The new IPCC special report, Global Warming of 1.5 °C, provides a clear picture of the rapid rate at which our global climate is changing and the ecological, human, and societal costs of these coming changes. In some ways this is not news: previous IPCC reports have shown a range of dire consequences associated with global warming for almost endless emission rate scenarios. What is sobering about the most recent report is how clearly it conveys that even a slight rise in global average temperatures will change the world as we know it, within most of our lifetimes, and those effects will be experienced for centuries.
It is easy to get overwhelmed or discouraged by the findings; keeping the climate under 1.5 °C requires an almost immediate 70% reduction to all emissions across the globe. Given political and societal realities, this seems highly unlikely. However, the IPCC report offers some energizing information: every project, every action, every tenth of a degree makes a difference, now and for generations to come. There really is no other choice but to act, and act now.
So what role does architecture, and do architects, play in shaping our future climate? The construction and operation of buildings account for almost half of US energy consumption, and the UN estimates that North America will almost double its current built square footage by 2060. That is a lot of carbon. How we build (and renovate) from here on out matters not just to clients, occupants, and communities, but to the planet as a whole. Even the AIA has recognized our responsibility as a profession by recently updating the AIA Code of Ethics and Professional Standard to include a provision that AIA members should “make reasonable efforts to advise their clients and employers of their obligations to the environment, including: access to clean air, water, sunlight, and energy for all; sustainable production, extraction, transportation, and consumption practices; a built environment that equitably supports human health and well-being and is resistant to climate change; and restoring degraded or depleted natural resources.”
At VMDO, we are starting to incorporate resilience strategies into our designs by anticipating future weather changes: increased cooling loads, changes in precipitation frequency and intensity, and sea level rise. We take responsibility for the energy performance of our projects by setting aggressive energy and water performance design targets at the outset, using iterative energy modeling as part of the design process, and performing post occupancy evaluations to verify that projects are performing as anticipated. As 2030 Commitment signatories, we track and report annually the energy performance of all projects currently under design and construction, and regularly discuss progress toward our Commitment at both the office and studio level.
As a teaching practice, we are constantly looking for opportunities to practice what we preach so we can be confident when we speak out about our collective responsibility to act on climate. We purchase green power and offset our office-related emissions; we compost and recycle; we prefer “green” products and services from local vendors; we provide low-carbon and plant-forward catering where we can. We push for transparency in our product selections and specifications. We provide educational events and resources for staff to learn about climate change issues and how to take effective action both in their lives and in their work. We advocate for faster, more cohesive action on climate change through groups like AIA COTE and Architects Advocate and to our local officials and elected representatives.
Even beyond individual lifestyle choices and zero energy design, architects have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to create new models of how to live on a finite planet, and to help equip this and future generations with the tools to achieve a sustainable future. It will mean rethinking mobility, ownership, zoning, landscape—the kind of synthetic thinking that we as architects are uniquely qualified to do.
As Akzepi Obegawe reminds us, “not only do we have to do the right thing, we have to do it for long enough to make a difference.” That means talking about climate change, no matter how uncomfortable, and relentlessly pursuing low carbon design, on every project—and doing it again and again. The IPCC report is yet another reminder that the earth’s systems can process only limited quantities of carbon and we are and have been exceeding the system’s capacity. In doing so, we are not only spending our children’s ecological inheritance, we are leaving them with significant debts that they (and their grandchildren) will have to pay. The time to act is now.