Earth Day Digest: Stories keeping AN editors hopeful about the planet’s future

Happy Earth Day! To commemorate, AN editors have scoured our archives from the past year to collate the stories, interviews, reviews, book excerpts, etc. that keep us hopeful about the planet’s future. This round up champions designers who reuse building materials, techies creating new products that calculate carbon impact, and more. Through this we’ve identified some key topics and trends building industry leaders are thinking about when it comes to climate change and sustainability.

For many reasons, the year 2023 was a wake up call. According to researchers for the European Union, 2023 was the hottest year recorded in global history since 1850. That led to wildfires throughout California, a hazy orange sky above New York City, and heatwaves that killed thousands of people in London and Paris.

Earth Day offers a time to reflect on the impact of not just our quotidian responsibilities as individuals (planting a tree, recycling, taking public transit over a car, conserving water) but to think more widely about the world we live in and the importance of conserving it. It also challenges us to think critically about the existing discourse and face the global moment with urgency.

Here are the stories that keep us optimistic:

Concrete, steel, and aluminum are being phased out for natural materials

Concrete, steel, and aluminum are foundational materials in architecture. However, the trio cumulatively contributes 23 percent of global carbon emissions. To buck this trend, architects are exploring natural materials: Some are using algae and even straw which could entirely transform the future of building materials. Products like stone, timber, and cork also make for alternatives. Material Health: Design Frontiers, a book published by the Parson’s Healthy Materials Lab’s co-directors Jonsara Ruth and Alison Mears sheds light on the “toxic life cycles of common building products.” It starts the discussion on circular systems and material reuse and provides a new framework for thinking about the relationship between the built environment and the natural world.

Widespread conversations are happening about adaptive reuse and “No New Buildings”

Thankfully, architectural education has largely pivoted away from the idolization of “starchitects” so prevalent in previous generations. This is largely due to a new sensitivity about what it means to “make your mark,” or define success. Design is about collaboration, not solo figureheads, as the very product of the profession is never the product of a single stroke of genius. But collaboration across time is an emergent form of practice: whether engaging in experimental preservation or simply renovating an outdated space, adaptive reuse is taking on new urgency as well as new fashion

Our densest cities are growing outward and don’t need grand gestures, but rather small, thoughtful insertions that respond to calls for equity, housing and environmental justice. Urban studios like TenBerke have taken up adaptive reuse as a focus and a priority, namely through the publication of Deborah Berke’s newest book, An Architecture of Transformational Change. Other practices have also taken on exciting and sensitive reuse work, from the hyperlocal like Rice+Lipka’s facelift for the Nuyorican Poets Cafe to the internationally renowned, like Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium. In the words of Michael Manfredi, interviewed for a recent feature story on Weiss/Manfredi’s renovation of the Tampa Museum of Art, “Both in practice and during school, architects are programmed to always add stuff in order to make our mark,” Manfredi admitted. “Here, we decided to make our mark by subtraction, and the result is tangible when looking at the metrics.” 

Waste is being recycled into sustainable surface materials

On the topic of materials, it’s important to consider their life after use. In the U.K. the company Optima is dedicated to make building materials from recycled aluminum. Its product Hydro CIRCAL 75R is made from a minimum 75 percent postconsumer waste; PurOptima, a commercial glass wall partition system specialist is working to do the same with glass products, which are known to be difficult to recycle. On a similar note in New York an initiative gives a second life to architectural mock-ups

Carbon modeling tools are becoming more advanced

More and more architects and building projects are turning to embodied carbon calculations and life cycle analysis to understand the carbon impact their building has in both the short-term and the long-term. At Facades+ New York City earlier this month a talk from Stacy Smedley, executive director of Building Transparency and co-creator of the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), focused on this topic and clued attendees into the history and the collaborative nature of these types of programs that more and more firms are including as a routine part of the design process. With this integrative technology architects, engineers and developers are making more informed decisions when it comes to building materials, building systems, and the construction process. And the great news is it’s catching on.

POTUS’s Inflation Reduction Act invests in sustainability research

Political parties and affiliations aside, Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act is the largest spending bill in U.S. to address climate change in U.S. history. When the legislation passed AN contributor Bill Millard called it a “tipping point in a national transition from being a large part of the global problem to being part of the solution.” Since it was passed the funds have been used to fund electrification projects, make headway on solar and wind power. Late last year Biden announced $250 million in grant money that nonprofits, corporations, or cooperatives can apply for to make progress in the field of embodied energy.

Last month, the Department of Energy (DOE) unveiled projects in its Industrial Demonstrations Program, funded by the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, to support decarbonization efforts. Among the recipients are steel, metal, glass, and concrete manufacturers looking to reduce their environmental impact—while creating new jobs.

Demand for electric vehicles is increasing

Also coupled into Biden’s historic Inflation Reduction Act is funding for electric vehicles and infrastructure related to them. The proliferation of EVs is another trend that has caught on in recent years and is only expected to grow. Take note of projects across the U.S. underway such as proposals and research to electrify roadways capable of charging cars on the go and the construction of massive manufacturing plants to amp up EV production.

European Parliament passes major corporate sustainability directives

In March, the European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee approved a new bill that has serious ramifications for the global construction and apparel sectors. The Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive addresses forced labor and ecologically harmful materials in the global supply chain. The bill applies to companies with over 1,000 employees and $560 million in annual revenue; it essentially requires companies to know whether or not materials in their supply chain, from textiles to PV panels, were produced by forced labor. Companies who don’t comply, and are found guilty of knowingly using materials that come from labor camps, will be subject to hefty damages. 

Cities are taking initiative to ensure a net-zero future

Cities from Seattle to Boston passed in 2023 some of the most progressive legislation in U.S. building code history. Last December, the Seattle mayor’s office passed CB 120718 which seeks to help the city reach net-zero building emissions by 2050. Policy experts said that the new bill could reduce building emissions by 27 percent and reduce Seattle’s total core emissions by roughly 10 percent. Meanwhile, in Boston, Mayor Michelle Wu issued an Executive Order that bans fossil fuels in buildings owned by the municipality, making it the first major U.S. city to do so. Looking ahead, architects nationwide hope to inch the needle further by implementing a national definition of what constitutes a “zero-emissions-building.”

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