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Sustainable architecture requires greater scale to have an impact on the planet, experts warn

July 18, 2022, 5:00 PM UTC

The climate crisis, as well as pandemic-related workplace disruptions, are forcing architects and real estate developers to take a hard look at their industry’s impact on the environment and to accelerate the use of sustainable tools and materials.

They have reason to be concerned: Nearly 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions and 36% of energy consumption around the world come from building and construction, according to a 2021 report from the United Nations Environment Program and the International Energy Agency (IEA)

But even as sustainable architecture—which requires less energy and aims to reduce the negative environmental impact of buildings—has gained traction throughout the world, its pace of adoption is likely not enough to help avert the worst impacts of climate change, according to a recent survey by NBS, a technology platform for construction professionals. Its research concluded that one of the greatest misconceptions in architecture is that “a gradual change over the next 30 years will be sufficient, when in fact we require urgent change.”

More experts are calling for change at a much larger scale. 

“Where we’re at with climate today, we need action not maintenance,” says Antje Steinmuller, chair of the bachelor of architecture program at California College of the Arts. “Don’t get me wrong, sustainable architecture helps, but we need to do much more.”

Much of the expansion to date in North America and Europe is due to government incentives and ratings programs like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which aims to make building owners environmentally responsible and helps them use resources more efficiently. Today, more than 100,000 buildings worldwide participate in the LEED certification system, according to its developer, the U.S. Green Building Council. 

These initiatives have not kept pace with traditional energy-wasting construction, as demand is increasing again after a brief lull during the pandemic. Building stock in Asia and Africa is expected to double by 2050, much of it using traditional techniques and major greenhouse-gas emitting materials like cement and steel, with global material use expected to more than double by 2060. 

To meet the goals of the Paris Climate Accords would require the sector to eliminate all CO2 emissions from the construction industry by 2040, embracing energy-efficient buildings that use no on-site fossil fuels and are 100% powered by renewable energy, according to Architecture 2030, a global nonprofit organization focused on the role of architecture in the climate crisis. 

Most builders have been far more modest in setting their sustainability goals. Currently less than half of industry respondents expect to make the majority of their projects green, according to a 2021 World Green Building Council report. And only 0.4% to 1.2% of homes in the European Union are upgraded each year to meet decarbonization goals, according to Buildings Performance Institute Europe, a think tank focused on improving buildings’ energy efficiency. Though President Biden’s recent infrastructure package made home weatherization a key priority, the federal government currently retrofits just 38,000 homes each year.

Another challenge faced by architects focused on sustainable construction is that global building standards over the past decade have grown more stringent as the climate crisis worsens. In the past, the tally of emissions produced by building and construction tended to only include operational emissions and excluded significant emissions from construction and demolition at the beginning and end of a project, which minimized the environmental impact of the sector. Now the focus is on adding up both operational and construction emissions, providing a more accurate picture.

Stimulating investment in green buildings

Limited progress so far doesn’t necessarily spell trouble for the future. About 92% of international real estate investors recently surveyed by the Center for Active Design remain optimistic, expecting demand for green buildings to grow over the next three years.

LEX, a New York–based commercial real estate securities marketplace that involves fractional ownership of sustainable commercial properties, unveiled its latest project in Seattle in 2020. The construction of the multifamily Solis building, which requires little energy for space heating or cooling and uses up to 54% less energy than is typical for a residence like this, was achieved through triple-pane windows, extra insulation, and alternative ventilation systems.

Are such projects popular outside Seattle and certain urban areas? Not so much, according to the U.S. Green Building Council, which ranked Massachusetts, Washington, and Illinois as the top states for LEED green building in 2020. 

There are many challenges, including a lack of government incentives, an often cumbersome permitting process, and “a regulatory framework that needs an upgrade,” says Marc Coluccio, the COO of SolTerra, which developed the property. 

With Solis, another issue was that multifamily buildings are the most difficult to make sustainable compared with office buildings, which involve low water usage and don’t require heating overnight since they’re typically occupied for just eight hours a day.

Other significant hurdles to the development of sustainable architecture are lack of client demand and the cost of achieving sustainability, both of which were cited by half the respondents to the NBS survey of construction professionals. 

Green architecture costs

The potential expense of green buildings is one of the most common misconceptions, says Lee Jones, head of manufacturer solutions at NBS, noting that short-term construction costs may be higher but that the energy efficiency of the buildings results in lower costs over time. 

Estimates of the increased cost of green buildings range from 2% to 17% higher than conventional ones, owing to higher prices for designs, fittings, and finishes, such as special lighting and flooring materials, which can be expensive to install. Yet those costs can be significantly outweighed by the financial benefits. The average reduction in operating costs in the first 12 months for new green buildings is 10.5%, and over five years, 16.9%, according to a study by the Dodge Construction Network. And new green building owners and investors saw an average increase in asset value of 9.2%, according to the report.

Green buildings don’t need to be more expensive, says Jones. Yet often, he notes, developers are relying on methods and styles that have been used historically instead of looking at a project with a fresh set of eyes. 

Developers have better access to information about products they’re using; do simulations with 3D models; and can use methods like less expensive off-site manufacturing and other efficiencies that reduce the amount of construction waste.

Inflation resulting from supply-chain bottlenecks is going to have an impact on the building of new sustainable architecture, Jones notes. Developers and planners should therefore focus their energy on the reuse of existing building stock, he says, using as an example his company’s recent decision to refurbish its three-story headquarters rather than constructing a new facility.

But 37% of respondents in the NBS survey cited regulation and a lack of government policy as key barriers to the reuse strategy. For example, there are many complicated specifications for certain types of buildings that make it difficult to adapt their use and to expand the function of short-term modular buildings—from the long-term transformation of office buildings and housing to singular examples like modifying a nightclub for use as a workspace during the day. 

Another area of focus is retrofitting old buildings to reduce their environmental impact—by adding windows, using new materials on their outside surfaces, and adapting their ventilation systems. Currently less than 1% of the world’s buildings are being retrofitted even though energy costs are skyrocketing, says Hélène Chartier, director of urban planning at C40 Cities, a global nonprofit that helps cities incentivize and develop sustainable architecture. Much of that depends on government incentives, such as the European Union’s recent move to devote $600 billion to retrofitting and President Biden’s infrastructure program, which includes funding for retrofitting initiatives. 

Sustainability: An evolving notion 

As the climate crisis grows more urgent, the very notion of sustainability has become a little dated, emphasizes Steinmuller, given that it hasn’t made much of an impact. It surfaced in architecture about 20 years ago and mostly referred to using better materials, “as in, ‘Let’s not take down the forests in the Amazon in order to get cool kitchen cabinets,’” she says. 

That led to LEED standards, which helped guide the construction of more energy-efficient government buildings and apartment complexes in dense urban environments but didn’t make headway in much of the U.S. And “it has not made its way into single-family residential,” she notes. 

Some architects are pursuing so-called regenerative architecture projects that aim to go beyond sustainability: net-zero–emissions buildings that use fewer resources and adapt to the environment.

Sustainability doesn’t go far enough, says Steinmuller and other experts who question the very idea of new construction: Maybe it’s better for the environment to not put up a new building. After all, no matter how energy-efficient a new building is, and how sustainable its materials are, it will never be as good for the environment as building nothing at all.

“Anything you do puts CO2 in the atmosphere,” says Steinmuller. “It raises the question—can’t we just reuse more?”

At the current rate of construction around the world, the equivalent of a New York City is being built every month, wrote Bill Gates in his book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster.

“Do we still need this amount of construction?” asks Chartier. She notes that demographic pressure has shrunk with falling birth rates in many countries, and that the remote work revolution has left the housing vacancy rate in France at twenty percent. 

“Now is the time to think differently about adaptive reuse—we demolished a large number of buildings that had no structural problems,” she says. “We didn’t build to last. It’s important to break this cycle.”

Indeed, that question has been propelled forward by the disruptions of the pandemic, which saw remote work become increasingly popular and the commercial real estate sector collapse as companies realized they didn’t need all that office space anymore. “With everyone working from home and the commercial real estate pullback, what if we use high-rise office towers to house the homeless?” Chartier asks.

The movement to reuse buildings also involves inventive deployment of new technology, such as cutting-edge research into facades that change in response to the environment and the weather, triggering building systems inside to operate more efficiently. In addition, new software for architects enables them to have a far more accurate picture of a building’s environmental impact—and to experiment virtually with different approaches. Sustainable materials are now more attainable, especially given the sharp increase in the cost of traditional materials such as plywood and steel. In addition to new materials like low-carbon concrete, there has been a resurgence in ancient methods of construction involving mud and brick that are more sustainable, says Chartier.

“It never feels quite like enough,” says Steinmuller. “It feels like we need to pull more levers.”

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.