The Architect’s Role in Climate Change – Now and Then

Architecture has always played a huge role in climate change. We know that buildings contribute to nearly half of the nation’s CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions – which is a huge part of the problem, but the good news is, it’s a huge part of the solution. When we add the fact that transportation accounts for another third of CO2 emissions, and, together, buildings and transportation account for over 75% of the energy consumed in North America, we realize the impact a well designed, dense, environmentally responsible city can have on our climate.

Architects can lead the climate change movement by designing the greenest, healthiest buildings and environments. The very best in technical advancements needed to produce climate-saving buildings have been put in place over the last few decades – for example, the LEEDTM (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system is marked for excellence in green building and used in over 150 countries. And LEEDTM is only one of many systems to track and record sustainability. While new technologies and designs help lower emissions and generate energy, today’s sustainability experts were not the first to consider the importance of utilizing renewable resources. Architects have been leaders in environment-friendly building for years – harnessing natural energy and using local resources long before advancements in construction.

Thousands of years ago, ancient civilizations worked with earthly materials to power their buildings and homes. The Persians knew how to make use of natural elements; they were known to engineer windcatchers for natural ventilation. These structures regulated temperatures indoors and allowed lower level rooms to stay cool during hot days, also serving as early refrigerators, keeping food cool.  Aboriginal people in North America used their resources carefully; today we see a resurgence of interest in low carbon footprint, sustainable food production and a move away from the consumerism that dominated the 20th century.

While global warming is making more individuals conscious of how over-consumption and inefficient construction practices are hurting our planet, there have been other moments in history that caused people to be more considerate. The pre-Baby Boomer generation might remember needing to stockpile certain materials or avoid using some items altogether in order to save resources during World War II. The economic boom in the 1950s lead to an increase in the amount of garbage being produced due to the growing popularity of single use items. So you can imagine it wasn’t long before people began to realize their environmental impact and the role they play through their direct actions. No longer is planetary health seen as someone else’s problem.

Today’s environmental challenges have brought sustainability to the forefront of our design practices. Many architectural firms are now very concerned with creating the eco-friendliest structures. Learning from our past and present trends can help future architects and designers determine which methods work best for creating sustainable buildings that can both survive and actually help lessen the effects of climate change. Recognizing that the decisions weA make today to create a high quality, dense urban environment, even at the scale of smaller towns and villages, reduces transportation energy needs and CO2. And that investing in architecture, to create those high quality spaces, results in lower energy use, and better investment over the lifecycle of the building, leaving a legacy for our children.

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