Q&A: Design and the Climate Crisis

Drew Shula, Elizabeth Thompson, and Vivian Loftness discuss the building sector’s role in reducing carbon emissions and addressing the needs of those affected by climate change.

On April 22, 2021, Metropolis’s Editor in Chief Avi Rajagopal hosted a panel called “Earth Day 2021: Design and the Climate Crisis,” which focused on incorporating sustainability into projects and addressing equity, health, and resilience through design. He spoke with Verdical Group’s CEO and Founder Drew Shula, USGBC’s Elizabeth Thompson, and Carnegie Mellon University’s Vivian Loftness to reflect on the opportunities that we have in the building sector in the fight against the climate crisis.

Avinash Rajagopal: We are about nine years from the 2030 deadline and, at the start of the year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) again reminded us that this year has to be a year of action. What is top of mind for you as far as sustainability is concerned?

Vivian Loftness: The first thing is making it clear how critical the building sector is to a solution. If you Google “greenhouse gases” and look at every pie chart, you’ll find that buildings are this little sliver that is split into residential and commercial. As a consequence, public policy often diminishes the importance of built environment, and yet we are somewhere between 35% to 40% of the answer. The number of firms that have signed on for the 2030 commitment is rising rapidly. I think there are well over 700 firms—large and small—and they’re literally ensuring that their entire portfolio, both new and retrofit, is driving toward carbon neutrality. And at this point, many of them are 70% below where they started in their commitment, which is huge. We have to get to a 50-quad reduction in carbon by 2050 as a standing load for a nation at-large—and through efficient new building design, the building sector could make up five or six of those quads just through 2030 commitments.

Drew Shula: One big thing for me is just simplifying the message. There is a lot of terminology that’s complicated and we just need to simplify things and stick to the most important data points. As Vivian mentioned, one of the most important things is that the AEC industry is 40% of the problem—but that’s also inspiring because it’s such a positive impact that we make as an industry.

Elizabeth Thompson: What we’re doing here is appreciating our relationships with all beings on the planet. We’re toward the end of the pandemic and we’ve been challenged in all sorts of ways to increase our understanding of equity and social justice. I love Drew’s message of simplifying and taking that broad scope of the construction industry and looking at that as somewhere we can make a big difference.

Earth Day 2021 || Design and the Climate Crisis from Verdical Group on Vimeo.

AR: From your point of view, how do we start to shift our focus to embodied carbon? Why do we need a bigger focus on that at this point in time?

VL: There at least five really big players in embodied carbon: concrete, steel, aluminum, insulation (especially petrochemical insulation), and plastics. As architects and interior designers, we specify these materials with abandon. You can do things very innovatively to reduce the total quantities of concrete, steel, aluminum. Of course, wood construction is an alternative, and the exploration of mass timber and cross laminated timber is really exciting because they not only reduce the footprint of materials, but they can also be selected to sequester and take some of the carbon back out of the atmosphere. We will probably need to move away from petrochemical-based insulation and move to more benign natural insulation. We need to reduce plastics all together. There is something very exciting about this because it requires a lot of creativity, and it creates a new palette for designers that is biophilic and tends to improve quality of the environment. I think the focus on embodied carbon is going to be wonderful catalyst for the design community.

DS: Designers, you hold the power! You are very powerful in your decisions. Specifying materials, the interior designer or the architect has a huge amount of influence on the carbon footprint of the design of the project. Every 7–10 years, you get a new interior fit out and a whole other set of products that are specified, and that’s where you get that compounding effect over the life of the building. Over 50 years, you’ll see a huge impact, so be very aware of your selections. I talk a lot about how designers need a third stream. It always used to just be the design aesthetic, how things look for the client. The second thing you’re always looking at are the costs, making sure you’re not selecting something too expensive and staying within the budget. There’s got to be a third stream for sustainability. If you’re a designer and you want to make an impact and want to be a positive influence on the climate crisis, start to make a life cycle assessment a part of every project that you work on in your firm.

AR: How do we cast a wider net with what we do? What can we do that has an impact on not just the people who pay for our buildings, the people who get paid to work in them, or live in them or bought them, but rather has a has a wider impact in the world?

VL: There is no question that the wastefulness of the energy, carbon, and material intensity of the past has contributed to inequities. For us to be far more conscious of the materials we use and will contribute to a greater sense of equity. And specifically, if you look at infrastructure investments that are potentially going to be emerging in the United States over the next five years with some serious speed, we start to say, “Where should those infrastructure investments be?” We’ve created heat islands, and we’ve created space with no greenery whatsoever. We have essentially sealed the skin of the earth. If we’re going to reverse that with infrastructure and investment, we need to reverse it in a very deliberate way to deliver a higher level of equity. We needed to create tree canopies, rain gardens, continuous green space, green roofs. I think we’re at a threshold now of being able to rethink investments in our infrastructure in a way that only helps the earth, but also the communities that have the least.

DS: Many of you might already be aware but we went above 420 parts per million in atmospheric CO2 in the past month prior to this Earth Day, which is the highest it’s ever been reported. It’s global warming. The sun rays are coming in getting trapped and heating the planet. I think policy is a huge part of the solution. If we can pass through a carbon tax and attack the social cost of carbon by making companies pay for their carbon emissions, that will have a very immediate impact. There are leading-edge companies that are starting to pay attention and voluntarily do something to reduce their carbon footprint. But if we have a tax, of course, if everyone could do it, it would make a huge impact. I think companies should start to plan for a reality in the near future where carbon tax is a real thing.

ET: [We need to] ensure that we’re trying to find a way to make space so that more people can be at the decision-making table, so that the experience is truly informed by the whole. And we need to ensure that the federal policy reflects state policy and local policy, so that the stories that come out of this next challenge reflect all that expertise, background, and the needs that we might not even beware of. Those little, tiny changes that we might have been more aware of in the pandemic when our neighbors didn’t have access to things and we did—it’s those small experiences that teach us to reframe how we imagine what’s possible for ourselves and for others, and I hope we’ll bring those forward for what comes next.

Is there anything to add in terms of what architects and designers can do professionally or do you have suggestions for what we should be doing as citizens and consumers? What are some resolutions we should be taking?

DS: You hold the power! Everyone’s decisions matter. Don’t let yourself think that you’re not part of the solution or that it’s too big of a problem for you to have an impact. Every individual matters. Most of us in the design community work in teams at work and you influence the people you work with, and you influence firms that are part of your projects. So be an advocate for these climate-related issues on your team at work. And then in your personal life, the next time you get a car make sure you get an electric vehicle; look at solar panels for your home; and use green cleaning products. Make these choices, vote with your dollars, and stop burning fossil fuels. Focus on the carbon impact of your choices.

ET: Vote. Tell our elected leaders what we want not just when we vote but in an ongoing way by building our own expertise and building the expertise of our communities. We need to say that this is the world we want, and this is the world we require.

VL: There are a lot of words out there to describe sustainability but one of the the most powerful is regeneration. I think the notion of regenerative environments is a way to remind us to achieve LEED and Living Building and WELL. And then, to take it a step further, the regenerative environment in which we’re actually getting back more than we take has to do with sequestering carbon, and it has to do with the rewilding the world and taking up less land. We are in a transformative moment for the practice and for the professions that are part of the Metropolis family.

This is an excerpt from Metropolis’s “Earth Day 2021: Design and the Climate Crisis” panel.

You may also enjoy “With the Net Zero Conference, Drew Shula Aims to Inspire Radical Transformation”

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