This article was originally published on Common Edge.
Architecture 2030 is calling on all architects, engineers, planners, and individuals involved in the building sector worldwide to design all new projects, renovations, landscapes, cityscapes, and infrastructure to be zero carbon starting now.
If the community acts together today, we can mitigate and even prevent the worst effects of climate change. Our calling is, and has always been, to make the world a better place. Now is the time to step up and help protect life on this planet.
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At the 2007 Architecture 2030 Global Emergency Teach-In, I sat next to the renowned climate scientist James Hansen and asked him, “When will we begin to see the actual effects of global warming?” He leaned over and whispered, “At about 1°C warming.” Today, I checked NASA’s Vital Signs of the Planet website and, sure enough, Earth is currently 1.02° C warmer than pre-industrial levels.
I write this less than two weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its comprehensive and alarming Sixth Assessment Report on the state of the climate crisis. Meanwhile, brutal heat waves, droughts, deadly flooding, and fires are shattering world records and ravaging Europe, North America, China, and India—the regions currently responsible for 58% of global CO2 emissions.
The takeaways are clear: We are all in this together, and we must all act quickly and boldly. The time for half measures and outdated targets is over if we are to stop the irreparable destruction of our cities, towns, and natural environments.
Architects and design professionals have a unique and critical role to play. We directly shape and influence the built environment worldwide. We are the one industry across all political and geographic boundaries with the agency to affect global emissions immediately. In other words: We can decide to design and build to zero carbon today.
Building operations alone account for about 40% of total global CO2 emissions; factor in interiors, sitework, landscapes, cityscapes, and infrastructure, and that percentage is much higher. If the world is to meet the 1.5°C carbon budget set in the 2015 Paris Agreement, we must provide the necessary leadership and reduce CO2 emissions in the entire built environment by 65% by 2030 and reach zero carbon by 2040.
How difficult is designing to zero carbon? Not difficult at all, particularly with the resources and technologies available. Here are the three steps to zero carbon.
Zero Carbon in 3 Steps
1-Design to the Latest Codes and Standards
Design efficient buildings that use little energy to operate by meeting current energy standards and codes (ASHRAE 90.1-2019 and the 2021 International Energy Conservation Code), their equivalent, or better.
Local building energy codes set minimum energy efficiency requirements. They do not prevent architects, engineers, and building sector professionals from designing to current code standards—or from going above and beyond.
Buildings designed to current standards have several advantages. Studies show that they are cost effective and reduce occupant energy burdens. Furthermore, they can be designed with ready-to-use energy modeling compliance tools, checklists, and trade-off options, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s COMcheck and REScheck. Architects in more than 170 countries, including many developing countries, can use EDGE’s free software to pinpoint least-cost options and calculate utility savings, payback periods, and a building’s carbon footprint.
2-Design for All-Electric and Renewables
Design all new buildings, major renovations, and developments to use no on-site fossil fuels—gas, oil, or propane—and to be 100% powered by on-site and/or new off-site renewable energy. The health, economic, and environmental benefits of all-electric buildings are well documented.
Burning fossil fuels directly in buildings accounts for 5.4% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and 35% percent of all domestic building-sector CO2 emissions. To meet the 1.5°C carbon budget, buildings must operate on only electricity supplied by on-site and/or new off-site renewable energy (see the Zero Code and 2021 IECC Zero Code Appendix). This will further lay the groundwork for new renewables to decarbonize the power sector and, in turn, the existing building stock.
3-Zero Out Embodied Carbon
While steps 1 and 2 will produce zero-carbon building operations, we must also confront the embodied carbon of building construction and materials if we hope to phase out CO2 emissions by 2040. Architects, engineers, and planners can minimize the embodied carbon emissions from all new buildings, major renovations, infrastructure, and construction by adopting the following three tactics:
- Reuse: Repurpose and upgrade urban areas and existing buildings instead of constructing new infrastructure; use local and recycled materials when available; and design buildings for deconstruction.
- Reduce: Infill and densify urban areas to utilize existing infrastructure; reduce material use by optimizing structural systems; and specify low- to zero-carbon materials using comparative tools, such as the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator.
- Sequester: Use mass timber and glue- or cross-laminated wood from existing sustainably managed forests; use bamboo structural members and panels if available; specify materials that sequester CO2 in their manufacture or application; and plan and design carbon-sequestering sites, parks, and urban landscapes.
Twenty years ago, when I founded Architecture 2030 and issued the 2030 Challenge, achieving zero-carbon buildings seemed a distant aspiration. Today, thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of the global design and construction community, we have the knowledge, standards, tools, and technologies to achieve zero carbon buildings in all climates, worldwide.
We have an extraordinary opportunity to be leaders in solving the climate crisis. This is the ultimate design project. This is our legacy.
This open letter originally appeared in Architect Magazine.