How does architecture contribute to the current climate crisis?
How Are Construction Materials Produced and How Does This Contribute to the Climate Crisis? Our Readers Answered
Flooding is a significant problem for buildings all around the world, including architectural treasures like the Farnsworth House that have been plagued by the issue time and time again. In particular, one-third of the entire continental U.S. are at risk of flooding this spring, especially the Northern Plains, Upper Midwest, and Deep South. Last April, deadly floods decimated parts of Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Iran as well, resulting in a low estimate of 1,000 deaths while tens of thousands more were displaced. While architecture cannot solve or even fully protect from the most deadly floods, it is possible – and necessary – to take several protective measures that could mitigate damage and consequently save lives.
Unless you’re living in a news or social media bubble, it’s unlikely you’ve missed seeing the devastating effects Australia’s climate change exacerbated wildfires and drought have had on the continent. One of the images that still sticks with me is that of the young boy, mask over his face, steering his family’s boat as they flee a large bushfire – flames and smoke enveloping the entire scene within an apocalyptic reddish-orange glow.
It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but you are not free to desist from it either.” —Rabbi Tarfon
The global climate crisis is one that requires discussion in many areas of life, from planning for containment to the prevention of consequences. One of the main factors in this debate involves our means of energy production that, historically, were responsible for severe damage to the environment. This was due to the lack of concern to seek renewable and sustainable sources to generate electricity, and also the lack of technology. In general, traditional methods of electrical energy are ones that produce waste, release atmospheric and water pollutants, and use non-renewable resources.
According to data from CRED (Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters) and UNISDR (UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction), in a report released in 2016, the number of disasters related to the climate change has duplicated in the last forty years. The need for temporary shelters for homeless people is, as well as an effect of the climate crisis, is also one of the consequences of the disorderly growth of cities, which leads to a significant part of the world population living in vulnerable conditions due to disasters.
As the climate crisis continues to unfold, professionals in architecture, engineering, and sustainable design have relentlessly searched for new ways to mitigate the negative effects of modern industrial production. One group of such innovators, Zero Mass Water, have contributed to this effort through their creation of ‘the world’s first and only hydropanel’ - an apparatus called SOURCE.
Architecture enjoys a close connection with moving picture, perhaps because of the limitless imagination it allows. Our mind can be taken far away to utopian worlds where we live different realities with our eyes and skin; movies can carry us to new and distant places, where we face new unusual realities.
Studying the data that indicates a climate crisis that has been affecting the whole planet for the last decades, the reactionary attitudes may sound disappointing. However, at the same time that the news indicates a global average temperature rise, the political focus on the climate crisis is also intensified, according to the UN Environment report released in 2019, which is a reflection not only of the occurrence of manifestations and protests around the world but also of the so-called activist art expression.
For decades, scientists have been warning us about global warming, and the consequences of human actions on the planet in the form of environmental disasters. The construction sector is today one of the major contributors to global warming and the climate crisis. According to data of the United Nations (UN), currently, 36% of the global energy is dedicated to buildings and 8% of all pollutant emissions are caused by the production of concrete alone.
Iñaki Alday is the current dean of the School of Architecture of Tulane (New Orleans). Founder of Alday Jover arquitectura y paisaje, he also offers advice to the United Nations as an expert on the urban planning of rivers and deltas. In this context, he is a noted co-founder of the ‘Yamuna River Project’, a university research project for the recovery of the Yamuna River in New Delhi - one of the most polluted in the world.
Below, we talk with Iñaki Alday about innovations in cities related to the climate emergency, with questions that approach the urgency of research and how universities should prepare students to face the global challenge.
All human activities affect the environment. Some are less impactful, some much, much more. According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the construction sector is responsible for up to 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Activities such as mining, processing, transportation, industrial operations, and the combination of chemical products result in the release of gases such as CO2, CH4, N2O, O3, halocarbons, and water vapor. When these gases are released into the atmosphere, they absorb a portion of the sun's rays and redistribute them in the form of radiation in the atmosphere, warming our planet. With a rampant amount of gas released daily, this layer thickens, which causes solar radiation to enter and and stay in the planet. Today, this 'layer' has become so thick that mankind is beginning to experience severe consequence, such as desertification, ice melting, water scarcity, and the intensification of storms, hurricanes, and floods, which has modified ecosystems and reduced biodiversity.
Last April, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York announced plans to introduce a bill that would ban the construction of new all-glass buildings. Part of a larger effort to reduce citywide greenhouse emissions by 30 percent, other initiatives included using clean energy to power city operations, mandatory organics recycling, and reducing single-use plastic and processed meat purchases. The announcement came on the heels of the city council passing the Climate Mobilization Act, a sweeping response to the Paris Climate Agreement that included required green roofs on new constructions and emissions reductions on existing buildings.
Throughout the last 12 months, the architectural community has responded in various ways to the Climate Emergency. From innovative proposals that tackle the sustainable design of healthy cities, to collective political action and lobbying, 2019 saw a continued mobilization of ideas, opinions, and actions on how architecture can be used as a tool to help the planet.