Sustainable Architecture and the Climate Change Challenge for AEC

It's an exciting time to be an architect. I suppose the same can be said for any period of time since the advent of the profession, but I also can't think of another period of time when designers have faced such a magnitude of responsibility to serve our communities and leave behind a meaningful and sustainable legacy.

Every generation of designers before us has had unique challenges to respond to, and in turn, shape the built environment for future generations. Now it's our turn. As designers, we often want to "solve the world" through our work, and there is no shortage of issues we can choose to tackle. However, one in particular has made an alarming rise in threatening importance during our lifetimes - the global climate crisis.

The climate change challenge and opportunity 

According to a United Nations Environment Program 2018 report, buildings' construction and operations accounted for 36% of global final energy use and nearly 40% of energy‐related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2017.  

As a response, many governments, professional institutions, and private businesses have already started (or in some cases accelerated) practices to reduce their contributions to these emissions. We can see this evidenced in a number of programs worldwide such as the AIA's 2030, the UN's Paris Agreement, and the EU's commitment to carbon-neutrality by 2050.  

As governments and organizations continue to draft guidelines and regulations/legislation for reducing energy usage and carbon output, the reduction of these metrics will be a critical question to every profession working in the design and delivery of the built environment. 

It may seem like too great of a challenge, but without a significant threat, we wouldn't have an equally significant opportunity. Good designers know that design is about constraints and crafting a sensitive response to these bespoke conditions. It's an especially arduous journey, but one we don't have to do alone.  

Tecla 3D printed house WASP + MCA night img1_blog3D printing is an example of a relatively new technique that offers an answer to sustainable architecture and construction. Above, WASP's 3D-printed eco-habitat in Italy. 

The industry’s response 

Millions of designers, technologists, and other specialists are tackling the same problem in their own ways; creating a prime environment for innovation in the building performance and sustainability space. We have seen examples of this phenomenon in our industry for some time now, but the pace at which they've accelerated in the past six to 12 months is staggering and very promising for the profession and the built environment. 

In fact, not so long ago, there was yet another exciting development worthy of (at least) a partial re-write—namely, the transfer of Tally from KieranTimberlake to Building Transparency.  

Tally has been around for a while and has maintained a consistently compelling value proposition as a building life-cycle assessment (LCA) tool. But perhaps the most compelling thing about Tally isn’t just the value it creates as a necessary design tool but also what it has achieved as a vehicle for industry activism and advancement. This next stage in the product's life cycle is a clear commitment to those values and to the benefits they can deliver to our designs and the world around us. Under Building Transparency's stewardship, we can look forward to continued product development and an even greater reach and impact to design professionals worldwide. 

Tally Kieran TimberlakeImage courtesy of Tally, the life-cycle assessment tool that helps designers create more sustainable architecture


These developments aren't just limited to veteran companies and products. There's also promising fast-paced growth in the startup space. 
Cove.tool is an excellent example of the innovation in this space, as evidenced by their rapid growth and consistent closing of significant funding rounds. Positioned as a lightweight, accessible, web-based suite for building performance analysis, it has the potential to reach architects and designers who are not explicitly trained in sustainability or building performance workflows. 

The web-first approach is also a crucial boon to achieving that goal. Simulation has historically been a very computationally expensive process, often requiring a significant investment in desktop hardware. By outsourcing the computation to a cloud server and allowing anyone to access the information through a simple web browser, it helps reduce the barrier to adoption even further. The comprehensive (and growing) feature list is another point for celebration among designers.  

Fracturing in software and functionality has been on the rise in parallel with the rise in building complexity, and the cove.tool strategy of simplification and convergence is a welcome response to this trend.  

The rise of open-source solutions 

Last but certainly not least, we can also look to the growth in the open-source space. These companies and products may require some more specialized knowledge to deploy and use in an "enterprise" environment, but they are just as functional and valuable as the commercial products previously discussed. And in return for that "overhead" of knowledge or time, they also provide ample reward in the form of flexibility, potential for customization, and low cost of use and maintenance.  

A constant leader and innovator in this space is Ladybug Tools. Their work has also been in the industry for quite some time, but their drive to improve and to innovate has only increased during that same time. Although their most popular tools are Honeybee (daylight simulation) and Ladybug (solar & climate modeling), it seems that new things are always just around the corner. The recent development behind their cloud-based platform, Pollination, is just one example of the exciting developments we can expect in the near future. 

In addition to their excellent products Ladybug Tools also offers a series of comprehensive learning curriculums for training on using their tools effectively. This can be a great way for companies and teams, large and small, to introduce building performance and sustainability knowledge and practices into the daily design flow.  

Many of these courses were even released free of charge during the initial wave of global COVID lockdowns, and it speaks to the goals and commitment of the Ladybug Tools team louder than any mission statement can. This commitment to raising the bar in the AEC design space is clear, and it's up to us to make the most of what they, and other open-source maintainers, are giving us in the way of tools and knowledge to design a better environment. 

Terra Sustainability Pavilion Dubai copyTerra – The Sustainability Pavilion, designed for the 2020 Dubai Universal Exhibition, explores new possibilities to aid sustainable architecture and a more sustainable life. 

Proactively responding today, not tomorrow

There are so many more companies and products worth celebrating in this space. But unfortunately, it would take a book to do so, and it would have to be re-written almost daily. That's just a testament to how much energy and dedication is going into solving this global problem every day. It may seem like something too big to handle or something worth ignoring, but unfortunately, it is not.

Today we have the benefit of being able to be proactive and creative with our design responses. Tomorrow that may not be the case. Tomorrow it may be too late to "design our way out of it," and a catastrophic "solution" may be forced upon us. That's not a chance we can afford to take as an industry and as stewards of the built environment.

We need to combine our creativity and ingenuity in building with the tools and intelligence developed by these types of innovative companies if we want to continue being the masters of our fate in the (built) environment.

Rio Museum of Tomorrow_postMuseum of Tomorrow, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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