Building the change: Are those 4 walls around you to blame?

Did you know: The biggest effect on climate change could come from how we design and use our buildings?

Why are we talking about buildings?

“Most of the energy we consume and most of the carbon dioxide we release in the burning of fossil fuels ultimately comes from the way buildings are conceived and territories are occupied[1].” This was the opening speech for the recent Architecture congress in July ’16, which hosted architecture’s most prominent and leading designer, builders and thinkers such as Rem Koolhaas (OMA), Bjarke Ingels (BIG), Winy Maas (MVRDV) and more. This focus on architects and builders may be a surprise to many, as mainstream media and public awareness tend to focus heavily on agriculture or on the transportation industry.









What is the industry facing?

As architectural firms and building companies increase their focus on Sustainable or “Green” architecture, they are making a conscious decision to tackle climate change issues. As demand increases for comfortable indoor environmental quality, energy demands for building sector is expected to sharply rise[2], which makes sustainable design an even more challenging task.

On the other side, these companies are also catering to a shifting trend in demand and external guidance to the industry. On the consumer side more and more clients such as household owners, commercial companies and industrial players are, for various reasons and incentives, asking for “Greener” buildings. On the external guidance side, the incentives may come in the form of new regulation put in place to push corporations to change behaviors, such as the Kyoto Protocol enforcing nations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This trend essentially creates new markets, which introduces opportunities for growth in projects, new materials development and new design methodologies.

Are buildings changing?

As mentioned, leading firms have taken on the task both in the short term processes of planning and building and in the long term process of using. Many new projects are applying to and receiving LEED certifications, which is a building certification system to provide verification of improved energy efficiency performance. It is estimated that in 2015-2018 LEED certified buildings will save over 2 Billion US dollars in operating costs (including energy, maintenance, waste and water savings.)[3]

A case example right here on Harvard campus is the Harvard Law School’s Wasserstein Hall, Caspersen Student Center, Clinical Wing building (WCC), which has received the LEED-NC Gold certification. Some of the project’s highlights include: 95% of construction waste was recycled, a rainwater capture system, sensors to shut off ventilation when windows are open and Carbon Dioxide sensors adjusting ventilation according to room occupancy[4].

How are firms changing?

Architectural firms’ way of working has changed in the last few decades and new expertise is being brought into the design process. In an interview with architect Frank Gehry, he talks about the important collaboration between designers and the people innovating technology. Gehry’s firm worked closely with a company that makes concrete substitute, which reduces carbon footprint by 50%.[5] This holds great potential as the concrete industry produces an estimated 5% of global man made carbon dioxide emissions.[6] Projects’ priorities are also changing and communication with clients throughout the whole process constantly highlights sustainability issues, the benefits and challenges. Additionally, firms are developing greater accountability, for example MVRDV prominently show that their design methodology includes Sustainable Design as an important pillar.[7]

How can we do better?

In my experience, architectural design and building industry, are not among the fastest to pivot and adopt new technologies. To this end, many are calling and working towards greater external incentives and forcing mechanisms to accelerate impact on the planet’s health through building, such as increased regulations, monetary incentives and public awareness.

I strongly advocate for internal changes to architectural design firms and their processes as well. We need deeper expertise embedded within the process rather than simply consulted with. We need to incorporate LEED experts (or other standards) within the process and also in client communication. We also need to bring in operational efficiency experts to look at even broader topics such as sustainable procurement, efficient transport of materials and many more. This calls for a conceptual change in who we view as a part of the industry, which should be whoever can contribute to the solution. (793 words.)

Baluarte de Pamplona, June and July 2016

[2] A Study on the LEED Energy Simulation Process Using BIM, Han-Soo Ryu 1 and Kyung-Soon Park, Sustainability 2016, 8(2), 138

[3] U.S. Green Building Council site:

[4] Harvard University Sustainability site:

[5] PBS interview, Architect Frank Gehry talks LEED and the future of green building, by Abby Leonard, June 14, 2010

[6] The cement sustainability initiative – our agenda for action, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), July 2002

[7] MVRDV’s website:


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Student comments on Building the change: Are those 4 walls around you to blame?

  1. Great article, Amir! As your commentary makes clear, architectural choices and building design are critical components to fighting climate change. My question to you is the following: are sustainable building designs affordable enough for widespread adoption? It seems clear that deep-pocketed giants, like Google, can afford to make sustainable architecture choices. But, can small to medium-sized businesses really afford to do the same? How can we help drive adoption through lower cost architectural options?

  2. I enjoyed your post, particularly as it sheds light on an industry that isn’t as frequently addressed in relation to climate change. It was shocking to see those pie charts and to learn that U.S. energy consumption by the building industry is ~50% and CO2 emissions are ~45%. I would be interested to see the same data for the rest of the world and to see which countries or regions are excelling at reducing their environmental impact. It would be fascinating to examine the global leaders, in order to better understand what has successfully motivated them. What could we learn from them? Are these models we could transfer to the countries that lag? Or are there factors specific to their context (political, cultural, ecological)? In addition, you address changes that firms are making for the future, as they design new buildings, but what can be done about existing buildings to improve their footprint and impact? I imagine this is challenging to address, but could present a new and untapped market.

  3. Super interesting article, Amir! I also had no idea that buildings were such a substantial portion of CO2 emissions today. As I was reading this, two questions kind of struck me. For one, what do you think is the biggest barrier to greater LEED adoption in architectural development today? Is it just a matter of expertise, or are there other factors at play? And second, do you think there are any weaknesses or blind spots in how buildings are certified for LEED? I know from your post that LEED buildings have the potential to save $2B in energy and water expenditures, but from what I have experienced, some of those savings come influencing consumer behavior (e.g. I paid the water bill vs. the apartment building because they said passing on the bill was a component of their LEED certification). Do you think LEED goes far enough in requiring substantial changes to the actual design of buildings?

  4. I would never have guessed that concrete is responsible for ~5% of the global emissions of C02, Amir! Thank you for your eye-opening commentary on the impact of architectural design on climate change. As an architect, how would you assess architects’ overall willingness to incorporate sustainable solutions into their projects, especially when the most sustainable choice requires a trade-off in terms of aesthetics or functionality? You mention that architectural firms need to fully incorporate sustainability into their processes, as opposed to merely consulting with experts on environment. What steps would you recommend be implemented to that end? Would an academic curriculum review at architecture be a good way to ingrain a sustainability mindset among future generations of architects? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions.

  5. This article focused on the architecture industry’s role in material science innovations and design specifications, both to deliver sustainable goals through operational efficiency. Another part of the architecture which could be changed is, as you discussed, ‘sustainable procurement’. Often this focuses on the materials element, but not on the construction process itself. As more and more elements are built off-site, as more and more buildings are constructed through ‘kits’, this presents an opportunity for designers to embed sustainability from the very beginning.

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