An evolving list of strategies to inspire design to take back our climate.
Can manufactured wood products be part of the climate solution?
The manufacturing of wood-based building products does generate some carbon emissions, but that energy carbon is dwarfed by the amount of carbon dioxide that trees breathe into the cell structure of their trunk, branches, leaves and roots.
Not all trees are created equal though, Pines are near the top of the list followed by other conifers which most of us know by the name of Douglas Firs used in construction, followed by Oaks and other species.
Introducing more wood into buildings and interiors alone is not the solution. We need to explore new ways to introduce wood in a manner that takes the place of other carbon causing products we might have otherwise used.
We also need to make sure we continue to source wood responsibly and start creating carbon positive forests where we replant more than we take so that we can become part of the regenerative solution in the larger ecosystem.
Embracing Mobility as a Vehicle for Change
Emerging forms of mobility are reshaping a new pedestrian age. We need to embrace mobility as a design opportunity to create multi-modal, vibrant streets to make transportation part of the climate solution.
Think of it as The Jetsons, but real; only without flying cars; or cheesy jokes; and no catchy theme song. Actually, it’s nothing like The Jetsons.
Our planet has a finite set of resources, and more waste than we’d like to admit does not get recycled effectively. The greater density and shared infrastructure of cities can significantly improve resource use and reduce waste while improving the human experience. To achieve this we need to make a deliberate effort to start honoring natural materials.
It is imperative that we develop strategies to improve the performance of our existing buildings without tearing them down. It takes approximately 20-30 years of a typical building’s operations to equate the same amount of energy usage required to create buildings from a materials and construction perspective, and upwards of 80 years for the additional energy of a high performing building to make up for the impact of having built it in the first place.
The Cool Roof Dis-solution
If you’ve visited a suburban retail center, work in an office park, or walk your dog in the city, you’ve experienced a microcosm of the heat island effect.
Cities are getting better at requiring cool roof surfaces, but is it enough? Color plays an important role in the absorption of the sun’s radiation and the associated mass contributes to the heat that can be stored and radiated back into the atmosphere. Light colored cool roofs help by reflecting the heat load away from its surface.
The cool roof, while better for the building, is possibly having the same impact on the #environment as the superheated black tar roofing systems it replaced. Instead of retaining that heat to release it slowly over time, the sun’s rays are reflected, double-baking the air over buildings and contributing to global warming.
The first law of thermodynamics, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, reminds us that energy cannot be created or destroyed. With this in mind the next evolution of rooftop surfacing should be to explore something we’ve known about for a long time; vegetated roofs. By installing plant life on rooftops we’re giving that energy a place to be absorbed and utilized in a manner that contributes incrementally towards positive climate actions.
The Lost Art of Envelope Efficiency
Building envelopes regulate comfort between interior conditioned spaces and the outside world. Heat escapes through the envelope in winter while the sun’s radiant effects impact cooling loads in the summer. While designers tend to focus on the thermal resistance of building skins to address efficiency, an often overlooked aspect to improve performance is form. More specifically the surface area of the exterior envelope. Generally speaking, as building footprint shifts from rectangle to square to octagon to circle, the surface area to building volume decreases. Surface area efficiency improves further as the number of stories increases. Optimizing surface area increases building efficiency from external loads and contributes to reduced carbon emissions to help us set our climate back on the right path.
New Applications for Old Ideas
Windmills evolved from structures that ground grain and cut wood into the towering current day structures that generate energy. As turbines continue to diminish in size, they become desirable solutions for designers to consider in building envelopes that interact with their local climate in a positive manner.
The Future Building is Already Built
The relationship between our climate and urban centers is rapidly evolving. The challenge for designers is to understand the most efficient and cost-effective ways to use available technologies. Façade design is one example where performance, technology, and code changes come together to positively impact the environment; and our first targets in this endeavor should be existing building stock, where the vast majority of our energy consumption originates.
Opportunities are limitless if you question not where the boundary is, but why it’s there. Building tenants can choose to look beyond the traditional lease boundary and in doing so find innovative ways to foster meaningful impact. Would you choose to upgrade a base building system that serves more than your space? What if that meant you’d never have to pay for monthly utilities in exchange? Think the return on investment won’t pencil out? Think again, you may see a return faster than you imagined. This tenant suite in Los Angeles is looking beyond energy independence to regenerative efforts by producing nearly three times the energy they need with an innovative waste heat recovery approach.
Answering to a Higher Purpose
By definition volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are mixtures of more than one chemical, where one of the elements is carbon which is something we’re working very hard to sequester from the environment. The best course of action is to generate less of it or eliminate it completely at the source. Something as significant as structural steel coatings should be considered in this vein as it will have the largest impact on the open site. VOC emissions at this scale react with sunlight and nitrogen oxides in the atmosphere to form a ground level ozone, a chemical that has a detrimental effect on worker health and the local ecosystem
When integrating water into site design features, consider on-site sources before defaulting to local utilities. Sites with multiple touch points can leverage these elements such that one features discharge is another’s intake to create closed-loop systems.
Defining the Condition
When the air is clean, you need a building that breathes, when the air is not, you need a building that filters. How will your design shift when the climate shifts around you?
True Office Expansion
In the right climate, outdoor spaces make for great ancillary meeting areas for everyday use. Expand your office space boundary to include these spaces as part of the program to help reduce the need for conditioned space inside the building. Elisa Escondrillas and Francisco Gonzalez de Salceda from our Gensler Mexico City office advocate for moves like this to help us shift our culture of consumption in a way that provides a desirable amenity today in line with our long term vision to take back our climate.
Dis-conditioned spaces embraces the idea of moving stairs outside to relieve the need for heating and cooling them in a manner that creates an improved experience for office space users. Individual front doors for tenants occupying upper floors of office buildings
Look for simple, cost-effective methods to reduce your energy budget. Moving stairs outside eliminates the need to heat and cool these spaces and can make a sculptural statement on the exterior.
Insulating Against Climate Shift
Building skins don’t have to be thought of as static things. Introducing permeability opens buildings up to let in fresh air when conditions are right. A building can operate in a state of zero energy heating and cooling demand, generally throughout the shoulder seasons, for about one third to half of the year depending on the current climate zone. Architects still need to evaluate how the existing building stock will perform should climate change start shifting climate zones in the coming years, but a shifting skin can theoretically make a transition like this easier.
Space Planning for Consumption
Rethinking office space layout can transition circulation corridors from the core to the perimeter. Less light is needed for walking than for focused tasks so this culture shift can push your first row of light fixtures as much as 15 feet away from the building perimeter. If your municipality requires daylight responsive controls in that zone, you’ve just saved your client first cost budget dollars for the removal of integrated wiring and controls from project scope that will also no longer suck down vampire load to operate. Every little action helps supports larger climate change impacts
Opportunity is everywhere when you embrace the idea of tweaking the circumstances. While costs are improving incrementally over time, rooftop solar still carries a significant first cost on projects pursuing New Zero Energy. Most commercial buildings have an available roof area that is much less than it’s usable space. This unique condition illustrates an office space with a greater roof area than conditioned space. This creates an opportunity to employ a less efficient rooftop solar array that is right sized to the energy demands of the project and the owners pocket. A key factor in that cost is the energy generation intensity of the system.
Why Shielding is Critical
Exterior shading is much more effective at reducing skin load than interior shades. Once that radiation makes it past the glass, the excess heat load has already won the battle.
Striving for Balance
More glass means great views and natural light — but also more heat. Reducing the exterior glass surface might lower cooling needs but require more energy-consuming artificial lighting. Architects strive to find a balance between these competing elements.
Leveraging Program Efficiency
Certain building types come with a built-in program opportunity to mitigate heat loads. Balcony spaces in residential towers provide free shading to the floors below.
If building orientation is restricted by the site, implementing subtle shifts within a forced plane can quickly turn into a dramatic and iconic climate positive solution.