Carbon footprints and CO2 emissions are large topics in our conversations about how we create a more sustainable future. Over time, different companies, organizations, and individuals have pledged to alter their lifestyles and habits to make changes that show that they are dedicated to combating climate change. Especially in the design industry, where buildings generate nearly 40% of annual CO2 emissions broken down between daily operations and construction/demolition, architects have long been feeling the pressure of exploring ways to prove that we are doing our part.
When we take a look at the different scales of emissions, one question commonly occurs- how can we measure the different levels of impact? Is it on us individually to recycle and ensure we never use plastic straws again? Does this even have a major impact? Do more car manufacturers need to find alternates for gasoline-fueled automobiles? Do architects need to only source sustainable materials? What are the actionable steps that truly have an impact?
What is important to first understand is how widely broad and complex the topic of sustainability is and the impacts that it can have. Everything these days seems like it’s easily fixed by applying a few buzzwords that give the sense that certain things are more “green” and “eco friendly” than others. It’s an aspect of a marketing strategy that has convinced people that going green has fallen on the responsibility of the individual. Greenwashing, or green sheen, as it is sometimes called, is when a company appears to be environmentally conscious for the sake of marketing purposes, but isn’t actually taking notable steps to become sustainable at a scale that makes an impact. They feel pressured to join the movement by external influences but do little to make any impact or put pressure on individuals to take more part than they need. When Starbucks launched its strawless lids, researchers discovered that the new lid actually contained more plastic than the old lid and straw combination. While Starbucks admitted this, they said that the effort was put into creating a recyclable object and relying on customers to sort it appropriately. However, only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled, and the United States alone exports one-third of its recycling to developing countries, causing the problem to trickle down to developing nations.
In the design profession, sustainability takes on many forms. While many laud the profession for owning up to the amount of CO2 emissions generated by buildings, and for making promises to offset its impacts through initiatives such as the AIA 2030 commitment which asks firms to submit statistics including average predicted energy use intensity, savings, building type, area, and other details.
Unlike public corporations, the architectural profession is doing something unique in its strategy to combat climate change. It’s taking actionable steps, providing frequent benchmarks and progress reports on how it’s doing relative to its goals, and pushing designers and practitioners to also be a part, putting a spin on it that doesn’t wave its finger and force anyone to participate, but encourages it, by promising a better world for the general public through the built environment.
Global building floor area is expected to double by 2060, which means 2.4 trillion square feet will add to the existing building stock (the equivalent of adding New York City, every month, for the next 40 years). The role that embodied carbon plays in these newly constructed buildings is under heavy scrutiny as we search for ways to upgrade existing structures and find cheap sources of renewable energy. Once a building is constructed, the embodied cabin is locked in place- meaning that the solutions will have to come long before we hit that milestone. But back to the original question- who needs to take responsibility? And how do we ensure that the steps architects actively take arent portrayed as just a marketing scheme? It will take many years for users to actually experience the difference that a sustainable building makes. While some of the steps aren’t accessible to the public eye and take place in the construction of the building itself, people are beginning to look beyond the LEED certification that almost all new buildings strive for today and want to see other measurable actions that make them believe that architects are doing the right thing.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: The Road to Net Zero Architecture presented by Randers Tegl.
Randers Tegl aims to take responsibility and think sustainable as a part of reaching the goal of Net Zero. Both in terms of how building materials impact the climate and how the materials age, but also with a focus on architecture. That is why Randers Tegl created their sustainable series GREENER, which comes with full documentation in the form of EPD, so it is possible to use the product in technical calculation programs.
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