Who would have expected that 2019 would be the year that captured everyone’s attention with climate strikes around the world? Back in 1997, we anticipated quick change with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol where nations around the world committed to reduce harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Unfortunately, over 20 years later, many of the objectives from that time have not been achieved. We’ve come to realize that we cannot rely solely on politicians to effect change as their own agendas and controversies are quick to diminish and overshadow the creation of sound environmental policies. In contrast, and much like the early days of the green building movement, the biggest change happens when citizens and practitioners take steps to reduce our environmental impact – policy will follow.

This is where we, as architects, engineers, building owners, developers and builders can make a difference. We know buildings in North America typically have a life-expectancy between 50 to 100 years and in that time, they will use energy to operate the building.

But given the need to reduce atmospheric carbon now, in the next 30 years, we need to focus on the embodied material energy.

In The New Carbon Architecture, Erin McDade shows that a high efficiency building will in 30 years use only about 45% of the total lifetime operational energy for that building. This means that the embodied energy counts for 55% of total energy consumed by 2050. Our greatest impact will be on reduced embodied energy now.

Here’s some basic math on the climate change problem. Irreversible climate change is estimated to occur once global temperatures increase by 1.5 °C to 2.0 °C, depending on the climate model. That temperature, called the tipping point, is predicted to occur by 2050 (again, depending on the model). Currently, the temperature is approximately 0.85 °C above the pre-industrial age temperature. Here’s the math: We only have 1.5-0.85 = 0.65 °C to go (or possibly 1.15 °C if we allow 2.0 °C). The Paris Accord limits 1.5 °C by 2050, so we’ll use that as our guide.

On this basis, we have an urgent need to limit carbon in the short term by 2050, only 30 years from now (and we’ve known about this for a long time and wasted away 22 years already).

Consider this, as I write from Canada, data from the team at Carbon Brief indicate that Canada was the 10th largest GHG emitter in the world in 2015, was the 4th largest global producer of oil and has one of the highest per capita emissions globally. In our recent national election, campaign promises were made with targets of 30% reductions by 2030 (compared to 2015) and 100% by 2040. Can we reach those targets?

Within our own industry, we have seen various standards (not building codes) set targets, notably Architecture 2030. In 2017, many of you will recall we wrote a whitepaper titled “The Carbon Economy and Construction.” In it, we spelled out the steps that are required to make change in this sector.

One of the take-aways was the target of reduced embodied carbon in our buildings proposed in 2010 by Architecture 2030: target 35% reduction by 2015 (not achieved or measured) and 40% by 2020.

Little, if anything, has been done to reach these goals, and we’ve lost 22 years of opportunity to make this change. If we want to get to carbon-neutral, we have a long way to go. But this does not mean we shouldn’t try.

As engineers and architects, we get to specify the products and materials that are used in our buildings. This is our superpower: we get to choose! Until now, the conversation has been around reducing operational energy for heating, cooling and power. But, to meet the reductions required in the next few years, we must shift our focus on the embodied energy of the materials in our building (see below). While we may decide to highly insulate a building, we might actually choose to use an insulation product that is produced from materials or in processes that negatively impact the environment. Does our façade system use highly processed glass, aluminum or other products and need to be replaced every 30 or 40 years? Does the structure come from sustainable material resources?

How does policy follow? I was on the design team for the first CLT and Passivehouse building in Canada in 2010. There were no CLT standards in Canada or the US at that time. There were no Passivehouse standards here either – simply not recognized in our building codes.

Even now, 10 years later, small incremental changes to the codes have finally been made. But there is so much more work that needs to be done. And government policies can make a big difference. For example, municipal governments can offer development credits in the form of bonus density for buildings with mass timber that sequester carbon. Provincial or state and federal governments can look for streamlining policies across departments that currently impede economic development and the environment to encourage the use of home-grown construction solutions in the forest sector, faster changes to building codes and the health benefits of biophilic design with wood.

In Toronto in 2019, we invited architects and builders from Toronto to visit logging and sawmill operations in the Northern Ontario, to make the link between small towns and the strongest construction market in Canada. Lead by examples and governments will follow with policy – they will make these linkages between the environment, health, economic development, building and will encourage smart investments.

For the last 25 years, I have focused on building with wood. Wood has the lowest embodied energy of the major construction materials in Canada and sequesters carbon in the building, rather than releasing it into the atmosphere.

We will continue our commitment to designing the majority of our structures using wood and mass timber. I hope you will join me and work with us at Moses Structural Engineers on this path so we can all look back on 2020 as the year that we made the biggest collective lasting change that ever took place in the construction industry.

Learn more about tall wood, mass timber and hybrid buildings at tall-wood.com

Top image: Mass timber office building, Toronto design in progress MSE with studioCANOO

The Carbon Brief Profile: Canada
The New Carbon Architecture: Building to Cool the Climate, by Bruce M. King