“When written in Chinese, the word crisis () is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other
—John F. Kennedy
The heartbreaking crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic brings with it a rare opportunity for the architecture, planning, and building community. We know the pandemic is already changing the way we live and conduct business, affecting the way we will design and ultimately the way we will build.
As temperatures continue to rise and many are still sheltering in place, we are also reminded of the need for dramatic action to mitigate the other planetary emergency we are facing: the climate crisis. Our collective work to effectively address this life-threatening crisis is already underway. We have realized the seemingly impossible and have paved the way for our community to move forward.
Since the Industrial Revolution, as the economy grew so did the building sector, resulting in more construction, more energy consumption, and more CO₂ emissions. During the Great Recession, from 2007 through 2009, the U.S. gross domestic product stalled and so did the building sector. However, after 2009, when the economy began to grow again and GDP rose, the unexpected happened: Beginning in 2010, U.S. economic growth and increased building construction decoupled from building sector energy use and CO₂ emissions—an unprecedented achievement in modern U.S. history.
While U.S. GDP increased 26.2% and the building sector floor area by 18% (about 47 billion square feet), operating energy use and emissions in the building sector decreased by 1.7%, and 21%, respectively. This decoupling now appears to be actualizing globally as well.
Our leadership, influence, and power as architects, designers, and allied professionals go beyond borders and governments, as we are primarily responsible for shaping the built environment. It’s clear we can grow our economies, create and support livable and equitable communities, and phase out fossil fuels to solve the climate crisis.
Now is the time to deepen our motivation and expand our actions—designing buildings with no on-site fossil fuels; shifting to carbon positive buildings, materials, construction, and infrastructure; implementing building decarbonization; creating clean energy jobs; integrating passive design strategies and renewable energy in projects; and designing to keep people safe during climate catastrophes and pandemics.
With global building construction stalled and the sector’s emissions set to drop significantly this year, by accelerating our efforts post-pandemic and continuing to work together with a shared vision, we suddenly have within our grasp what once seemed unreachable: keeping planetary warming to 1.5 degrees C. We should welcome this opportunity as we reshape our world in this time of crisis.