The climate crisis is no longer a distant alarm — it’s already becoming an immediate reality. As wildfires rage on the west coast of the United States, millions of residents are breathing polluted air. The scenes of devastation recall the unprecedented brushfires we witnessed in Australia last year. Floodwaters from a record hurricane season inundate cities and towns in the southeastern U.S., while earlier this month Japan and Korea were battered by two of the earliest and strongest typhoons on record. Here in the U.K., increased flooding now places one in six homes, or 2.4 million people, at risk.
Natural disasters are nothing new, but we are now witnessing climate events of a harrowing scale and intensity—while scientists predict that hurricanes and wildfires will only become more devastating in the coming decades. It’s clear that climate change is no longer a matter of remote concern. For people around the world, the consequences of inaction are already hitting close to home.
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.
We face two incredible challenges: time and scale. 2030 is just ten years away, and in a sense even closer when considering the time frames involved in building design and construction. The buildings that need to be operating at net-zero energy a decade from now are the ones that we’re already designing and constructing today. Individual projects, however exemplary, are not enough. We cannot reach net zero by ticking boxes; it calls for a holistic reshaping of the entire built environment. It depends on designers, developers, and government making a shared commitment and working together to invent solutions.
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.
While the industry’s main focus has historically been net-zero operational carbon, we have taken our thinking further to consider how we can make an impact by reducing embodied carbon — that is, the environmental impact of the resources that go into a building’s creation. Looking beyond 2030—to meet the goal for a fully carbon-neutral built environment by 2050—embodied carbon is a significant part of the equation. SOM has a great advantage as an interdisciplinary practice: from structures to mechanicals to specifications, we can consider how to approach net zero from all fronts. Most of a building’s embodied carbon (up to 60–70 percent) comes from its structure—and our engineers have made great strides over the last 20 years in researching ways to reduce the environmental impact of materials used for construction.
For one, we’ve demonstrated the potential for high-rise construction using mass timber, a far less carbon-intensive material than concrete and steel. By making the results of our research available to all, we aim to catalyze change throughout the construction industry.
We’ve also collaborated with manufacturers to design a prototype for concrete construction that reduces carbon impact by 20 percent. Concrete is by far the most common building material used today, and it alone accounts for about 8 percent of all carbon emissions. Our goal would be to build high density projects with inexpensive, low-carbon building alternatives at a global scale.
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.
We’ve seen already that effective policy can transform the market. The NABERS rating system, launched in 1998 in Australia and now being expanded to the UK, is one successful example. By creating a simple and clear rating system to measure the performance of commercial buildings — the actual impact, not just the intent — it gives building owners a powerful tool to track and improve energy and water efficiency. Beyond allowing owners to save on energy costs, the system ties high performance with the property’s value, thereby turning efficiency into a market advantage.
In the UK, the Energy Performance Rating (EPC) system creates similar incentives for the residential market. It allows homeowners to understand how to make investments that will reduce their energy costs. High EPC ratings can significantly increase property resale prices — a testament to the program’s success. For public buildings, the more recent requirement to produce a Display Energy Certificate (DEC) can be even more effective than the EPC program because the ratings are based on the building’s actual, not estimated, performance. Prominently visible, these certificates identify buildings that are actually meeting (or not meeting) their intended targets — and collecting the required information can lead building owners and operators toward a better understanding of how to improve their grade.
Other policies focus not on incentives, but enforcement. In March 2019, New York City passed Local Law 97, one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation of its kind, because it applies to existing buildings, not just new construction. The law requires buildings of more than 25,000 square feet to reduce operational carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030, and by 80 percent by 2050. Property owners will need to make an upfront investment in making their buildings more efficient — the total citywide cost is estimated to exceed $4 billion. However, the long-term benefits are likely not only to bring energy and cost savings, but also to put the city on track to meet its climate targets—which also rank among the world’s most ambitious. Globally, if we hope to reach net- zero operational carbon by 2030, other cities must follow New York’s lead.
France has taken yet another approach to the issue, going beyond operational energy to consider how to reduce embodied carbon—in part by choosing more sustainable materials. A new law passed this year requires that from 2022, all new public buildings be constructed using at least 50 percent wood or other organic materials. International building codes are now catching up with the potential for tall timber structures. With France joining countries such as Norway and Sweden in actively supporting timber construction, this far-reaching new policy will only accelerate a positive trend.
An even more fundamental fact is that a building can only be considered sustainable if its energy comes from sustainable sources. It’s up to local and regional governments to mandate a 100-percent-renewable energy grid. While this is outside of our direct control as designers, our industry must continue to advocate for this crucial change.
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.
On a global scale, the action needed can seem daunting, but there’s a lot we can already do today. Of course, we’re just one firm — but imagine the cumulative impact if our entire industry made this commitment.
Our journey toward carbon-neutral operations began more than eight years ago, here in our London office. We started small and we’ve been building from there — putting our house in order, demonstrating how it can be done. In that time we’ve made incredible progress: we’ve reduced our operational carbon per person by 88 percent. Based on what we’ve learned in London, we’ve designed a road map to put all of our offices, from San Francisco to Shanghai, on track for carbon neutral operations well before 2030.
Decarbonizing the built environment will require the sum of all of these strategies, and even more — from designers, the building sector, and government. It’s beyond time for our entire sector to commit to bold and coordinated steps to reach net zero. The road to get there is certainly steep. But wildfires, hurricanes, and floods are sending us a message that cannot be ignored. We must take action — our lives depend on it.
Kent Jackson is an architect and design partner at SOM. Based in London, he has led projects at the forefront of sustainable design and innovation, including the renovation of the United Nations Office at Geneva, the global headquarters for JTI, and the Stratford, an unconventional high-rise residence in London.
More stories on design and climate action:
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50 Years of Environmental Activism Through Design
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