Opinion: How can architects meaningfully contribute to net zero?

Co-founder of Hong Kong based design practice Lead8 Simon Chua has extensive experience in international design projects with a focus on transport and entertainment. Here he considers what decarbonisation means for architects today.

by Simon Chua 06 September 2023

The World Green Building Council has reported that the building sector is responsible for 36% of energy consumption and 38% of energy-related carbon emissions globally. They expect this footprint to double by 2060. As the architects of large-scale buildings, the tools and strategies available will determine how effectively we can respond to the challenge of reducing this impact.

As many of us know, being an early adopter can be risky, and incentives can help to balance the gamble and cost involved in setting a new direction. If we look at one of the global leaders in creating and maintaining a sustainable building stock, Singapore is charting a path that should serve as an inspiration for what is possible.

The Singaporean government has been working on its sustainable development goals for years. In 2005, they launched the Green Mark certification scheme, a reward system that encourages developers to strive for the highest green building certifications in return for incentives, perhaps the strongest of which is gross floor area bonuses for their schemes. To meet these standards, developers are adopting strategies to decarbonise, and are awarded for doing so.

To achieve a wide-scale shift and meaningful change, government-led regulations can entice and influence developers to make the leap. This focus then flows down to open possibilities for designers and architects appointed by the developers. If there is a guideline established for the industry we can all begin to move in a new direction together – reducing the disconnect between aspiration and feasibility.

The building industry is concerned with two forms of emissions. The first is operational carbon, the total energy used to keep our buildings powered. Fortunately, we can continue to evolve and add renewable energy sources to offset a development’s carbon cost. With investment into renewable energy now overtaking those into fossil fuels globally, we can confidently say there is a significant drive and collective commitment to decarbonise our energy sources.

Embodied carbon is where we need to do more work. Building materials contain embodied carbon, and what we choose to build our developments with at the outset will carry a carbon cost throughout the lifespan of the building. Reusing original materials and extending the life of our buildings helps to achieve lower carbon footprints – and we are seeing wonderful work being done in the regeneration and adaptive re-use space already.

Can we encourage alteration and upgrades to our existing buildings over demolition on an even larger scale? Imagine the cultural significance and value to our cities. How do we get the commitment to design and build assets with a lifespan of 100 years, instead of 40, so they can facilitate many more uses over longer periods of time? Architects and designers are ready to meet the challenge, but it comes with higher investments for developers and owners.

Research and development into greener building materials is also key to reducing embodied carbon. There is already a wide range of products designed to meet these needs, however, cost, access, shortages and delays can hinder their adoption. Green steel, for example, could reduce embodied carbon in commercial buildings as much as 70% by 2030, according to McKinsey. How can we enhance access to, and supply of, these materials to bring them into the mainstream?

There is still much to be discovered, learnt, and adopted in the pursuit of decarbonisation. We must ensure that discussion, knowledge sharing, education and corporate governance continue expanding across our industry and all disciplines, business types and generations.

Collaboration will be the key, from governments to developers, designers, engineers, builders, manufacturers, and educators. We all play a role in driving change and moving towards a future that we can all be proud of; and a future where architecture and design can meet its full potential to reduce our impact.



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