Two Degrees of Separation, Part 2: Architects Must Lead on Climate Change

  • 28 Nov 2012
  • by
  • Editor's Choice Sustainability The Indicator

Last week I asked how architecture can ramp up its efforts to do all it can to help limit . Sandy is a turning point. It will take action on the part of the profession and its members to make this turning point meaningful. Turning points are easily forgotten after the panels have been convened and the articles written. The vicarious thrill of crisis abates and everyone returns to business as usual, feeling better for having contributed to the discussion. If we listen to the scientists, we must not lose that sense of crisis and we must do more.

The recently-released World Bank report “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided”  indicates the magnitude of the problem. It is so vast and deep that it easily overwhelms individuals. As they discuss in the report, only collective, international action will lead to measures substantial enough to make a change in the trajectory the planet is headed for. Architecture can be a powerful collective in the face of such a challenge.

Continue reading The Indicator after the break

Green Roofs

If you can’t trust the World Bank then there is the report released just yesterday by the United Nations’ Environment Program and the European Climate Foundation, which further argues that, given current emissions, there is no possible way to avoid crossing the 2°C increase scientists consider to be a potentially manageable level of climate change. The report notes that the “transition to a low- carbon, inclusive green economy is happening far too slowly” and recommends more aggressive reductions in emissions. Global emissions are currently 14% above the level needed in 2020 to stay under 2°C. 2020 is so important because scientists say we need to peak emissions before this year and then bring them down in order to stand a good chance of limiting the temperature increase to a mere 2°C.

Architecture could have a huge collective impact by acting more aggressively. The report notes that in the building, power generation, and transport sectors emissions could be reduced by 17 billion tonnes by 2020. This is not insignificant. Architects can lead in climate action through already-existing professional networks and organizations. They can obviously lead by designing the cleanest, greenest, healthiest buildings and environments possible. All the technical and design know-how needed to produce climate-saving buildings have been put in place over the last few decades. What has to happen now is a catalyst that will enable all of this to become the new normal. A crisis can be a good catalyst.

Change cannot be left to the developers alone. At a recent panel in New York moderated by New York Times architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, there was unanimous agreement that Sandy was indeed a turning point. It was suggested that the logic of real estate could motivate new approaches to development along the waterfront. Translation: developers will still want to get rich off waterfront properties so they will want to keep the coast protected. It was further suggested that elaborate and costly barriers or “soft solutions” such as saltwater marshes could help prevent future calamities. A benevolent God was also invoked. All of this misses the point.

While re-building efforts and preventative measures are important—surges are likely to become more frequent—the  larger issue is how to start directing economics and politics, government and the private sector, toward more powerful practices that will begin to turn the heat down. In other words, architects can advocate for buildings on stilts and large infrastructural interventions like barriers, but this will not shift the ultimate paradigm of continuing climate change. Architecture’s role in all of this should not merely be to propose design solutions for dealing with the adverse effects of climate change. Architecture is potentially positioned to lead the way in limiting climate change.

What is one of the first things of this magnitude that could be done? Official bodies such as the AIA should lobby at the federal and state level for significant changes to building codes. Not just codes for coastal zones likely to be under water in a few decades—if not sooner—but all codes. We already have green building codes. These should be THE CODE. In such codes, certain measures should take precedence. Green roofs should be mandatory. They absorb heat. Hard surfaces, reflective or not contribute to heat gain in the environment. If architects want to turn down the heat and follow the World Bank’s lead, we need to start designing in green roofs as well as permeable, natural surfaces every time we design a building. This is one approach that could be implemented immediately. We know how to do this already.

© Livinghomes Photo by Izumi Tanaka

One other obvious approach would be an across the board reduction in building areas. Why not make buildings a little smaller. This could have a significant impact if every new building had to be a little bit smaller. That is less energy consumed. It’s like transitioning from SUV’s down to smaller, more efficient cars. Do we really need buildings to be so huge all the time? There are ways of reducing area and still meeting program. Programs could also be adjusted to allow for smaller footprints, less overall building area, and more landscape, even vertically.

What the climate crisis demands is that we now set aside all excuses and resistance to taking more aggressive action. Rather than thinking, “Yes, but we can’t do this because of A, B, and C.” We need to start asking, “How can we do this now?” And if not now, when?

What are some other immediate steps architecture can take to limit climate change?

Cite: Horton, Guy. "Two Degrees of Separation, Part 2: Architects Must Lead on Climate Change" 28 Nov 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 27 May 2015. <>
  • milankovici

    these are what/if scenarios, noone can make predictions about earth climate. it’s simply mathematical impossible. earth cum athmosphere and incoming solar wind are a chaotic system, and no predictions can be made.

    but climate humbug is big bussiness for now, and hundreds of thousands of small climate polytruks earn their living preaching, so well, keep on, if you feel at home with that

    • narynd

      Nothing like a comment ripe with ignorance. Check your facts milankovici – the system is well understood. An inherently stochastic system can be predicted but that aside, the visible evidence is overwhelming. You are simple wrong.

  • ppap

    architects are paid from “someone”. They can’t lead on anything until the one who pays orders them to do so.The capital has created a new trend. We have to follow in order to excuse our existence on earth.

  • Bernardo Arjona

    Exactly. People forget that in the 1970′s everyone actually believed we were heading toward an ice age. Then, someone came out with a computer model showing that the earth is warming, and everyone knows that it must be correct if it’s a computer model (sarcasm). If we look at global history, there seems to be a pattern of ice ages every 10,000 years or so. We’re actually nearing those 10,000 years pretty soon here.

    • Iordan Dan

      That is true but it is not an excuse for the pollution the human race produces everyday. That is the true problem. When these noxious gases tear up holes in the ozone layer from which UV flows in. These holes make the planet heat up ever if an ice age would come to happen.

      • Bernardo Arjona

        I completely agree with energy efficient buildings, and better management of resources. It just needs to be done in an informed manner. How many graphs and pie charts did we see in school with CO2 emissions in regards to buildings? Did any of those nice graphics have the scientific data to show that CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere? CO2′s ability to trap heat decreases at a near logarithmic rate in proportion to an increase in quantity in the atmosphere. I was, of course, disappointed to learn this after 5 years of education in school. So, we need to do the scientific research and present better arguments for energy efficiency and less resource consumption. This in fact fives freedom to the architect, and makes him much more respectable to those clients who want to invest in the development of the profession.

    • Stor_Prime

      Your ignorance is simply staggering.

    • Sean

      Ice age? Climate change is complicated, but it’s not beyond your capabilities to understand. Carbon dioxide absorbs more infrared radiation than nitrogen and oxygen. This is not a debatable thing; you can do the experiment for yourself.

      There aren’t alternate opinions here. There’s not even “right vs wrong”.

      Similarly, there’s no denying that CO2 levels in the atmosphere are increasing. Again, it doesn’t require any fancy equipment or tricky calibrations or even a computer model to measure that: human beings are digging large quantities of carbon-rich fossil fuels out of the ground, and converting them into CO2.

      That’s it. That’s the argument: human beings are going to change the climate by a few degrees. This is not a matter of opinion. This is not a prediction, just a very simple, straightforward set of facts. It’s time to catch up and join a more productive conversation about how we turn this around.

      • B Arjona

        randombio. com/co2. html You should be able to understand this, high school level math and physics.

      • B Arjona

        randombio . com/ co2. html
        You should be able to understand this. High school level math and physics.

    • Kristian V

      No, this is not true. Most of the hard science, even in the 70′s, pointed towards warming. The “it’s cooling” hype in the 70′s was created by popular media, not the scientific community.


    • Kristian V

      No, this is not true. Most of the hard science, even in the 70′s, pointed towards warming. The “it’s cooling” hype in the 70′s was created by popular media, not the scientific community.

  • Did Gigazuri Daud

    yeh man ! @

  • William Smith

    Architects already lead the way. Our leaders and powerful economic interests, however, are against the sorts of changes mentioned above. Perhaps a carbon tax and some international treaties would be more effective in reducing greenhouse gases than hoping the AIA or USGBC can save the planet.

  • John Manoochehri

    Predictable responses from the utterly solipsistic and anti-science architecture ‘community’:

    - climate is not real, who can predict such things, what nonsense
    - there are ‘bigger forces’ than us, why should we do anything

    Architects are either in a fantasy world; or in a state of vulnerable victimhood. They ask to be allowed to change the world, while claiming either the world is not changeable by any single person or force; or if it is changeable, it’s not them.

    Sounds like a clever child trying to get out of washing the dishes after supper, when the parent tries to put some responsibility on them.

    Architects of the world: be interesting, be relevant, be responsible, be truly talented. Make a difference, and consider the climate and resources issue as integral to good practice. (No, LEED is not enough.)

  • Bernardo Arjona

    Many architects don’t take the time to properly study the science behind “climate change.” The current wave of heat is not anthropogenic, but is caused by changes in the ocean that have about 30 year cycles. Read up on the effects of CO2 in heat trapping as well, might enlighten you a bit.

    • John M

      Bernardo, do you have any references other than the iconoclastic and tainted Richard Lindzen for this ‘scientific’ claim that CO2 only warms with a logarithmic curve?

      What are you even implying by that? That ‘it matters but not really’?

      All indicators continue to point to overshoot. In the 1970s, not ‘everyone’ believe any such thing as an ice age, and to refer to the models from the 70s, the updates continue to point to an overuse of material and system-stabilising resources.

      Time to put the conversation to bed. My view is that debating climate is boring, but debating good design is timely and interesitng.

      • Bernardo Arjona

        Take the time to read some of the scholarly articles written by unbiased scientists on sites such as, or better yet have a conversation with a real scientist (as I have done), they actually scoff at the idea of global warming. Architects want to have an ideal that will change the world for the better (such as the Modernist movement), so they have placed green design at the forefront. I am simply challenging that notion and asking what the true new design paradigm should be. Healthy discussion should not intimidate or anger people.

      • Bernardo Arjona

        The implication is that CO2′s affect on heat trapping was only relevant centuries ago. After it reached a certain point, it’s efficiency in trapping heat in proportion to the amount in the atmosphere became insignificant. So, doubling or tripling, heck increasing it by 20x the amount will not increase the temperature of the earth. Read non-objective research articles such as those found on nipcc, or converse with a true scientist (as I have), and most honest scientists will show you that global climate is not affected by humans. I am simply challenging the notion of green building being the new design paradigm; asking what the new paradigm should/can be if global warming is irrelevant? Healthy discussion should not bring about anger or intimidation.

      • sean

        Maybe Bernardo can’t find a reference for this claim…
        In 2006, Willis Eschenbach posted a graph on Climate Audit showing the logarithmic heating effect of carbon dioxide relative to atmospheric concentration.
        Who is Willis Eschenbach? Willis Eschenbach has worked as a Construction Manager at Taunovo Bay Resort in Fiji Sport Fishing guide in Alaska and more recently as an Accounts/IT Senior Manager with South Pacific Oil.

        He is a blogger at climate change skeptic blog Watts Up With That (WUWT), and his work is often referenced by Steve McIntyre’s Climate Audit.

  • Bernardo Arjona

    Sorry for the double post, I don’t know the rules on posting links here. Anyhow, give me a reference for unbiased research on global warming that has not been government funded, and that has been open to peer review. You cannot honestly believe that governments do not have an economic agenda, can you?

  • Bernardo Arjona

    I’m actually quite open to true research on global warming. So, asking for those references is a legitimate request, as I like to come to conclusions through a non-biased method and am open to changing my views if the facts and truth challenges them.

  • Simon

    guess what…


  • Simon

    guess what…