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Can architecture and design be part of a global climate change strategy?

Research Project Name

Impact through Design

What We Did

We reviewed and analyzed published data on the building sector’s contribution to climate change, and audited Gensler’s building portfolio to understand overall project performance and develop specific sustainability benchmarks. We used data-informed statistical models to measure energy savings, greenhouse gas emissions, and aggregate water savings for projects that were designed to high–performance standards, versus the national Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS) baseline. We used these results to estimate the impact the global buildings sector could have in mitigating climate change, and identify additional steps architects can take to positively impact its effects.

The Context

Climate change threatens our ability—and the ability of future generations—to live in a peaceful and prosperous world. According to NASA reports, the earth’s surface has warmed significantly since 1880. Most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s, with the 20 warmest years on record having occurred since 1981, and 10 of the warmest years occurring in the past 12. Additionally, the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) reports that global upper ocean heat is rising, snow cover is retreating, glacier volume is shrinking, and climate extremes and storm intensities are increasing.

The global buildings sector is responsible for more than one–third of global energy use and CO2 emissions. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates buildings must drop total emissions by 77 percent by 2050 to cap global temperature rise at 2° Celsius, the best-case scenario for planetary surface temperature rise. We believe that it is important to elevate the conversation about the connections between climate change and the built environment, and we are focusing our attention on the power of design to create dynamic new models of energy usage, urban density, potable water conservation, and sustainable economies.

The Results

Sustainable building design solutions are already having an enormous impact. In 2014, Gensler’s new building projects alone spanned 820 million square feet and were designed to use approximately 81.1 kBtus of energy per square foot per year—a 32 percent improvement over the U.S. national average. For the same period, Gensler’s commercial interiors portfolio spanned 469 million square feet and was designed to use approximately 0.82 watts per square foot for lighting—a 23 percent improvement over the U.S. national average. At that scale, these energy savings represent a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by designing buildings to exceed code requirements.

The next generation of high-performance buildings can do even better. If we designed every project at the efficiency achieved by those performing in the top 20 percent of our portfolio, we could double our impact and achieve a net reduction of approximately 8 million metric tons of CO2 emissions a year. Compounded annually until 2030, this would equal more than 102 million tons of CO2 saved from the atmosphere. Over 15 years, the emissions savings would be equal to permanently removing 6 percent of U.S. power plants from the grid.

Green building strategies are proven economic drivers. The green building industry has shown encouraging growth, reaching a reported $260 billion globally in 2013. It is predicted that as much as $1 trillion will be spent on sustainable retrofits for existing buildings over the next 10 years. Even with this growth, green buildings continue to make up a small fraction of the total building stock in highly industrialized, wealthy nations.

What This Means

Measurable impact requires a higher standard and broader scale.

Architectural designers, planners, and engineers around the world need to deliver effective solutions to climate change–related phenomenon to ensure we are doing everything in our power to reduce energy demand, improve water savings, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions stemming from the built environment.

To achieve this, we must pursue design partnerships with engineers and clients who share and advance our commitment to reducing operational energy demand supported by our designs. We must design and specify building materials that consume less energy, beginning when and where they are made, and continuing through maintenance and the full building life cycle. We identified six key strategies we believe can make a significant impact:

1. Energy Reduction: Initiate energy conversations with clients at the onset of the design process, document client energy targets, and track those targets to stay honest.

2. Innovative Partnerships: Form industry-leading teams of engineers and consultants who are able to execute energy models and simulations, and leverage these models for decision making.

3. Material Selection: Before choosing materials, analyze their life cycle and embodied energy to inform discussions with clients, and encourage the selection of sustainable materials.

4. Informed Commissioning: Coach clients to commission their projects and building systems appropriately to align with building operations and energy-use targets.

5. Inclusive Decision-Making: Encourage building operators to be stakeholders in the design process to build understanding and awareness of energy goals, and ensure operators have the tools needed to track those goals.

6. Post-Occupancy Evaluation: Promote post-occupancy evaluations for all projects. These conversations are another opportunity to work with building owners and occupiers to fine-tune and calibrate projects for the highest performance.

What’s Next?

We will be working closely with our clients in the coming years to evaluate their global real estate portfolios and develop strategies for meeting their own sustainability and climate change impact goals. We have affirmed our commitment to limiting global temperature rise to under 2° Celsius by signing the Paris Pledge for Action, a critical step on the path to solving climate change. We pledge our support to ensuring that the level of ambition set by the agreement is met or exceeded.

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Diane Hoskins, Christopher Gray, Rives Taylor, Anthony Brower, Carlos Cubillos, Melody Gillezeau, Vernon Mays, Katie Mesia, Ian Mulcahey, Julie Obiala, Leah Ray, Elizabeth Snowden

Year Completed