate change could also address the slow burning disaster cities face,” he said. “Seawalls could be designed to create more park land; parks could be designed to both lessen the heat island effect and to promote community cohesiveness; and more.”

Berkowitz shares the disappoint over the administration’s decision. But he believes that the “creative, multi-benefit approaches to climate challenges that cities across the country are taking” is a much more beneficial and important shift.

Architects can continue to push cities towards adopting more sustainable solutions, Worldwide, 533 cities are now reporting their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, a 70 percent increase in reporting since the Paris Agreement. In North America alone, 56 percent of the cities reporting have GHG emissions reduction targets, many declaring zero emissions or an 80 percent reduction by 2050 or earlier. Architects can and should be pushing for more to join the ranks.

For now, the White House may have abandoned its role as a leader on these issues. Now it’s up to architects, planners, and local politicians to show true leadership on climate change.