September 10, 2019, The Verge: “Burned areas of the Amazon could take centuries to fully recover”
October 18, 2019, USA TODAY: “The Amazon hasn’t stopped burning. There were 19,925 fire outbreaks last month, and ‘more fires’ are in the future”
November 13, 2019, BBC News: “Venice floods: Climate change behind highest tide in 50 years, says the mayor”
November 27, 2019, National Geographic: “Climate change driving the entire planet to the dangerous tipping point”
January 9, 2020, The Japan Times: “Amazon forest fires rose 30% in 2019”
April 15, 2020, BBC News: “Climate change: Blue skies pushed Greenland ‘into the red’”
April 16, 2020, Reuters: “Rising seas could make U.S. coastal flooding a daily peril by 2100”
April 21, 2020, The Guardian: “Summer’s bushfires released more carbon dioxide than Australia does in a year”
April 22, 2020, The Wall Street Journal: “Amazon Deforestation Accelerates as Coronavirus Pandemic Hinders Enforcement”
April 22, 2020, BBC News: “Climate change: 2019 was Europe’s warmest year on record”
April 27, 2020, The Guardian: “Meteorologists say 2020 on course to be the hottest year since records began”
April 28, 2020, World Economic Forum: “The climate and COVID-19: a convergence of crises”
Do these headlines make your heartbeat just a little faster? Do you feel a sense of rising panic?
It is an irrefutable fact that we have- through sheer carelessness and lack of responsibility- brought these problems upon ourselves. Climate change is not an Op-ed piece in the local newspaper, a matter of opinion, or up for debate. It is real, it is snowballing and it is dangerous. Still not concerned? Well, these headlines are just the tip of the iceberg; the damage goes deeper, much deeper.
It is no secret that environmentally speaking, the last couple of years haven’t been great. Climate change and global warming are no new terms. In recent years, they have been subjects of concern, urgent matters. The alarming rate at which it’s spiking is a cause for concern and we are in no position to ignore it any longer.
The COVID-19 may be one of the greatest global calamities since World War II but following in its wake, in relatively quiet, are small rays of hope. The Earth is slowly showing signs of healing, ecosystems are attempting to rebuild. Venice’s flooding canals are not only experiencing healthier and cleaner water levels but have also seen a return of local aquatic life. The deeply polluted Indian rivers- Yamuna and Ganga, considered dying, are slowly reviving themselves. Such clear waters haven’t been sighted in years. The shutting down of industries for a month has done more than years of passive clean-up initiatives have. Overall, there is quite a bit of good news on the environmental front, not enough but a good start nonetheless. This is an indicator that proactive methods, although sometimes economically unfavorable, are the right way to go. Tough decisions yield results. It requires a conscious and sincere effort on everyone’s part. The building and construction industry is no different. Sustainability is of utmost importance and architects have a key role to play.
Collectively, the construction industry is responsible for almost half of all greenhouse gas emissions. As per a UN report, the building sector contributes to 39% of total energy-related CO2 emissions and 36% of final energy use. This puts the sector in an incredibly powerful position, enough to tip the scales either way. The implementation of lockdowns has significantly impacted the construction business, with many areas seeing a complete stand-still. Though the fight for the environment and sustainability has been a long, hard struggle, moments like these offer us leverage, a choice.
To resume all our former activities and practices after the containment of the virus, without change, could be the most disastrous choice of all. History has dictated that much. In 2008, the world was reeling from a major global recession. A post-recession world saw an incremental surge in emissions, from 8.6 billion tons in 2008 to 9.2 billion tons in 2009. With businesses hit with economic instability, a choice between money and sustainability was offered- money won, but at a cost. Instead of materials and resources which could lower carbon footprints and reduce environmental impact, those showing the best fiscal results were selected. Cheaper fossil fuels replaced alternative renewable resources. The quantity was favored over quality. To be fair, for small businesses on the brink of bankruptcy, neither choice was a fair one. This is where governments and multinational corporations come in. By offering financial incentives and resources, architects and engineers can be encouraged to push for sustainability and pioneer advancements in design and construction. Architecture is a multidisciplinary field and to truly make an impact, to create smart buildings, we must make tougher but smarter decisions. Bodies of power must make full use of their resources and leadership to push for smart designs and designers must strive to make it happen.
A good example of such a collaboration is the on-going project ‘Haut’ in Amsterdam. Team V Architecture’s winning proposal was one of the multiple entries, part of an architectural competition. The design features a 73 m, 21- storey hybrid timber and concrete high-rise building, designed to be able to store around 2,200 tonnes of CO2. Defying the stereotypical use of steel and concrete, the building is expected to be one of the tallest timber high rises. Low embodied energy and post-construction waste levels, coupled with flexibility, quality, and safety justify the use of timber. Founding partner and architect, Do Janne Vermeulen has attributed the win to the social consciousness of the selection panel- the municipality. In this case, sustainable architecture prevailed over financial bidding and bureaucracy. At the root of it, however, lies the architects’ dedication to sustainability, built on six principles: “build healthy, create active spaces, create high-quality public transport, build tall, do not demolish, build multi-functional buildings, engage & customize”. This is just one among several examples of sustainable design- an emergent, relevant trend.
As students of architecture, one of the first things we are taught is to respect the site. Always. Local materials and construction techniques, natural topography and its preservation, cultural influences, climatic impact– these are all things that must be integrated into designs, instinctively, not as an afterthought. As architects, it’s a principle to be put into practice. Sustainability is no longer a choice; it is a need, and the need must be met.