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IPCC report paints damning portrait of architecture: Our buildings are ‘wrongly designed’

The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is here, and it outlines how buildings are one of the worst climate offenders—but there are solutions hiding in plain sight.

IPCC report paints damning portrait of architecture: Our buildings are ‘wrongly designed’
[Images: xia yuan/Getty Images, IR_Stone/iStock/Getty Images Plus]

Here’s a sobering fact: The building sector is dragging down global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

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Yamina Saheb

According to Yamina Saheb, lead author of a new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), policies that favor wasteful new construction, and do little to encourage environmentally minded retrofits, have hindered the building industry’s ability to curb its footprint. The report, which was written by more than 270 researchers who were convened by the United Nations in 2019, states that global emissions from buildings reached 12 gigatons that year, or 21% of global emissions worldwide. Some estimates show that percentage to have almost doubled since.

It’s all the more unsettling since many individual architects have striven to reduce their carbon emissions over the past decade, through efforts, such as reviving 50-year-old buildings or using bricks made of recycled waste. But the report highlights the need for larger-scale efforts like changing zoning laws to ban new single-family homes and offering stronger incentives for retrofits.

How did we get here?

Between 1990 and 2019, emissions from buildings increased by a whopping 50%. According to Saheb, this is partly driven by the increase in the size of our homes—especially in the global north, where the space per person is now six times greater than it is in the south. Experts used to blame raised carbon emissions on population increases, but in reality, that’s only responsible for 26%. By comparison, the increased floor-area-per-person caused 52% more carbon emissions.

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And as homes are getting bigger, the number of people living in them is actually shrinking, says Saheb, citing her own parent as an example: “My mother’s flat has a central heating system, she’s alone in her flat; but she can’t heat only the rooms she uses, so she heats the whole flat.”

This is a common problem in Western buildings—and a major design flaw. “Each time you have a heating or cooling system that consumes energy, this means the building was wrongly designed,” she says. “A good building is a building that doesn’t need an active heating and cooling system.”

Saheb says that architects would benefit from better training on climate issues, but ultimately it all comes down to a lack of regulations. In the EU, every new building has to be zero carbon, and the same goes for U.S. cities, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. But the policy doesn’t extend to retrofits, which Saheb says is key to reducing carbon emissions, in part because they represent the bulk of our building stock. Ithaca, New York, remains the only American city tackling decarbonization at a citywide level— including retrofits—with support from BlocPower, a company that is on a mission to electrify every building in the U.S., and is one of the winners of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies of 2022.

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What do we do next?

There are several ways the built environment can reduce its emissions. For one, Saheb says cities need to require zero-carbon buildings. And to meet those requirements, architects have to embrace more passive cooling strategies and bioclimatic design, in which buildings are designed according to the climate where they are located. “Instead of trying to adapt nature to your house, you should adapt your house to nature,” Saheb says.

Banning single-family housing is another key factor. “If you have new development, you should go for multifamily buildings because you need less land, fewer construction materials, and less energy,” Saheb says. In the U.S., however, zoning laws have proven to be a huge barrier, hindering multifamily housing development in many cities.

Where possible, cities should also pass policies to encourage the reuse of existing buildings. “In the global north, we don’t need to build more square meters because we have plenty of square meters unused,” she says. In the United States, for example, office vacancy rates reached an all-time high of 17% in the third quarter of 2021, after the pandemic fueled a remote work movement that continues to this day. While companies are beginning to call workers back into the office now, some experts think that full occupancy remains unlikely, opening the door for obsolescent office space to be turned into much-needed housing. (Other experts do acknowledge that some offices can be tricky to convert into housing.)

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For Saheb, the first and biggest challenge is that data is often incomplete, and cities don’t even know how many square feet of unused space they have at their disposal. Instead of defaulting to building new buildings, “each city should look at how many buildings are unused and work on repurposing them,” she says. “And if there is a need, we may build a little bit.”

The good news is that, according to the report, up to 61% of building emissions could be cut by 2050, and we have all the solutions at our disposal today, from passive cooling technologies and denser multifamily homes to retrofits. All we need to do is implement them—or better yet, introduce regulations and policies to will them into implementation.

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