Fresh Perspectives on Air, Water, and Carbon from Metropolis‘s 2020 Sustainability Issue

From HVAC to interior renovations, the November/December 2020 issue of Metropolis suggests meaningful areas of action for architects and designers.

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Metropolis’s October 2003 issue pointed out the influence architects could have in the fight against climate change. This issue explains new research that implicates interior designers as well.

About a year ago I moderated a panel discussion at Studio O+A’s San Francisco office where the firm’s cofounder Verda Alexander raised a question: When it comes to fighting climate change, architects have led the charge with commitments, pledges, and action. What, she asked, can interior designers contribute?

At Metropolis we pursued that question for several months. The logical factor to consider was embodied carbon emissions (i.e., the greenhouse gases emitted when we make products and materials, transport them, and turn them into offices, hotels, homes, schools, and hospitals). We found that estimates typically pegged the embodied carbon of interior design at a low 7–17 percent of a building’s total emissions, as compared with 40 percent for structural concrete. Those numbers seemed to explain why architects have been at the forefront of the sustainability movement thus far.

However, as any interior designer will tell you, the lifeblood of their profession is renovations and tenant improvements.

A building may stand for 100 years, but the interiors change many, many times in that span. Given that renovations also have carbon footprints, recent studies from the Carbon Leadership Forum and LMN Architects suggest that the cumulative embodied carbon of interiors throughout a building’s life may equal or even surpass that of its structure and envelope (“Interior Designers, Your Time Is Now!”).

Let’s do some rough math here. The nonprofit Architecture 2030 estimates that the building sector accounts for about 40 percent of global carbon emissions, and that as buildings become more efficient to operate, embodied carbon will come to represent half of that portion, or about 20 percent. If we estimate that interior renovations produce half of that total, then interior designers have influence over one-tenth of the world’s carbon emissions— real power to fight climate change.

Meanwhile, architects and builders are discovering that adaptive reuse can also be a powerful tool for socioeconomic justice. As Chaseedaw Giles reports in “Recycled City,” if members of underserved communities can be trained to renovate their own homes, and if aging structures can be repurposed as affordable housing, then it’s a win-win for sustainability and society.

We also discovered this summer that COVID-19 spreads through airborne transmission, which means architects and designers are taking a long hard look at HVAC (“Threatened, Breath by Breath”). To help people breathe easier, we’ll soon need a slew of smart, sensitive upgrades to existing buildings.

The upshot is that reuse and renovation can have a triple positive impact—on climate change, social justice, and human health.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for interior designers, and Metropolis wants to help. If you are interested in making a difference to people and the planet, visit as we explore how the profession can respond. Let’s do everything in our power to reverse the damage we have caused to life on earth.

You may also enjoy “14 Adaptive Reuse Projects from 2020 Show Great Design Doesn’t Mean New Construction

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