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12 Ways Architects Can Combat Climate Change

In the global fight against climate change, architects are pivotal in steering the construction industry toward more sustainable and eco-friendly practices. The decisions they make influence more than the appearance and functionality of a building — they have a drastic impact on the environment.
12 Ways Architects Can Combat Climate Change
Courtesy of Stefano Boeri Architects

With less than a decade left to slow down climate change, these decisions are now more critical than ever. Here are 12 ways architects can combat climate change.

The Role of Architects in Combating the Climate Crisis

Architects are the masterminds behind a building’s design and construction. Their decisions heavily influence a structure’s energy efficiency, material selection and overall environmental impact.

That means they can make a massive difference by integrating sustainable and eco-conscious designs right from the initial planning phase. Incorporating elements like passive solar design, efficient insulation and natural ventilation systems can reduce a building’s reliance on energy-intensive heating, cooling and lighting.

Additionally, architects can advocate for and implement innovative technologies like green roofs, solar panels and rainwater harvesting systems, further reducing a building’s carbon footprint. Architects can promote the use of recycled and locally sourced materials to cut down on transportation emissions and foster a more sustainable construction process.

The Role of Construction in Emissions

The construction industry is one of the largest contributors to global carbon emissions. From the extraction of raw materials to the transportation of building components and the energy-intensive construction processes, it accounts for a substantial portion of greenhouse emissions. The built environment accounts for around 42% of global CO2 emissions annually.

The use of heavy machinery, transportation, harmful substances and the energy demands during the construction phase add to the industry’s environmental impact. Acknowledging these factors is crucial in recognizing the urgency of integrating sustainable practices within the construction sector.

How Can Architects Combat Climate Change?

Architects have a significant responsibility in advocating for more sustainable building designs. Here are 12 ways architects can make a more positive environmental impact.

1.   Passive Design and Energy Efficiency

Architects can prioritize passive design strategies that capitalize on natural elements like sunlight, wind and shading to minimize a building’s energy consumption. Orientation, building shape, window placement and shading devices can optimize natural light, reducing the need for artificial lighting.

Well-insulated building envelopes and integrating high-performance windows help maintain indoor temperatures, reducing the energy load required for heating and cooling. Additionally, they can design buildings with energy-efficient HVAC systems and lighting, using smart technologies and sensors to optimize energy usage and minimize waste.

2.   Adaptive Reuse and Retrofitting

Encouraging the adaptive reuse of existing structures and retrofitting older buildings with sustainable features is an essential aspect of sustainable architecture. By repurposing old buildings rather than demolishing them, architects can significantly reduce the environmental impact of construction.

Retrofitting involves adding eco-friendly features like improved insulation, energy-efficient systems and using renewable energy sources to existing structures, making them more environmentally friendly and energy efficient.

3.   Water Management

The average American uses between 80-100 gallons of water daily. Integrating water-saving measures within building designs is another critical aspect architects can focus on to combat climate change. These measures include implementing rainwater harvesting systems, greywater recycling and using water-efficient fixtures to minimize water consumption.

Designing landscapes with drought-resistant plants and permeable surfaces manages stormwater and reduces the strain on municipal water resources while enhancing biodiversity and reducing the urban heat island effect.

4.   Green Infrastructure and Biodiversity Promotion

Architects can design buildings with green roofs and living walls, incorporating urban green spaces to enhance biodiversity, reduce heat absorption and improve air quality. Adding green infrastructure provides habitats for wildlife and contributes to cooling urban environments, mitigating the impact of heat and fostering a healthier, more sustainable urban landscape.

5.   Materials and Life Cycle Analysis

Architects play a crucial role in material selection, favoring environmentally friendly, recycled or renewable materials. Conducting life cycle assessments helps determine the environmental impact of materials from extraction to disposal.

Opting for materials with lower embodied energy, like sustainably sourced or reclaimed wood, recycled steel, bamboo, clay, terrazzo, recycled plastic or eco-friendly insulation, significantly decreases a building’s overall carbon footprint. For example, choosing materials like aluminum sunshades can lower energy consumption by at least 10% as it reduces the need for frequent heating and cooling.

Additionally, specifying materials that are durable, require less maintenance and can be reused or recycled at the end of their life cycle ensures a more sustainable approach to construction.

6.   Biophilic Design

Incorporating biophilic design principles involves integrating natural elements, patterns and materials into the built environment to reconnect occupants with nature. Architects can include features like natural light, indoor plants and views of nature to improve mental well-being and productivity while reducing the need for artificial lighting and improving indoor air quality.

7.   Resilient and Adaptive Design

Amidst climate change impacts like rising sea levels, extreme weather events and temperature fluctuations, architects can design adaptive and resilient buildings. This process involves considering future climate scenarios, constructing buildings that can withstand severe conditions and planning for adaptive measures that allow for adjustments as climate patterns evolve.

These precautions can reduce the chance that buildings will have to be rebuilt in the future due to extreme weather events, reducing the environmental impact of unnecessary construction.

8.   Off-Site Construction

Off-site construction, often referred to as prefabrication or modular construction, offers architects a sustainable approach to building that minimizes waste, reduces construction timelines and enhances efficiency. In this method, construction workers manufacture various building components in a controlled factory setting before transporting and assembling them onsite.

Architects can use off-site construction to improve the quality of construction by ensuring precise manufacturing and reducing material waste. It allows for standardized building modules, leading to faster construction, reduced labor costs and less onsite disturbance.

This approach streamlines the construction process and reduces transportation emissions by consolidating materials and components, contributing to a more environmentally friendly and resource-efficient building industry by resulting in 30% fewer emissions than onsite construction. Additionally, off-site construction offers architects innovative ways to incorporate sustainable materials and technologies into the manufacturing process, promoting a more eco-conscious approach to construction.

9.   Digital Tools and Building Information Modelling (BIM)

Leveraging digital tools like BIM can assist architects in simulating and optimizing building performance before construction. These tools analyze energy usage, daylighting and material impact, allowing for more informed design decisions that reduce environmental impact and improve efficiency.

10. Restorative Architecture

Restorative architecture, or regenerative design, focuses on creating buildings and spaces that minimize negative environmental impacts and actively contribute to ecological restoration and improvement. It goes beyond sustainability by aiming to heal and enhance ecosystems, positively contributing to nature and communities.

In Milan, Italy, Stefano Boeri Architects designed the Vertical Forest. These twin residential towers are covered with over 20,000 trees and plants. These buildings act as a vertical forest, creating a microclimate that absorbs CO2, produces oxygen, reduces air pollution and provides habitats for birds and insects. The integration of greenery on these towers has a positive impact on the city’s air quality and biodiversity.

11. Reversible Design

Reversible design emphasizes flexibility, adaptability and the potential for disassembly or modification, enabling structures to evolve with changing needs while reducing waste. It focuses on creating buildings that contractors can easily modify, deconstruct or repurpose, thereby reducing their environmental impact and extending their life span. The idea is to allow for changes to functionality or use without complete demolition or excessive material waste.

Called “the smartest building in the world,” The Edge in Amsterdam is recognized as one of the most sustainable and intelligent buildings for good reason. Its design allows for flexible workspaces that occupants can easily reconfigure according to changing needs. The building employs demountable partition walls and raised flooring with easily accessible utilities, facilitating adjustments without major structural alterations.

12. Collaboration and Education

Architects can actively engage with stakeholders, including clients, engineers, policymakers and the community, to advocate for sustainable design practices. Educating and raising awareness about the benefits of eco-friendly designs and the long-term positive impact on the environment can encourage a broader adoption of sustainable principles.

Collaboration with various experts can help integrate innovative technologies and eco-conscious strategies into the design and construction process.

Building a More Sustainable Future

While architects only make up a fraction of the construction sector, they play a vital role in combating the climate crisis. Architects who make conscientious choices and advocate for sustainable practices can significantly mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. Their decisions impact the immediate environment and contribute to a global effort to deal with climate change.

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