How the Built Environment Can Help the Climate Crisis

Cover image credit: Courtesy of Blackstation

by Anthony Brower

The recent report delivered to the United Nations by the International Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) paints a dire picture of what will happen to the world if global temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a threshold that scientists now believe could happen by 2040. Thousands of species will go extinct. Wildfires and food shortages will increase. Over 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs will disappear.

According to the report, the world may be able to avoid this level of catastrophe by reducing greenhouse pollution by 45 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. That’s an enormous undertaking. And while there are many ways to go about enacting this reduction, those of us in the design industry have an opportunity to make a positive and lasting impact on the built environment.

Luckily there are some simple steps we can take to help. Here are our top 5:

The most direct way designers can affect performance is through design itself – from decisions on location and orientation to questions of size, proportion and light.


Image Copyright: Gensler

1. The intersection of form and performance

Thankfully, the building industry is long past the point where the shape and look of buildings are governed by narrow aesthetic considerations. Now, building performance is the key driver of design. We now approach every project with plans to implement cutting-edge strategies for using less energy and minimizing water consumption. That said, we have lots of room to improve. Our buildings and cities will have to experiment with new climate responsive forms, and in many cases, the built environment will require dramatic shifts to achieve true resilience and continue working towards a carbon-neutral society.

Minimizing Energy Usage, and therefore operational carbon impacts, continues to be a major focus of resilience discussions. Comprehensive strategies focus not just on minimizing energy usage, but on offsetting energy needs with renewable sources.
Image Copyright: Gensler

2. Reducing energy consumption

One of the key takeaways from the IPCC report is the need to reduce the amount of energy we consume. For large structures, operational energy has by far the largest impact on the climate over time. Reducing our energy demand now will allow us to be selective in the low or zero carbon utility supply sources we need to pull the trigger on. It’s no secret that low carbon power generation isn’t inexpensive and not reducing our projected consumption will paint us into a very tight corner that might require we implement them all. That forced “choice” bears the bulk of the cost of carbon mitigation efforts.

Image Copyright: Gensler

3. Changing policy at the local and state level

We think city and state governments have a huge role to play in setting the standard for resilience. Today, building codes in some municipalities are making huge leaps forward in response to the imminent threat of climate change, and these leaps have vastly accelerated the pace of change and introduced a new normal. California is a prime example of this. The state is developing codes that will require all government buildings to drastically reduce emissions in several ways, the most impactful of which is a push toward Net Zero Energy buildings. This stringent mandate is heightening awareness of the importance of performance expectations.

4. Creating intelligent buildings

New sensor and network technologies are helping us create higher-performance buildings. Our spaces, buildings, and cities will learn to leverage real-time data about occupant behavior, air quality, and temperature and then be responsive to make buildings more efficient. This responsiveness will significantly reduce the amount of energy required to operate the built environment.

More energy is expended during the production of materials than at any other point during a projects lifecycle. Focusing on materials with a lower carbon impact, and re-using or recycling materials and entire buildings whenever possible, in imperative.
Image Copyright: Gensler

5. Addressing embodied carbon

We may be focused on reducing energy consumption in our finished buildings, but we can begin reducing our carbon footprint by selecting low-impact materials before construction even starts. From a macro perspective, this entails raising awareness of the benefits of alternative building materials like wood, which stores absorbed carbon and requires less energy to transport.

Another way we can cut down on carbon emissions from building materials is to simply improve and reuse existing buildings. If done correctly, the adaption of existing buildings can have a more positive impact on the environment than focusing solely on the performance engineering of new buildings. And clients can still change the look and use of an existing building. Significant design interventions can present a whole new character or experience for users without starting over. These “hacked” buildings can be the best of both worlds—they can preserve materials to reduce environmental impact while adjusting the building’s form to accommodate new use cases or operational realities.

Our impact on the environment is becoming an issue we can no longer ignore, and design has a responsibility to implement changes that will curb our impact sooner rather than later. We need to start considering changes to our carbon diet to ensure that we are not inadvertently putting an expiration date on the human race.


Published previously on
GenslerOn and Building Design + Construction

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