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How to Accelerate Decarbonization in Three Easy Steps

Less is less, experts say, but that requires us all to do more.

KieranTimberlake renovated their offices in 2016, turning their workspace into a lab to test decarbonization strategies.

Pre-COVID-19 times seem like ancient history now, but it was only two and half years ago that ARCHITECT published a special issue on decarbonization—the first major design magazine to do so as a result of what it called the “carbon binge” we’ve been on for nearly three-quarters of a century. The January 2020 issue featured projects and ideas by Leddy Maytum Stacy, Payette, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and others, as well as a toolkit, of sorts, for ambitious firms to reorient their design philosophies and pursue policies to eliminate carbon emissions from the building sector. Architects, it appeared, were ready and able to change the status quo at the scale of the individual building or perhaps even the scale of the city block.

Reducing operational carbon and embodied carbon will be the new litmus test for healthier cities and towns. On one hand, decarbonization points to a precise goal for architecture and the built environment. It forms part of the foundation of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better bill (which has an uncertain future as of press time), and it has been foundational for the clean energy policies in 14 states, as well as cities in an additional 24 states and the District of Columbia. On the other hand, decarbonization remains an imprecise set of operations for architects.

Despite the best efforts of 120 world leaders, COP26 in October 2021 did not prove to be as grand of a coda to architect’s editorial coverage as one might have hoped, nor did it convince everyone that we were ready to deal with the urban, regional, or national scales of decarbonization. It’s true that the resulting Glasgow Climate Pact created appropriately aggressive new standards for methane and deforestation, and more than 450 financial institutions promised to align their portfolios with net-zero aims. But, in the end, the cost of abandoning coal as a fuel source sooner rather than later was too dear for many nations, as was the financial commitment of richer countries to help poorer countries embark on decarbonization with political urgency.

The formula for change need not be complicated, though, according to some architects. The first step remains making a commitment, whether that’s for the mayor of a city of 5 million, or the partners of a firm of 15 architects and designers. The second step is getting others to make the same commitment—easier said than done, as they say. Firm leaders are often caught between their internal decarbonization strategies and business development realities, making it feel like they’re satisfying incommensurate ends. “If your firm has pledged to decarbonize and you’re working for clients who are unable to make similar commitments, then you’re collaborating with other firms to advocate for change, exploring co-benefits of decarbonization, while also wrestling with questions of job efficacy,” says Billie Faircloth, FAIA, a partner at KieranTimberlake in Philadelphia and a member of the leadership group for the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE).

“For any architect designing to decarbonize,” Faircloth says, “we’re fundamentally talking about how to do more with less impactful materials, building reuse, lightness, and new efficiencies—these precepts are established in our industry and are integral to long-standing conversations and conventions. These are also principles that clients understand.”

Faircloth and others say that total carbon—both embodied, which makes up to 90% of a building’s total contribution over its lifetime, and operational, which makes up the rest—is a total commitment, but one that is about hundreds of smaller choices that architects make each day. To help architects see their agency in this effort, dozens of volunteers developed the “COTE Super Spreadsheet” that any firm may use to understand and calculate metrics associated with the Framework for Design Excellence in order to analyze and improve their projects. Across 10 tabs, users can enter information about pre- and post-development project measurements, energy consumption data, factors like gross area with “quality views,” and number of materials that possess environmental product declarations (EPDs).

“In architecture, we often don’t like to take risks on materials and products because we rely on things we know perform well,” says Vanessa Hostick, AIA, a sustainable design leader at HOK based in Kansas City, and a self-described “matchmaker” who works across many projects (often the firm’s largest by square footage) to share information and decarbonize HOK’s portfolio. “A lot of our work is with repeat clients, which is true for a lot of firms, and you never ever want to disappoint a longtime client. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a responsibility to the environment.”

On the specification front, Hostick and Faircloth point to databases that cull EPDs including the Better Materials Database, operated by Green Building Certification, or the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), operated by Building Transparency. Others, like the Quartz Common Products Database and the Cradle to Cradle Certified database, offer a similar array of materials and products for the job site or even the medicine cabinet. The process of reviewing and selecting products based on their lifecycle carbon impacts is admittedly time consuming and sometimes results in what Faircloth calls a conundrum. “If I’m choosing between double-pane or triple-pane glass, I’ll see that triple saves operational carbon over the occupancy of the building, but when I look at the carbon emissions of what it takes to manufacture an extra pane of glass, the upfront carbon cost could be hard to justify,” she says.

Other observers say that the environmental product declarations that these databases utilize aren’t nearly as reliable as they should be, which adds to the challenge, according to Bill Caplan, assoc. AIA, for an industry whose members are too quick to congratulate themselves for thinking about sustainability rather than fully pursuing decarbonization. Caplan is an engineer and the author of Thwart Climate Change Now: Reducing Embodied Carbon Brick by Brick (Environmental Law Institute, 2021), and he advocates for databases that are easier to use and that contain more consistent information to create the level of transparency needed to make informed decisions about thousands of commonly used products. But, even if there’s a learning curve with these databases, says Caplan, there’s value in using them.

“The architects are the ones who detail the building. They’re the ones who make real choices at the material level. A client might want the concrete ‘look’ or ‘aesthetic,’ but architects can affect the actual material choice. The architect has the ability, even with a client that doesn’t care, to choose the low-carbon version of things,” he says. “If we are all looking at the numbers, architects can make a difference in the very next thing they design.”

Other than adding a step to the design research process, Hostick and Faircloth both say, a commitment to materiality and thinking outside of received wisdom about common products points to architecture’s basic precepts of efficiency and doing more (and better) with less of everything. That even applies to the most sacrosanct material of global construction—concrete, the most ubiquitous and arguably most deleterious material ever devised. If concrete were a country, the UN’s Chatham House analysts said in 2018, it would be the third largest carbon emitter in the world behind China and the United States and ahead of India. It has been the engine of development as the material of choice in developing countries for its strength, ease of use, degree of skilled labor required, and cost. Once architects (and builders) get into the routine of tracking materials more regularly, then the next frontier is finding, creating, and ideally requiring less carbon-reliant and carbon-emitting alternatives.

“There are also a lot of real cost savings by shrinking the size of a building’s systems, and we’re starting to see that happen with concrete now,” Hostick says.

“Look at how we handle floor slabs now— we’re looking at hybrid systems that use timber and concrete to lighten the load and reduce material. When you reduce material, you reduce time, schedule, and cost. We’re finally breaking that barrier as we get more comfortable with addressing things like concrete.”

After commitment comes financing, which is the inevitable third step in decarbonization at any scale—national, regional, urban, or individual building. In November 2021, the city council of Ithaca, N.Y., unanimously voted to decarbonize all 6,000 of its structures within its six square-mile area. The vote came more than a year after the council’s June 2019 decision to pursue a 2030 net-zero carbon plan, which provided the intellectual framework for such a commitment. Alturus, a Boston-based capital investment firm, provided $100 million for the seed money for the commitment, which has in turn become the operational budget for BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based energy technology company that’s overseeing the installation of solar panels, high efficiency heat pumps, electric stovetops, and other measures to reduce operating carbon around the city.

This is the granular level, experts say, that is easy to address and an effort that is easily multiplied. “Once you get beyond the boundaries of your project, the landscape of action becomes intimidating and daunting,” says John Delaney, an architect at Koning Eizenberg Architecture in Santa Monica, Calif., where he coordinates the firm’s sustainability efforts and conducts research on policy, construction methods, and materials. “Decarbonization at any scale, for me, still involves picking healthy materials or structurally efficient design. [It also involves] a real understanding of where our energy and fuel comes from and the conversion from fossil fuels to renewables.”

One way Delaney, who sits on the Advocacy Subcommittee for AIA California COTE, tries to address decarbonization beyond his projects is by paying attention to calls for public comment and writing letters or participating in public hearings in support of impactful decarbonization policies. “To be involved in decarbonization is to get out of your bubble and engage in the broader regional conversation. I’m not an expert on power grids, but knowledge comes through participation. It’s also a great way for small firms and young professionals to lend their voices,” he says.

Even if joining an advocacy team or attending public meetings is tough from an already stretched-thin timeframe for most architects, finding ways to address decarbonization is possible within the work itself. “I think there’s another mission, too, in decarbonization, apart from codes and apart from the scale of projects you work on,” says Delaney, “which is asking, ‘How do we use this challenge to address issues like access to housing?’ If we’re building these projects to be climate-positive, how can we build them to be community-positive, too?”

For multifamily projects with five or more units, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced a $75 million program called Comprehensive Affordable Multifamily Retrofits that provides low income tenants access to energy efficiency retrofits, building electrification initiatives, and on-site photovoltaic panel installation. The city’s Department of Water and Power also expanded its budget for the Home Energy Improvement Program to fund additional energy and water conservation initiatives totaling another $75 million. By the end of this year, the Mayor’s office estimates that more than 3,000 rental units will take advantage of these options, which is 0.5% of Los Angeles’ 600,000 individual rental units, and 4.3% of the city’s 68,830 rental units considered low-income. It’s a start and it addresses water use, which Delaney notes is profoundly important for Southern California, not to mention the entire southwest now in the throes of what The Washington Post recently reported as a record-setting “mega-drought” that’s the “worst in 1,200 years.”

According to everyone interviewed for this piece, scaling up or down one’s ambitions to decarbonize architecture, or even scaling up or down in how it can work in terms of gross square feet, might not be easy or straightforward. But all it takes is seeing the opportunities every day to create, select, and promote strategies that eliminate carbon emissions by setting targets, making goal acquisition part of normal practice, and advocating—at the personal level and the policy level—for these strategies. Still, if architects are looking for a square-one to occupy in the broader effort to decarbonize design and construction, says Kieran Timberlake’s Faircloth, it should be adaptive reuse. “Decarbonizing in our industry should begin with reusing buildings. That is the most intuitive step. Let’s talk about why we need to be building new to begin with, and then let’s make building reuse front and center,” she says.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT Magazine, of The American Institute of Architects or of GT/AD Studio.

This article written by WILLIAM RICHARDS originally publicly posted on Architect Magazine (Architect Newswire) on April 4, 2022.

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