In 2019, the IPCC published a foundational report outlining that we were already late and ineffective in our efforts to drop our carbon emissions to recommended levels. According to this report, we would need to decrease our emissions by half by 2030 and reach Zero Carbon by 2050. As our time decreases day by day, cities, communities, and private and public entities have increased interest in becoming carbon positive. The building sector alone, including operational and embodied carbon sources, makes up more than 60% of global CO2 emissions.
To counter this, sensible architects, engineers, contractors, and manufacturers have joined the 2030 challenge. Architecture 2030 is a non-profit, non-partisan, and independent organization established in 2002 in response to the climate crisis. It publishes media content, engages communities, and lobbies local and national governments as well as international organizations to achieve a substantial reduction in energy consumption and GHG emissions and advance the development of sustainable and equitable buildings and communities. Through these efforts, Architecture 2030 also organizes meetings, seminars, and conferences like Carbon Positive 2020 to bring professionals and students together to share ideas and work together to reach the goals of the 2030 challenge.
The conference was divided into three days of general and break-out sessions, touching on operational, embodied carbon use, and sequestration strategies. From design aspects to real estate and the economy, the seminars covered a wide range of issues. A couple of the most notable seminars and speeches came from Ed Mazria, CEO of Architecture 2030, MASS Design Group, and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. The keynote speech by Ed Mazria kicked off the conference and pointed out the importance of acting on the climate emergency, targeting the building sector as the worst offender. He explained how the perception of carbon-emitting industries does not reflect reality and looked ahead to 2060 and what we face if we're able to change the way we design and build.
Even though we now know that 48% of GHG emissions are related to architecture, before 2003, architecture and construction sectors were not talked about in detail. The conversation has changed, with experts starting to examine the effects of embodied carbon more closely than operational carbon. The mindset we must acquire, according to Mazria, is to realize that we are working with a carbon budget of 340 GtCO2, which means we should phase out all GHG by 2040. He also presented the concept of Mountains versus the Carpet to explain how we can start making effective changes in our cities. Mountains, the mid-high rises of a typical urban city, are only 2.8% of the city building stock but uses 48% of the total energy that a city creates. The carpet, composed of low-rise and mostly residential buildings are responsible for the other half of the city's carbon emissions. In our efforts to reduce carbon emissions, we can start by targeting a few owners of large buildings that are guilty of contributing to almost half of carbon emissions in a typical city in the global north.
Image © Architecture 2030
MASS Design Group held one of the sessions on the second day. They talked about their design philosophy of achieving low, zero, or carbon positive building projects by using vernacular building techniques, local materials, and people to realize a design. They highlight that their aim is not to make sustainable buildings. Instead, they focus on making good, clean, fair designs that are sustainable as an inevitable result, surpassing many other projects that claim to have sustainability as their primary mission. They emphasized that the focus should be more on labor and not materials. Their Ilima Primary School project in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a perfect example of how they practice what they preach. According to their website: "The school’s construction was grounded in the belief that conservation and development are most feasible when communities are allowed to develop in harmony with surrounding natural environments ... With all materials sourced from the region and 99 percent of materials sourced from within ten kilometers of the site, the construction of Ilima Primary School resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars spent regionally. Throughout the project, 20 people were employed from the local community, 20 percent of whom were women. Construction also emitted 307,000 kilograms less carbon than the global average for a similarly sized school project.”
Photograph © MASS Design Group
Gordon Gill from Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture presented on the third and last day of the conference. His talk revolved around public land use and growth patterns, and emphasized how a flexible, long-term urban master plan is crucial for large development to take place. He and his firm think of their designs as ecosystems that are parts of a broader ecosystem, rather than trying to achieve a sustainable building in a “controlled environment.” Their projects, many being master plans or large scale development projects, put infrastructure in the center of their design thinking. They prefer to look at the big picture and the big players like policymakers, with the goal to create a sustainable community and ultimately generate more profit for the client and the architect. With their projects like Masdar Headquarters in UAE and the Great City development in Chengdu, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture brings together policymaking, engineering, and architecture in impactful ways.
Image © Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Amidst pandemics and political and social turmoil, climate change continues to be an issue every day. As we continue to put more pressure on our carbon budget, we have to take more aggressive measures to reverse the effects of global warming and climate change. As members of the design and building industry, our purpose is to offer our clients solutions that are made honestly and brought to fruition mindfully. While doing our job, we must always remember that our role is connected to something more significant than the buildings we design and build. Being the biggest industry offender in carbon emissions means it is up to us to change the dial from negative, to carbon positive.