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Why Climate Action Is a Business Imperative 

Banfield Pet Hospital. Image © Gensler/ Ryan Gobuty.

This post is part of a series in which we look at the critical role that the architecture and design play in global efforts to address climate change. For more on the research behind it, take a look at our Impact by Design report.

The architecture and design community has a lot of virtues—we are a creative, thoughtful and entrepreneurial bunch. Most us are also genuinely focused on using our work to make a positive impact for our clients, our communities and our broader world. Just like any other industry, however, architects and designers can be guilty of short-term thinking, and this is especially true when it comes to climate action. Working through organizations like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the World Green Building Council (World GBC), the industry has set some laudable goals in terms of lowering the environmental impact of our work, but we have failed to set the standards needed to reach them. These goals include achieving carbon neutrality in the design for all new building and interiors projects by 2030, and achieving carbon neutrality in the design for all new and existing buildings before 2050.

There are many challenges associated with reaching these industry benchmarks, but the most far-reaching issue to this point has been that sustainability has historically been looked upon as a social issue for the industry, and has not moved from the margins to become a central business concern for most practicing architects. In the rush to meet deadlines, keep costs low, win new work and maintain the competitiveness of our proposals, sustainability is often one of the first corners we all feel pressured to cut. This short-termism is a mistake for the industry and the planet, and it’s something we need to correct.

Charter Communications National Center West. Image © David Lauer Photography.

The problem with this way of thinking is that it seriously understates the impact of inaction at every level, especially when it comes to the built environment. This is especially true for architects, who working closely with engineers and other partners across the AEC industry, have influence over the global buildings sector which we know is responsible for 35 percent of global energy use and one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. And individual buildings make a huge impact. Every one of our building or interiors project counts—each of our designs has a lifetime of impact.

This is one of the central insights of Gensler’s Impact by Design 2017 report, which shows how a single data center like Charter Communications National Center West in Centennial, Colorado is designed to save 1,312 metric tons of carbon pollution every year (the equivalent of 1,400,250 pounds of coal) from being burned every year through making a very manageable 25 percent reduction in energy use.

Or take Banfield Pet Hospital’s headquarters in Vancouver, Washington, which saved 750 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere just through recycling construction waste; or the Westin Hotel & Transit Center in Denver that is designed to save a massive 4,556 metric tons of CO2 each year compared to a similar project designed in 2003 based on its energy and water efficiency design focus. It would take a single individual decades—or even a lifetime—to have the same environmental impact as these projects do every year.

The Westin Denver International Airport Hotel & Transit Center. Image © Scott Frances.

As architects and designers, we don’t need to be working on a project like the Shanghai Tower (which saved approximately 60,000 metric tons of CO2 with an innovative design reducing the amount of structural steel that was needed for the project) to make a huge impact. Every project, from a corporate campus to a 5,000-square-foot commercial interiors project is going to be used by tens, hundreds or even thousands of people every day for many years. Every project is an opportunity to make an impact. Every project matters.

Stepping up our commitment to climate action

As a firm, Gensler has been steadily increasing our focus on climate action. An original signatory of the AIA’s 2030 Commitment, we have been reporting the energy performance of all of our projects every year since 2009. The AIA has in turn published the combined energy use data of every member that is participating in the Commitment each year to show the American architecture’s community to reaching our goal of getting every new building and interiors project to net-zero energy (the industry’s term of art for carbon neutrality) by 2030.

Based on our estimates, Gensler is contributing roughly 40 percent of all of the data collected by the AIA each year. We urge the broader American architecture community, which designs as much as 10 billion square feet of space each year in the U.S. alone (Gensler designs about 1 billion square feet each year, globally), to fully measure the environmental impact of its work. This is an essential first step in making the improvements necessary to reach carbon neutrality. As the largest architecture and design firm in the world, Gensler is committed to creating a global buildings sector that is part of the solution to climate change, and we are leveraging our position in the industry to make this happen.

I was part of the team that Gensler sent to Paris in December 2015 to observe the U.N. negotiations that eventually led to the Paris Agreement, where it became clear to our leadership that the entire industry has to become more engaged in the global conversations surrounding climate change adaptation and mitigation. This is why Gensler signed the Paris Pledge for Action, committing to helping the international community limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius regardless of what national governments around the world do. This commitment also led the firm to publish our first Impact through Design report documenting the performance of every project Gensler completed in 2014, and projecting their 15-year environmental impact.

Policymakers, businesses and NGOs around the world are trying to come up with actionable solutions that can make our cities, neighborhoods and organizations more sustainable, and the architecture and design community has an opportunity to lead these conversations. We can create a model for the industry that makes economic and environmental sense, guiding market forces and local regulators in a direction that will alleviate some of the cost concerns associated with incorporating sustainability into every building we design. This will not happen if we as architects remain passive spectators, we have to speak up.

This is why our leadership decided that publishing our data anonymously through the AIA isn’t enough anymore. We are increasing our level of transparency by completing an annual report on the firm’s sustainability (our Impact by Design series), and joining the global conversation on climate action through sponsoring major international events like Climate Week NYC.

Some of this shift is pragmatic, since we recognize that failing to take a stand now leaves us exposed to significant competitive disadvantages in the future. Everyday new ground is being broken around the world as momentum builds for transitioning to a more sustainable economic and social model. The International Energy Agency announced in March that global carbon emissions have, for the first time, stayed flat or fallen during three consecutive years of global economic growth. Meanwhile, governments around the world including the U.K., France, China and India have all announced that they are phasing out fossil fuel consuming cars between 2030 and 2040, and more and more regional, national, state and local governments are mandating that all buildings become carbon neutral. The list is impressive and growing, including each of the following:

  • Japan has established a national goal that all buildings reach net-zero energy by 2020.
  • California has mandated that all new residential buildings achieve net-zero energy by 2020, and all buildings reach net-zero energy by 2030.
  • The European Commission has mandated that all new buildings reach near net-zero energy by 2020, a standard applying to 21 countries within the current Eurozone.
  • The U.S. Federal Government’s Executive Order 13514 requires all federal buildings to reach net-zero energy by 2030.

These trends are not ambiguous. They speak to the growing recognition of stakeholders around the world that the time is now for us to take climate action seriously. Failure to act means risking the long-term health and security of your business as well as your planet. We hope that in doing everything we can to increase our commitment to these issues, we inspire the rest of our industry to do the same. The time for action is now, and this becomes clearer and clearer every day.

Rives Taylor is an architect and educator in the wilds of Texas. As principal at Gensler, a leading global design firm, he helps lead the firm’s sustainable design practice. In his spare time, he lectures as an adjunct professor at the University of Houston and serves as a visiting Professor at Rice University, teaching architecture and sustainable design. Currently he’s working with the City of Houston and other cities to develop more livable neighborhoods and sustainable water management strategies that support growing urban areas. Contact him at rives_taylor@gensler.com.