Climate change is the fundamental design problem of our time. Not style, not fees, not education, not community, not health, not justice. All other concerns, many of them profoundly important, are nonetheless ancillary. The threat climate change poses is existential, and buildings are hugely complicit—even more so than that stock culprit, the automobile. As every architect should know, buildings consume some 40 percent of the energy in the U.S. annually, and they emit nearly half of the carbon dioxide (CO2), through greenfield development, cement production, and the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal. Because CO2 traps solar energy in the atmosphere, thereby heating the planet, it is the chief agent of climate change [PDF], making buildings—and by association, the architecture profession—profoundly responsible.
The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been increasing since the industrial age, it spiked with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and the advent of globalization in the 1980s, and in 2013 it passed 400 parts per million for the first time since the Pliocene Epoch, 3 million to 5 million years ago. During the Middle Pliocene, which scientists study because its climate foreshadows our own rapidly approaching future, the global temperature was 5.4 F to 7.2 F higher than today. Sea levels ranged 16 to 131 feet higher, and the polar regions were so warm that coniferous forests grew there.
Architects face a choice: to remake the built environment so that it produces no CO2, or to carry on, business as usual, and live with the consequences.
The World at Stake
The effects of climate change are increasingly self-evident, and costly. Hurricane Harvey took some 70 lives when it hit the Houston area in late August, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott has estimated the damage at $150 billion to $180 billion. At press time, the 3.5 million residents of Puerto Rico remained without power after Hurricane Maria and many of them lacked access to fresh water. “The devastation ... has set us back nearly 20 to 30 years,” Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González-Colón told the Associated Press. Across the globe, higher temperatures are contributing to record heat waves and droughts, rising sea levels, more intense storms, wildfires, and floods, and other extreme conditions [PDF]. A mass extinction is underway, thanks in part to climate change; a study in the journal Science Advances contextualizes it as “the sixth of its kind in Earth’s 4.5 billion years of history,” with vertebrate species going extinct at 100 times the historical background rate.
Even if humanity was to immediately stop releasing CO2, the climate would continue to change because the greenhouse gases that we have already dumped into the atmosphere could take millennia to dissipate. But that doesn’t mean we can throw up our hands and ignore the problem. The sober reaction is to pursue both mitigation, in order to minimize emissions, as well as resilience, to bolster cities, towns, buildings, and infrastructure so they can endure the storms to come. (The designers of Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park explain how resilient strategies made a difference with Harvey here.) Skeptics should consider that innately risk-adverse institutions such as the U.S. Defense Department, giant re-insurer Swiss Re, and the masters of the universe at Goldman Sachs are planning accordingly. (Read the Washington state insurance commissioner’s take here.)
And if we don’t reduce CO2 emissions? Imagine, by the end of the century, a Hurricane Sandy–level flood inundating Long Island, N.Y., every two weeks, Dust Bowl–intensity drought in the Southwest that persists for decades, Miami largely abandoned and under water, and Missouri as hot as Arizona [PDF] is now, with 46 to 115 days above 95 F each year. Such catastrophic scenarios are not hyperbole, but probable consequences of inaction. Indeed, if there is a fault in climatological findings as a whole, it is that scientists have tended to underplay [PDF] the threats.
Climate change exacerbates poverty, disease, famine, and conflict, and the human costs will only increase along with CO2 concentrations and temperatures. By 2100, rising oceans could force as many as 2 billion residents of coastal areas worldwide to migrate toward higher ground. In Florida alone, during Hurricane Irma, some 6.3 million people came under mandatory evacuation orders, and the state could permanently lose 2.5 million or more residents as inundations [PDF] become more frequent. Unrest will increase across the globe, as it did in drought-ridden Syria [PDF], in part because heat makes people agitated, and in part because deteriorating conditions will simply make people desperate.
In the U.S., a 2017 study found, the wetter, relatively cooler northern states will prosper compared to other regions of the country, and attract more crime in the bargain. Agriculture yields in huge swaths of the Midwest will decline by 50 percent or more if we don’t cut emissions. The southern states in particular sound like they’ll be downright miserable: People will die younger and the poor will grow poorer, with tropical diseases making even greater inroads as mosquitoes flourish in the heat and with local economies declining by as much as 20 percent by 2100.
Architects should note that as temperatures rise construction will be hit particularly hard, because so much of it occurs in the open air. Keep burning CO2 like there’s no tomorrow, and by 2050 the 48 contiguous states will experience an average of 20 to 30 more days than now above 90 F. Any day hotter than 90 F cuts outdoor daily labor supply by up to 14 percent, because workers simply aren’t able to show up on site as regularly due to fatigue and illness. On-the-job productivity will drop too. One study found that by century’s end, in the sample city of Houston, the erection of a typical steel structure will require 7 percent or more additional labor hours.
According to a paper [PDF] that the Obama administration released in 2014, any delay in cutting CO2 emissions “could increase economic damages by approximately 0.9 percent of global output. … These costs are not onetime, but are rather incurred year after year because of the permanent damage caused by increased climate change resulting from the delay.” For context, the paper forecasted that 0.9 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product for the year would be around $150 billion.
Leadership in Action
Countries participating in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord have agreed to limit emissions in the hope of preventing the global average temperature from rising more than 3.6 F above the preindustrial level (a target broadly known by its single-digit metric equivalent of 2 C). If the temperature goes any higher, numerous studies have concluded, there’s no stopping the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets from melting, which within this century could raise the ocean 10 feet and 23 feet, respectively.
Given that the national emissions commitments are voluntary, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that a July study put the current chances of keeping the temperature increase below 3.6 F at a depressing 5 percent: “The likely range of global temperature increase is 2.0 C to 4.9 C [ 3.6 F to 8.8 F ],” the authors found.
Every country in the world has signed or plans to sign the Paris agreement except Taiwan (which the U.N. doesn’t recognize as a nation but which has enacted emissions-reduction legislation anyway) and Syria. Since inauguration day, however, the Trump administration [PDF] has not only moved to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris accord, perhaps even more alarmingly it has appointed climate-change skeptics and deniers to virtually every key agency position and begun to roll back environmental regulations and censor government officials on the subject of climate change.
Such moves make no sense, environmentally or economically. A 2015 Citibank report [PDF] estimated the worldwide cost of keeping temperatures below 3.6 F would be $190.2 trillion while the price of inaction would be $192 trillion. What fair-minded individual wouldn’t rather save $1.8 trillion, and civilization in the bargain?
Climate change denial is clearly lousy for business, unless you’re in oil, gas, or coal, in which case it’s a marketing plan. Fossil fuel companies, whose products are largely responsible for CO2 emissions, and therefore climate change, routinely manipulate [PDF] research, policy, and public opinion to deflect liability. It’s not that the industry and its fronts actually doubt the underlying science. Quite the opposite. Their own in-house scientists raised the alarm.
As has been widely reported, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his previous role as CEO of ExxonMobil, used an email account with the fake name “Wayne Tracker” to hide his discussions about climate change and other sensitive topics. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman demanded the account records as part of an ongoing fraud investigation—alleging that Exxon lied to investors about the potential impact of climate change on the business—only for a company representative to claim that seven years’ worth of the emails have been inadvertently erased.
A study released in August reviewed 187 Exxon climate change communications from 1977 to 2014 and found that the more publicly available the information, the more likely it was to discredit the science: “83 percent of peer-reviewed papers and 80 percent of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12 percent of advertorials do so, with 81 percent instead expressing doubt.”
Plainly put, evidence continues to mount that fossil fuel companies have tried to shield their businesses from a market reaction they know is inevitable, in much the same way that the tobacco industry lied to consumers for decades about the awful health effects of smoking. The motive is obvious. If cleaner energy sources take hold internationally, the Citibank report found, gas stands to lose $3.4 trillion between 2015 and 2040 and coal could lose $11.5 trillion in the same period. BP estimated total proven oil reserves worldwide at 1.7 trillion barrels in 2016. At the Sept. 24 price of $50.66 per barrel, that’s $86.4 trillion in assets that the industry and producing nations will have to write off. You can bet they won’t do so willingly.
Government participation at all levels is necessary to encourage right action in the private sector, through research, underwriting, incentives, regulations, legislation, and leadership. Architecture has a relatively small financial footprint, and it will have to punch above its weight in Washington, D.C., where money is speech and legislative action demonstrably [PDF] follows the dictates of the most “verbose” special interest groups rather than the collective will of voters, as measurable in the policy disconnects between polls and Acts of Congress.
The architecture profession made $7 million in campaign contributions in 2016, an election year, with the AIA’s political action committee, ArchiPAC, contributing $226,300. That year, the construction industry made $122 million in contributions, and the real estate industry made $234 million. By comparison, the political network of climate change deniers and petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch budgeted $889 million for the same cycle. So while architects and firms can and should take individual responsibility for mitigation, the profession as a whole will benefit from a concerted effort to forge cross-industry alliances, single-mindedly speaking truth to power.
Ways to Go
Time is wasting. Humanity emitted some 2,075 gigatons of CO2 [PDF] from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, circa 1750, through 2016. (A gigaton is a billion metric tons.) Plants and algae do consume CO2 through photosynthesis. But there aren’t enough plants and algae on the planet to offset the emissions from the fossil fuels we burn and our other greenhouse gas–releasing activities. The ocean and atmosphere get stuck with the remainder, and they are warming rapidly. We can only emit another 730 gigatons or so of CO2 and retain a decent chance of the atmospheric average temperature staying below the Paris target of 3.6 F. In other words, we are on a carbon budget. And if current trends hold, we are on schedule to blow past the budget in little more than 18 years.
It follows that architects must minimize the use of energy- and carbon-intensive technologies such as electric lighting and air-conditioning, and revive low-tech solutions such as passive ventilation. Yet the future won’t be a Luddite’s paradise. Technology’s role ought to grow in some areas, given recent advances in building design, analysis, materials, systems, construction, and operations that help mitigate climate change. (See Blaine Brownell’s trends report here.) Architects will have to continue using their influence as product specifiers to move recalcitrant manufacturers toward solutions that emit far less CO2 and consume far fewer resources than current norms.
Miraculously, it is now possible for buildings to produce and store more energy—clean energy, from renewable sources such as solar and geothermal—than they consume. Whenever feasible, new construction in the United States should conform to this net-zero energy building standard, and policy needs to support that goal, as it does in the European Union.
Where local circumstances make net-zero energy impossible, a carbon-neutral approach can compensate through the purchase of offsets, which are essentially payments to protect forests, increase renewable energy production, and foster other practices that sequester carbon or reduce emissions. To make financial sense of such an approach, cap-and-trade rules would essentially create a market for corporations to buy and sell a governmentally limited set of allowances to pollute. The limit, or cap, would lower over time, bringing overall emissions down with it. California, the world’s sixth largest economy, has such a program in place.
Architects generally trade on clients’ respect for their expertise and innate creative vision. In a carbon economy, design will obviously still matter, but numbers will matter more, as case studies, modeling, and performance data increasingly drive client decisions. (Discover Arizona State University’s process here.) As the world adapts to climate change, thrift will inevitably supplant consumption as a prevailing cultural value, and the architecture profession, along with the rest of society, will have to relearn the great joy of doing more with less.
The sustainability movement provided an important start over the past two decades, but it hasn’t gone nearly far enough. For instance, out of 20,000 architecture firms in the United States, some 400 are participating in the AIA’s 2030 Commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030, 175 of these reported data [PDF] for 2016, and just six reported achieving the intermediate goal of reducing predicted energy-use intensity in their building portfolio by 70 percent. (Find out how they hit the mark here.)
Now architects must double down and commit themselves totally to mitigation and resilience, testing techniques and technologies for effectiveness, and hewing to conventions and standards such as the 2030 Commitment, Architecture 2030’s 2030 Challenge, the Passive House Institute’s Planning Package, and the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge. Such tools should serve as the 21st century equivalents of Andrea Palladio’s 1570 treatise I quattro libri dell’architettura and other influential pattern books of the past, and they should be under constant review for improvement.
Of course, the implementation of such standards requires support from numerous stakeholders, including consumers, colleagues in related fields, public officials, lenders, and most especially clients. Architects will have to aggressively promote best practices, summoning all of the information at their disposal to make quantified arguments. In order to develop rigorous case studies proving the value of sustainable and resilient construction, the profession will have to gather data with unwavering discipline and take a fiercely open-source attitude toward knowledge exchange, as facilitated by the AIA and National Institute of Building Sciences’ BRIK research directory. (Gordon Gill and Ali Malkawi discuss how architectural education needs to evolve along these lines here.)
Even relatively modest reforms in approach to the built environment will make a difference. By one count, if 9.7 percent of new buildings are net-zero energy by 2050, emissions will be 7.1 gigatons lower. And energy efficiency is just one of many climate change–related issues that architecture has to address, such as construction waste, land use, and fresh-water consumption.
A New Hope
Despite the fact that, as of last year, 97 percent of climatologists agree that climate change is occurring—and, yes, occurring as a result of human activity—almost 90 percent of Americans are unaware [PDF] of the consensus. Fortunately, science and reason are regaining some lost ground, despite the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to the contrary. According to Gallup, half of Americans now consider themselves “concerned believers” in climate change. Though the number may seem confoundingly low, it’s actually at a 30-year high, up from 37 percent in 2015.
Despite major reverses at the federal level, American universities, corporations, and state and municipal governments are stepping up and embracing the Paris goals. When considered outside the politically loaded frame of climate change, some green issues prove wildly popular. Nearly 90 percent of Americans favor expanding U.S. solar-energy capacity, and 83 percent support wind capacity.
Good old-fashioned economics are helping as well: Last year, for the first time, solar became the cheapest source of electricity. That’s great news, though there’s a lot of market share left to grab. Currently, about 65 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels, and 15 percent from renewables; the remaining 20 percent comes from nuclear power plants.
If appropriate policies, regulations, incentives, and legislation were in place—and lamentably, that’s a big if—climate change paradoxically would present architects with an opportunity. Construction now constitutes 4.3 percent of the U.S. GDP, and the urgent need for greater efficiency and resilience ought to boost that number, on top of future gains that demographic projections suggest. Certainly, a considerable portion of the $190.2 trillion global mitigation cost that Citibank estimated would go to infrastructure and other building projects. Architects can also take advantage of the environmental crisis to advance related causes such as health and equity.
Transformation is already beginning to occur at the regional, state, and local levels. Individual projects such as ZGF Architects’ Rocky Mountain Institute headquarters in Basalt, Colo., and the Miller Hull Partnership’s Bullitt Center in Seattle demonstrate just how remarkably efficient buildings can be. (For insights into net-zero building, check this story out.) On the resilience front, Miami Beach, Fla., contending with the rising Atlantic, is spending $400 million to $500 million to install pumps and raise sea walls, sidewalks, and roads. With water levels having plummeted in the massive Lake Mead reservoir during the 2011–17 drought, the Southern Nevada Water Authority is spending nearly $1.5 billion on a new, lower intake tunnel to ensure that the Las Vegas metro area’s 2 million residents don’t go thirsty. And the Rebuild by Design program is leveraging the skills of architects and planners to strengthen the coastlines of Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. A similar initiative, Resilient by Design, is underway in the San Francisco Bay area.
Without too much imaginative effort, one can see such efforts coalescing into a heroic nationwide enterprise, like the all-encompassing mobilization of the U.S. economy at the start of World War II. Except this time the threat doesn’t come from overseas. It’s all around us: our dangerous way of living and building in the world. Rethinking the design, construction, operation, and dismantling of buildings in order to mitigate climate change and increase resilience toward its effects is the most important, and exciting, undertaking that architects of this era will likely experience in their careers. Architecture must change with the climate, and change now, in order for humanity to survive, and hopefully thrive.