Pollution, climate change, global warming, rising sea levels, the urban island heat effect — architecture greatly impacts all these factors damaging our environment. How exactly does it contribute and what can we do to mitigate these?
Buildings account for 40% of carbon dioxide gas emissions. However, within the construction process are also the contributing sectors of transportation and production of materials, its demolition and disposal. Raw material extraction and potable water is used in cement production and several building materials also go through toxic processes that end up polluting our air and waterways. Architecture therefore has a great influence to mitigate the negative environmental impact by opting for sustainable manufacturers, materials and designs.
How Do Buildings Contribute to Climate Change?
There are big areas each buildings constantly contribute toward in affecting the environment:
- Embodied energy (energy it takes to produce)
- Operational energy (energy it takes to maintain)
- Building materials produced in factories using and releasing toxic pollution (water, land and air)
- Transportation to and from material extraction, production and final packaging
- Construction waste and demolition that cannot be reused or repurposed
- People contaminating water and air in building use, as well as waste production (1)
Having affected all these areas, architects must make an effort toward design that will be mindful of its effects on the environment. Choose building systems and materials that will protect the water table, fertility of soil, air filtration — wherever it is possible to lessen damage. (1)
“The 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction coordinated by the United Nations Environment Programme stated, the building and construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related CO2 emissions in 2018.” (2)
On a global scale, buildings consume 35% of total resources, approximately 40% of all energy use, 12% of drinkable water, and produce 40% of carbon dioxide gas emissions.
Overwhelming and quite sad to see that simply living in our homes greatly adds to carbon emissions and increases our footprint. Switching to energy efficient appliances and overall less consumption of energy and water might not stop global warming, but encouraging your community or building to do so can mitigate some effects of heat and pollution in your area. (3)
Carbon dioxide traps solar energy contributing to the phenomenon, “global warming.” This is dangerous to the earth as even a single degree of temperature change already affects several living ecosystems. Buildings happen to consume 40% of energy in the U.S. Cement production, new development on greenfield sites and burning fossil fuel emit 50% of all carbon dioxide. (4)
As every building starts with the vision of an architect, we can implement energy saving and environmentally friendly practices as early as the design and planning stage. Architects today are having to consider the following as a minimum requirement for all buildings:
- Water & Energy Efficiency
- Reduced construction waste and pollution (during and after)
- Safeguard the health of those building, living in or around the building
“Green Strategies” have therefore been popping up like green roofs, solar panels, rainwater flushing, earth covered buildings, and vertical gardens. (5)
Architects can specify materials that are sustainably sourced, finished with non-toxic coatings and manufactured with less carbon dioxide emissions. This has led to several architecture firms pledging to create carbon neutral or net zero energy designs by 2030 or 2050.
Check out these movements that share tips on how we can build better and the practices people are doing today:
- The 2030 Challenge – Architecture 2030
- Living Building Challenge | Living-Future.org
- About (edgebuildings.com)
Designers need to aggressively promote to all stakeholders and sell the idea of green practices.
If an architect specifies permeable grass paving, bike lanes and gardens for their development, that would encourage bikers, allow for groundwater recharge, absorb stormwater run-off, making the environment a little cooler and definitely cleaner.
If an architect chooses building material that is sourced far from the site, the carbon emissions in transportation and packaging will be high. If the material specified is a much heavier variation, this would need more structural elements to support them. These design decisions greatly add on to the environment with effects that go way beyond the site.
When we over-ornament buildings with elements that no longer serve the functions within, this not only adds to the eventual maintenance expenses, but also several environmental costs. Each new material or volume requires additional material extraction, production, transportation and installation of added carbon and pollutants for… a functionless detail?
For museums and theaters, it makes more sense to captivate the public’s eye and spend on ornamentation. It is a feat to give credit in beautifying otherwise “simple” projects, however housing projects and warehouses can load off on the complexity and find beauty in functional elements. (6)
“If the iPhone were designed the way many architects design buildings today, it would be burdened with extra switches, knobs, illuminated buttons, and perhaps a few jagged edges, just for style.” (6)
It may be more “boring” to look at but it’s more efficient, economical and therefore sustainable to opt for modular or repetitive construction elements that can easily be replicated, are simple to execute and won’t leave much waste.
The industrial revolution made everything readily available and cheaper to own, which excited both architect and consumer to try and have everything. However, it comes down to the fundamental environmentalist mentality that if we don’t need it, we should refuse and if we can, reuse! (6)
There are several case studies built today that employ sustainable design whether through high-tech smart cities or on a key focus of improving the comfort naturally with less energy. Although many of these design solutions come out more expensive initially to build, one can save up to 80% annually on energy costs and could eventually have energy for free. (2)
Image from Passive House | Field Green Design
The Power of an Architect’s Choice
In the decisions architects make in between constructing a building, we tap into different sectors that can pollute the environment. Each design decision has the potential to save energy, reduce waste or support good practices. Our buildings can stand as an advocacy toward our moral beliefs.
For example, having the conscious effort to source all material and labor as close to the site as possible, significantly reduces the carbon emissions of transportation and also supports the local economy.
An example of this in architecture is “Oceanix City”, a floating city proposed by BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) to address the growing population with rising sea levels.
If an architect chooses a highly reflective material or dark material for the facade, it could absorb heat and make the environment hotter. Reflective material with giant billboards could not only make the surrounding environment hotter but also reflect heat to neighboring buildings and could cause accidents for drivers on the road.
It’s as simple as this, the urban heat island effect we have today is because in the past, we kept choosing pure concrete and glass buildings around us and we didn’t anticipate the repercussions until decades later.
So designing for the environment is not only for tree huggers and green thumbs, it comes back to us positively tenfold in improving our living spaces.
- Veselinovic, P. (2018, August 26). The Impact of Architecture on the Environment. Energetski Portal Srbije. Retrieved March 2022, from https://www.energetskiportal.rs/en/the-impact-of-architecture-on-the-environment/
- Stamp, E. (2020, March 2). How the architecture industry is reacting to climate change. Architectural Digest. Retrieved March 2022, from https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/climate-change-design-architecture
- Jaiswal, N. (2021, January 30). 10 ways your project is harming the environment . RTF | Rethinking The Future. Retrieved March 2022, from https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/sustainable-architecture/a3044-10-ways-your-project-is-harming-the-environment/
- Cramer, N. (2017, October 4). The climate is changing. so must architecture. Architect. Retrieved March 2022, from https://www.architectmagazine.com/design/editorial/the-climate-is-changing-so-must-architecture_o
- Minor, M. T. (2018, March 9). How architecture positively affects the environment. Thrive Global. Retrieved March 2022, from https://thriveglobal.com/stories/how-architecture-positively-affects-the-environment/
- Huston, M. (2021, February 26). Architecture and the environmental impact of artificial complexity. ArchDaily. Retrieved March 2022, from https://www.archdaily.com/957549/architecture-and-the-environmental-impact-of-artificial-complexity