To Reach Net Zero by 2030, We Need Coordinated Action

Designers, builders, and government must work toward the same goal — our lives depend on it.

by Kent Jackson

The University of California, Merced campus is designed to achieve net-zero emissions, energy use, and waste by 2020—well ahead of California’s already ambitious statewide targets. Photo: Dave Burk © SOM

Our whole industry needs to be aligned

Are we truly all in this together? The answer should be obvious. Across our industry, virtually every entity involved in shaping the built environment — architects, engineers, construction firms, developers, and government — claims sustainability as a priority. Yet in reality, we are often working toward very separate targets and initiatives. That’s why the World Green Building Council launched Advancing Net Zero, an initiative to focus collective action toward a shared and necessary goal: all new buildings must reach net-zero operational carbon by 2030.

We cannot reach net zero by ticking boxes; it calls for a holistic reshaping of the entire built environment.

With buildings currently accounting for nearly 40 percent of global emissions, the impact of reaching net zero could tip the balance in the climate equation. But the amount of work that remains to reach this target is enormous.

The Kathleen Grimm School is the first in New York to achieve net-zero energy. Photo: Stark Video, Inc. | Aerial NY © SOM

Breakthroughs in design and research

At SOM, we’ve been focused on doing everything we can to confront the climate crisis through the means within our control — not only in our architecture and planning work for clients, but also in research and advocacy. As a global firm with hundreds of active projects around the world, ranging from interiors to entire city plans, we have the potential to make a substantial impact. By working with clients whose goals are aligned, we’ve been able to realize projects that represent the change that’s needed — the Kathleen Grimm School, the first net-zero energy school in New York City, is one key example. We’ve also been able to demonstrate, with our design for a net-zero energy tower that would be the first of its kind in Europe, that this goal is achievable even for a high-rise.

Through testing and research, SOM has demonstrated the potential of mass timber in high-rise construction. Photo © SOM
Our prototype for a sustainable concrete slab also served as a public pavilion during the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial. Photo © Dave Burk | SOM

The building industry and government must take action

Designing net-zero solutions is just the first step — a lot will depend on property owners and builders to make further investment. While we’ve been lucky to work with a number of progressive clients who actively seek net zero as a goal, the reality is that this target is far from the baseline across the commercial development industry. That’s why local and federal governments also need to play a crucial role — they must set policy that not only incentivizes net zero, but makes it a requirement.

Choosing timber construction for Billie Jean King Main Library, in Long Beach, California, dramatically reduced the building’s embodied carbon. Photo: Benny Chan | Fotoworks
Bridging central Paris and its suburbs, our master plan for Charenton-Bercy includes a net-zero tower that would be the first of its kind in Europe. Image © Luxigon

Why wait until tomorrow?

We cannot advocate for more sustainable buildings and cities unless we are demonstrating the change we want to see ourselves. That’s why SOM has signed WorldGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment — which means that by 2030, all of our firm’s global operations must achieve net-zero carbon. Signing this commitment is a way of holding ourselves accountable, ensuring that our business operations are on par with the ambition and rigor of the design work we deliver.

Our San Francisco studio — along with all of our offices worldwide — is committed to achieving net-zero operational carbon before 2030. Photo: Dave Burk © SOM

We are a collective of architects, designers, engineers, and planners building a better future. To learn more, visit www.som.com.

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