Can architecture combat climate change?

Published
21 Sept 2022

Reading
4 min


Mario Cucinella (MCA), Ben Van Berkel (UNstudio) And Bryant Lu (Ronald Lu & Partners) discuss the issue<br /> <br />

Causes and effects of climate change

Rising temperatures, more droughts, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, more intense and more frequent storms that cause floods and landslides – the worrying frequency of news’ stories like this is a reminder for all of us of the devastating effects of climate change. It’s becoming urgent to combat this by eliminating CO2 emissions in the atmosphere and, therefore, achieving climate neutrality – a goal that the European Union has set itself for 2050 with the European Green Deal. While it’s true that climate change has always existed, environmental scientists and activists are focusing attention on the role played by humans in what is happening to the planet today. Over the last 150 years – that is, since the pre-industrial period – human activities are estimated to have increased Earth’s global average temperature by about 1.8°F (1°C), with this number increasing by 0.36°F (0.2°C) every decade. The 2011–20 decade was the hottest on record.

The environmental impact of buildings

Seen in terms of the environmental impact of each stage of their life cycle, buildings are responsible for a significant amount of atmospheric emissions as well as high energy consumption. According to the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction, buildings are responsible for 36% of global energy consumption and 37% of CO2 emissions (data for 2020 published in the 2021 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction). Given these numbers, and the fact that every sector is being called upon to do its part in what has become a race against time to save the terrestrial ecosystem, it’s impossible not to ask the question, “Can architecture fight climate change?” Here are the thoughts of three professionals who need to find answers to this question every day in their studio’s work.

 

What role should architecture have in respect of climate change? Should architecture fight it, adapt to it or, in a way, both?

M.C.: The most important thing is that “fighting climate change” doesn’t become some meaningless slogan. It demands a genuine, ongoing, shared, and, in particular, cross-sectorial commitment. We’ve got no chance of reversing climate change with nothing but the goodwill of a small few or with uncoordinated actions. Architecture has to do its part by researching how to make buildings that have less environmental impact. I think we’re on the right track but also believe it’s a very long and complicated one. Of course, we also need to take into account how we live today, while also looking a little further ahead. […]

 

According to the United Nations, by 2050 almost 70% of the world’s population will live in cities or metropolises. What will new ways of living – respectful of the environment – look like?

M.C.: Architects have never been questioned about the future of how we live as much as they were during the pandemic: “Architect, what will the house of the future be like? The office of the future? The school of the future? The city of the future?” It was nice that people were, perhaps, listening to us more than ever, but none of us has a crystal ball and we can’t see the future. What is certain is that it will no longer be possible to design projects for their own sake, or projects that are exclusively about aesthetics or technology. There have been too many projects like this that have simply ignored context, geography, and demography. The way we live tomorrow must increasingly be the result of genuine analysis. […]

 

15-Minute City, Passivhaus, Nearly Zero Energy Building: environmental, economic and social sustainability is more and more at the center of attention. In this sense, what role has the pandemic had?

M.C.: The pandemic possibly sharpened focus on the critical issues we were already aware of. But it probably also accelerated the remedies that we were already working on. Fortunately, work on developing NZEB projects was happening before the pandemic. The 15-minute city isn’t a new idea, either. Perhaps, though, the urgency of properly tackling certain problems is now more clearly recognized. […]

 

How will we live together? was the theme of the 17th International Architecture Exhibition in Venice. Can you describe a project that is particularly significant to illustrate the future of our cities?

M.C.: The wheel turns, and nothing is ever new. I think back to when, many years ago, we designed the low cost, zero-emission 100K house. It was a project that restored that sense of pleasure of home, and helped pay for itself with autonomous energy from photovoltaic systems, surfaces that captured solar energy in winter, internal air circulation in summer, and all the passive strategies that can be used to make a building a bioclimatic machine. And costs were kept low by using industrial prefabrication. It seems to me that these are very much the issues we’re focused on today. […]

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