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The New Climate Reality—and the Tools to Tackle It

April 9, 2023
Climate change may be the challenge of our time, but architects and designers are facing it head on. Here’s how.

The clarion call to fight climate change has rung far and wide since before the turn of the millennium, and environmentally conscious architects and designers have answered. Rethinking the ways in which we design and construct buildings to be cleaner, more energy efficient and sustainable has resulted in measurable impacts in turning the global warming tide.

In fact, an article in The Washington Post earlier this year noted that “accelerating solar and wind energy means global warming probably will not reach the extremes once feared, climate scientists say.” While downward projections of climate change are highly encouraging, especially to those in the trenches, the Post article added that the nearly 2 degrees F rise in temperatures recorded since the Industrial Revolution is still less than half of what’s expected by the end of the century.

New climate-focused tools are being developed for the design and construction industry at a dizzying pace—and for good reason. Buildings account for nearly 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), according to Architecture 2030, and the percentage increases when additional infrastructure activities associated with buildings, such as transportation, are factored in, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) notes.

It’s why we recently produced a three-part podcast series on sustainability and what it means for the A&D community today. What follows is a synopsis of two of the conversations featured on I Hear Design (which you can find at or on your favorite podcast platform) in which we discuss this new climate reality, the perspectives it requires to tackle it and some of the most helpful tools our guests keep in their arsenals.

At the Tipping Point

While there’s been a marked reduction in manmade greenhouse gasses in recent years, The Washington Post added that researchers are nevertheless “increasingly worried about the degree to which even less-than-extreme increases in global temperatures will intensify heat and storms, irreversibly destabilize natural systems and overwhelm even highly developed societies.”

Jay Valgora, principal and founder of STUDIO V, says we are at a transformational point in addressing climate change through the built environment. “We’re on the cusp of irreversible change in the climate, and the built environment, which is the portion that we’re lucky enough to get to work on, is such an important part of the future of our planet in terms of addressing carbon, in terms of addressing sustainability and in terms of addressing resiliency,” he said.

For people like Jonce Walker, global director of sustainability and wellness at HLW, the climate situation is likely going to get worse before it improves— “however, that doesn’t mean we should slow down,” he was quick to point out. Walker suggests architects and designers bear a big responsibility to reduce carbon emissions globally given the built environment’s role in it and to inform and inspire clients in the process.

“We can’t have net zero targets in 2050. We need to have net zero targets right now,” he said. “We’re at a really important point here, and we need to accelerate our influence in terms of building and designing spaces that maximize the pursuit of a sustainable project.”

[Related: What Do Buildings Have to Do With Climate Change?]

Keeping it in Perspective

It’s easy to get caught up in the terminology that gets thrown around so frequently—net zero, decarbonization, carbon neutral, climate positive—and get lost in the big picture, rather than staring at the tree right in front of you, so to speak. Walker says it’s important to refocus attention on things like geographic location, honing in on targets and design interventions that are local because carbon intensities are different depending on where a project is located.

“There’s all these things around net zero and climate-positive, carbon-positive, et cetera and I think those are all great terms, but it’s important to have an apples-to-apples comparison when we’re talking with clients and making these commitments for sure,” he said.

Valgora suggests we also need to consider climate change in terms of scale, “whether it’s a small, individual project where we’re renovating a building and reusing elements in creative ways or creating entire neighborhoods where we have opportunities to perform much larger experiments that address issues of resiliency, sustainability, and carbon capture.” For example, with waterfront properties, Valgora points to the question of retreat to deal with rising sea levels—one that he believes is short-sighted. Low density coastal neighborhoods may have the option of relocating some buildings further inland, but higher-density communities don’t have that luxury.

“The question is, how can we create whole new models of resiliency to deal with climate change and sea level rise? And I think that’s something that’s very central to our practice,” he said.

Tools of the Trade

Addressing climate change through the built environment is a daunting challenge, so where does one start the process and how can it be broken up into more manageable pieces?

When it comes to embodied carbon on a tenant improvement project, for example, Candon Murphy, sustainable building advisor for Perkins&Will's Dallas Studio, recommends looking at the makeup of the six visible surfaces within the interiors (four walls, ceiling and floor planes) because they represent the largest area of the space. Likewise, from an architectural perspective, she suggests addressing high-volume materials like concrete and mass timber and looking for ways to reduce their carbon footprints through choices like local sourcing and responsible raw material extraction or life cycle analysis.

“Thinking from big to small is kind of the best way to start, we would say, because then you can start to tackle the items that are going to make the biggest impacts,” she said.

The proliferation of third-party certification programs and ecolabels can help architects and designers in theory, but in reality, industry greenwashing is still prevalent—meaning manufacturer claims should be treated with a “trust but verify” approach. Murphy says to be wary of grandiose statements like “net positive” or “carbon negative” and to take them with a grain of salt to ensure these targets aren’t simply being purchased through carbon offsets.

“We want to figure out how to design these things [better] and not just throw some money at the problem, because we’ve recently found out that that is not working,” she pointed out.

Steven South, design director and senior associate at Spector Group, agrees and underscores the importance of third-party verification for building materials and products because “you want it to be a separate third party to make sure that everything is being treated fairly, and it’s all nonbiased [information].” Well-known rating systems and certifications like the Living Building Challenge, LEED, WELL, Cradle to Cradle, Declare and GREENGUARD, can help design practitioners make more informed decisions and verify that the information provided is accurate—but they don’t offer a rubber stamp of approval.

“It’s not to tell you ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to use a product, but it gives you the information that you need to make those decisions of what you think is best for that project to achieve the goals you’re trying to reach,” he said.

One of the benefits of the tools available today is the ability to measure multiple attributes and impacts of a product, including operational and embodied carbon, daylight levels and air movement, notes Pablo La Roche, principal and sustainable design director at CallisonRTKL. However, he underscores the importance of applying knowledge of the issues and not relying solely on software to solve problems.

“There’s no tool by itself that is going to solve the issue, and we have to understand how to approach it in a different mindset and have some understanding of basic building physics and how things move and to really use these tools carefully,” La Roche said.

Murphy adds that for anyone who’s embarking on the journey, the amount of information available can be overwhelming initially but urges patience—and plenty of practice.

Remember that climate change isn’t just about the present moment, but more about the next generation and our moral obligation to them to fix this crisis. “We have to address this, and I think that means sharing information and working together,” Valgora explained. “There’s also something exhilarating and exciting about it because we do have a chance to make the world better as designers. We aspire to do that, and I think that it’s the great challenge of our time.”

Additional Resources

To learn more about how to measure the carbon footprints of products and projects, be sure to check out these go-to resources:

AIA Materials Pledge

Embodied Carbon Construction Calculator (EC3)

mindful Materials

Once Click LCA

Sustainable Minds


Read next: 6 Products That Contribute to the Circular Economy

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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