So, we’ve declared a climate and biodiversity emergency. Where to from here?

It is up to the architects of today to design in a way that will save the Earth. Stephen Choi of the Living Future Institute of Australia outlines how this can be achieved at the most practical level – from deepening our understanding of human behaviour to uniting disconnected habitats and building in resilience.

Introduction: what to do in an emergency

The main pressures facing the Australian environment today are the same as they have been for years: climate change, land-use change, habitat fragmentation and degradation, and invasive species.1 In 2016, almost silently, the Bramble Cay melomys ( Melomys rubicola ) was the first mammal in global history to become extinct because of sea-level rises caused by human-made climate change – and it happened right here in Australia.

In 2018, the World Green Building Council (WorldGBC) called on public and private sectors “to reach net zero operating emissions … by 2030, and to advocate for all buildings to be net zero carbon in operation by 2050.”2 In 2019, hundreds of Australian architects followed the lead of UK-based architecture firms by forming Architects Declare and declaring a “climate and biodiversity emergency,” acknowledging that buildings and construction play a major part in breaching the earth’s ecological boundaries.3

Isn’t this something for future architects to worry about? The answer is a resounding no, for two reasons: firstly, the WorldGBC’s commitment is woefully inadequate. To use an analogy, if a patient is brought by ambulance to the emergency department of a hospital having lost two limbs minutes before, the receiving medical team wouldn’t say: “Let’s try to stop around half of the blood loss and let’s give ourselves three weeks.” Real crises require an emergency response. Secondly, almost all of the buildings being built today will still be operating in 2050, at a time when we definitely need to be at net-zero emissions.

All signatories of Architects Declare have committed to strengthening their working practices to create architecture and urbanism that has a more positive impact on the world around us. The key question is: how?

Upskill, quickly

The foundational knowledge is what I call carbon and biodiversity literacy. What do these terms actually mean?

By carbon, I really mean carbon dioxide or equivalent greenhouse gases. Like all currencies, carbon has a time-value in that immediate emissions reductions are critical because reductions now have more value than reductions in the future. In 2013, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ran a number of emissions scenarios and only one of those scenarios kept global warming below the dangerous tipping point of 2°C. That scenario had emissions peaking by 2020 and, already, that 2°C figure has been deemed optimistic.4 We must therefore account for both the emissions released once a building is in operation and the embodied carbon emitted by the extraction, manufacture, transportation, assembly, maintenance, replacement, deconstruction, disposal and end-of-life aspects of building in the first place. Despite being currently unregulated, the proportional impact of carbon-intensive materials will overtake that of operational carbon in the near future.

Biodiversity is a very broad term coined only in 1985 to describe the variety of life on Earth, in all its forms and all its interactions. It represents the traits adopted by species evolving over millions of years that allow them to survive through immeasurably variable environmental conditions. This biodiversity, if undamaged, produces a finely balanced and healthy system that also enables our own survival. For our industry, losing wilderness for buildings not only threatens biodiversity but also threatens food supplies, degrades soil and creates pollution. The loss of biodiversity may be a greater threat to humanity than climate change, given that some disruptions to the climate are hopefully manageable, but the extinction of species is forever irreversible. Architects must have a deeper understanding of the sites on which they work: there is no one solution, because responses must always be context-specific.

Add layers to the existing skill set

To address embodied carbon, an applied understanding of how to calculate lifetime embodied carbon is necessary. There are several life cycle assessment tools available online, including ones that cover the use of Building Information Modelling, but here are some pointers:

  1. Define the “boundaries” for any assessment, such as cradle-to-gate or cradle-to-grave
  2. Begin with a simple calculation by multiplying the quantity of materials needed for the building’s lifetime by the carbon factor (expressed in kilograms of carbon per kilogram of material/product)
  3. Source solid data. It’s also helpful to share data with others to improve the size and robustness of the industry dataset
  4. Without doing a full embodied carbon study, architects can still identify a handful of the most significant cost-effective opportunities to reduce embodied carbon by:
  1. questioning whether a new building is actually needed
  2. designing out waste
  3. being in the market for salvaged materials
  4. making conscious material selections, or considering the “materials palette” before designing.

I deliberately haven’t argued for one material over another here, partially because it is so context-specific, but mostly because this is an invitation for architects to explore and debate.

To address operational carbon, architects should focus on thermal and electrical energy. The energy hierarchy – in priority order – is simple: avoid using it if possible, reduce the demand for what is required, deliver what is required efficiently, generate through renewable technologies and, only then, offset the remaining carbon. Some thoughts:

  1. Understand the macro and micro environment (beyond whimsical arrows-on-drawings showing hopeful airflows!) to determine how to work with the site and understand its “carrying capacity”
  2. Design attractive options for low-carbon travel, whether at single building scale or in urban design
  3. Without having to study fluid dynamics, increase knowledge of thermal energy simply by studying building detailing (see, for example, UK-based LABC Registered Construction Details) and allowing space for higher-performing building envelopes*
  4. Utilize modelling to incorporate daylight and passive heating and cooling (including thermal mass)*
  5. Explore opportunities for integrating food-growing
  6. Carefully specify any energy-using equipment, including controls, electric lighting, hot-water fixtures and refrigeration, and consider zoning spaces to contain energy demands
  7. Explore renewables
  8. Offset remaining carbon using certified providers.

*A win-win approach may be to hire graduates who have already learnt these skills.

Start with your own place of work. How much energy is being used? What is the carbon intensity of that energy supply? Where can it be reduced, delivered more efficiently or met by renewables? And, after assessing all of these, offset the carbon and/or use 100 percent green power.

Remember that buildings don’t actually use energy, people do. It’s therefore necessary to understand peoples’ behaviour through post-occupancy and building performance evaluation – several established templates exist for this.

To address biodiversity, we must acknowledge that architects have enormous impacts on ecosystems through the decisions we make about how buildings interact with what is outside of them, material use, resource use, and pollution to air and water. While it is difficult to consider elements in isolation, there are a number of fundamental approaches:

  1. Study surveys as part of design processes to establish an “ecological baseline” on which to improve
  2. Promote the integration of ecologists within project teams
  3. Unite disconnected habitats, wild space and green corridors
  4. Look to accommodate existing and new flora and fauna in projects – could the project actually help to restore habitats and re-establish species?
  5. Consider every face of a building to be a biodiversity supporter or detractor
  6. Understand biophilic design as a precursor to caring for biodiversity and learn its attributes and patterns.5

In addition, resilience to future changes in climate are necessary ways to reduce risk. Some essentials:

  1. Design for x years’ time. Look at climate projections and factor in how much hotter or wetter the climate might be in the future
  2. Understand that all buildings are temporal. Estimate how temporal each of the components are and accommodate predictable future changes that the building and its components might undergo
  3. Build in resilience by encouraging spatial and structural flexibility – a “loose fit”
  4. Design for disassembly.

What if every single act of design made the world a better place?6

With imagination and determination, our buildings can be designed and constructed to function as elegantly and efficiently as nature’s architecture: informed by its bioregion’s characteristics, able to exist using only clean energy and being part of a regenerative journey for ecosystems. This is a fundamental reframing that addresses the current emergencies and doesn’t make the problems within those emergencies bigger. Returning to the medical analogy, this doesn’t have to be about just slowing the blood loss; it could be about stopping the loss entirely and then nursing the patient – our planet – back to health.

Many of us struggle with the reality of having higher (or different!) aspirations to our clients. The climate and biodiversity emergency presents an unprecedented opportunity to use a carrot and stick approach: regenerative buildings are always better buildings than those that are business-as-usual. At the time of writing, one-third of the population of Australia resides in a local government area that has declared a climate emergency.7 Pressure can be applied in the urban planning process to this effect.

We must upskill, inspire others and take the power back. After all, architects have always been the ones with the bigger picture in mind.

Stephen Choi is the winner of the Australian Institute of Architects’ 2020 Leadership in Sustainability Prize.

See more of the dossier on the climate and biodiversity emergency in the May/June issue of Architecture Australia.

1. Australia State of the Environment 2016 , November 2016, soe.environment.gov.au (accessed 9 March 2020).

2. World Green Building Council, The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, 13 September 2018, worldgbc.org/thecommitment (accessed 9 March 2020).

3. Architects Declare Australia, au.architectsdeclare.com (accessed 9 March 2020).

4. United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate change 2013: The physical science basis , ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/ (accessed 9 March 2020).

5. See the International Living Future Institute, Biophilic design guidebook, June 2018, living-future.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/18-0605_Biophilic-Design-Guidebook.pdf (accessed 9 March 2020)

6. This is the focus of the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge 4.0 performance standard. See living-future.org/lbc/ (accessed 9 March 2020).

7. “Climate emergency declarations in 1,432 jurisdictions and local governments cover 820 million citizens,” Climate Emergency Declaration website, 28 February 2020. The article states that in Australia “close to 100 jurisdictions representing 8 million people – a third of the population – have declared a climate emergency.” climateemergencydeclaration.org/climate-emergency-declarations-cover-15-million-citizens/ (accessed 9 March 2020).

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Published online: 15 May 2020
Words: Stephen Choi

Issue

Architecture Australia, May 2020

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