systems-thinking image via cfi

Architecture (Alone) Cannot Solve Climate Change

To move the built environment from its resource-intensive ways to a more responsible future, we need to look beyond buildings. Architecture and the built environment, by themselves, cannot move the environmental needle fast enough. Entire communities must do better to achieve the needed changes. And, as architects, we should use different words to define our goals. To my remark that designers seemed tired of carbon-talk, a friend replied, “We’ve developed language that’s neither welcoming or client-centric. As a result, it becomes an upward battle to convince partners to take on environmental concerns and long-term threats.”

Our energies—and our language—must turn to larger issues: changing where people build, not just how; spending on public infrastructure to support pedestrians and cyclists, not just motorists and power companies; making larger investments in new power sources and distribution systems; and stimulating technical, social, and economic innovations. Overall, we must move faster to improve how we manufacture, travel, build, and live, all at an urban, regional, national and even global scale.

Architecture alone will never make the needed difference. Architects have too little influence on urban and suburban development patterns, which have massive environmental impacts. We don’t shape—or even implement—transportation policies. We don’t design the power grid or fashion its tributary sources. 

We do specify materials and systems, but only for a small segment of what’s built—and, yes, we’ve done a respectable job with what we do design. Edward Mazria of Architecture 2030 has documented the huge reductions over the past two decades in U.S. building energy use and CO2 emissions, despite having added 62.5 billion square feet of built space. “When the architecture and planning community became aware that the building sector was responsible for about half of all U.S. emissions,” Mazria writes, “something extraordinary and historic happened—energy consumption and emissions decoupled from growth.”

But this genuine progress also seems to be “decoupled” from increased global carbon emissions, climbing temperatures, and rising sea levels. Despite better buildings, the environmental signals are not improving. We will need to work more aggressively to change urban development patterns, transit systems, power generation technologies, and manufacturing methods.

As we shift our attention beyond buildings, we must change how we frame goals and challenges. The words and phrases we use now—“carbon neutral,” “net-zero,” “sustainable”—don’t help much, and it’s not just a matter of repetition fatigue. Carbon is an abstract idea to most people, not something they can see or touch. It invokes the invisible world of chemistry, and that’s uncomfortable territory for some. Even if it were not overused, “sustainable” is hardly an ideal term to describe a desired new condition, or design steps intended to change the status quo rather than maintain it.

For some denialists, “climate change” carries divisive connotations, provoking attitudes that range from “it’s not really happening” to “it’s always been happening” to “humans cause it” to “no, they don’t” to “it’s all part of a divine plan.” Careful public speakers avoid the term, using “extreme weather,” “climate challenges,” and other euphemisms.

If we’re citing the basic allures of architecture and urban design—the qualities of buildings and places most admired by the public, the attributes of buildings and design that draw people to our profession—we wouldn’t find the phrase “net zero-carbon” on the list. And just because a project achieves low-impact goals does not necessarily mean it’s good architecture. As one juror said of entries to a recent design competition: “They’re about environmental virtue signaling, not architecture!”

It’s past time that we used our skills and words to show how well-designed buildings and communities make life better for everyone—and also make them good for the environment. To begin with, we can talk about human needs and experiences. It’s a commonplace to say that architects tend to speak in a cult-like language—an argot of the initiated, where “window” just won’t do, it’s fenestration—where an idea becomes a parti. In the outside world, people miss the message, because we almost willfully obscure the value of our work.

Sales coaches teach their pupils to pitch benefits: “Don’t sell the product; sell what it will do for the customer.” “If you want to engage people, talk about meeting their needs, not yours.”  Architects can show how resource-conscious buildings and urban plans help people perform better and reach higher goals, improving the quality of their lives.  

Several years ago, a group of architects developed model signboards to deploy on construction sites, highlighting the benefits of the work in progress. “When this renovation is complete, your library will serve the community for another 100 years!” Having resolved to address benefits, they found many possibilities: new school = better student performance; new hospital = faster healing; renovated city hall = lower tax burden; new rec center = healthier citizens; renovated house = happy family. And so on.

When someone shrugs off climate change as something remote, ginned-up, or unlikely to have much impact, can we focus on the things that do matter to them: risks of fire, flooding, and landslides; thermal discomfort and higher costs for heating and cooling; rising insurance rates. “When this renovation is complete, you’ll be safer, more comfortable, and better off financially.
(And, incidentally, you’ll generate less carbon.)”

As we begin to use different language to describe a more “sustainable” world, we can also ease up on the preaching. It’s counterproductive. It doesn’t help to deliver exhortations to change our ways with a scold; imputing moral failure to anyone who hasn’t placed zero-impact design at the top of the list only engenders resistance and resentment. Writing and talking must continue (sorry, Greta), and we must persist in efforts to improve building practices, reform building codes, eliminate toxic materials, and more.

It could also help to have less “carbon talk.” When colleagues embrace carbon-reduction schemes that are well outside of architecture’s domain, I, too, embrace skepticism. If mining companies can continue to extract “beautiful coal” from Appalachian hillsides, just by paying a fee that winds up in, say, Egypt, is it any wonder that people are dubious about carbon trading? Trees deliver enormous, well-documented benefits, especially in urban settings. But is remote tree-planting a realistic “carbon offset” method? A private company selling offset credits to corporations and individuals claims, “Planting just five trees per month can completely offset the carbon footprint of the average American.”

A recent MIT article notes, “It would take 640 trees per person to account for all American emissions … more than 200 billion trees.” Moreover, the question is so complex that “it [is] perhaps impossible to say for sure how many new trees would be required to bring [the global carbon cycle] back into balance.” True, dense forests did once cover large parts of the Midwest, the article continues, and they might grow there again. But much of that now-treeless land is used for cities, farms, and industry. Also, trees don’t deliver quick benefits, and they don’t last forever—when they decay or burn, they release all the carbon they’ve “stored.” 

Could the thousands of trees I’ve planted—on farmland my family turned into woodland, in a big city lacking adequate canopy—ever make up for the hundreds of transatlantic flights I’ve taken, for many weekends spent driving and riding motorcycles, for years of winters keeping the thermostat at 26˚C day and night? I doubt it.

So, new thermal glazing to replace our apartment’s old single-panes, take métro or a Vélib’ instead of the car, exercise more thermostat discipline, support national legislation to require complexes like ours—built from totally uninsulated masonry—to undergo major upgrades, and support tax incentives for “green” roofs and façades … a resounding yes to all.

These steps and countless others will help, although they could be offset by the incentives now being extended to battery-powered cars (another story). And no matter how many people adopt them, they will never be enough. Much more promising, and more pressing, are reliable, extensive, and safe public transit systems; substantial bicycle and pedestrian networks; industries that use clean energy and non-toxic technologies; widespread co-generation and district heating systems; municipality-wide upcycling programs; goods moved by rail and canal systems—all executed on a large scale.

The reality: Buildings designed by architects are neither the worst villains nor the greatest hopes when it comes to grappling with the environmental burdens of the world’s proliferating urban centers. Let’s acknowledge that architecture is just one element among many and confront the issues that matter most. And while we’re at it, let’s use language that captures peoples’ attention and speaks much more directly to their everyday needs and interests. 

Featured image via Corporate Finance Institute.


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