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

Last week I asked how architecture can ramp up its efforts to do all it can to help limit climate change. 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
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
© 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?

Next Week: Damaged coastlines: should we re-build or reimagine?

Cite:Rodrigo Frey. "Two Degrees of Separation, Part 2: Architects Must Lead on Climate Change" 28 Nov 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>