As architects, engineers, planners, builders, and developers, we need to go beyond net-zero thinking to embrace a nature-positive future (if you need rationale as to why, please read my previous post.
To achieve this future, I believe we need to address seven critical and intertwined things: natural systems; energy systems; wood; density; equity; adaptation; and landscape.
We must start by anchoring our buildings within the natural environment rather than viewing them as technologies for excluding nature (the same way medicine is now starting to look at promoting beneficial microbes rather than just focusing on excluding pathogenic microbes). Designing and retrofitting nature-positive buildings requires that we look not only at geography and climate but also at ecosystems, accounting for future climate-driven changes.
It’s clear we need to move away from fossil fuels; for buildings, that means moving towards total electrification. A study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, shows that fossil fuels used for heating air and water account more than 50 percent of energy use in US residential buildings and over one-third for commercial structures. We need to accelerate the use of heat pumps and on-site renewables (integrated PV and wind to create buildings as generation stations).
Steel and concrete are among the industries that are most difficult to decarbonize, and, along with ammonia, account for one-fifth of all human-caused emissions. That is why we need to invest more in the emerging mass timber industry which, if sustainably harvested, can be a carbon-sequestering alternative to steel and concrete. This approach needs to take into account the new pledges at COP26 to halt deforestation by 2030.
Over half the world population lives in cities and the urban population will more than double by 2050. The best way to reduce a city’s carbon emissions is urban density — but a certain kind of urban density. High-density, low-rise buildings at an average 7.5 stories — also called “Goldilocks” density or the Missing Middle – have been shown to deliver the lowest life-cycle carbon emissions. Think Paris.
Equity is intertwined with the built environment; and design decisions directly and indirectly result in equity or inequity. The most obvious symptom of the latter is the current affordability crisis, but issues of inclusion and dignity also run deep, as does the need to design for diversity (not just “Mr. Average”). This starts with addressing the lack of diversity in AEC and includes rethinking how we design for inclusivity and interconnectivity (such as this project in the Netherlands that houses students rent-free in retirement homes).
We need to design and retrofit buildings to adapt to extreme weather and sea level rise. The best solutions here are, again, the ones that leverage nature rather than trying to exclude it: ecosystem-based solutions to buffer sea level rise (instead of sea walls), or green screens to protect buildings from wind damage, mitigate heat and reduce air pollution.
We need to green the areas that surround our buildings and also invite nature inside. Trees reduce the need for heating and cooling and decrease the urban heat island effect, in addition to providing a myriad of other health and economic benefits. Native plantings promote biodiversity. Landscape plays a significant role in climate mitigation and adaptation, as well as helping address biodiversity loss and inequality.
The challenge we face as architects, engineers, planners, builders, and developers can appear insurmountable at first glance; mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis while also addressing biodiversity loss and inequality seems like too big of an ask. Yet when we expand our concept beyond net-zero to embrace a nature-positive future, and break that concept down into seven interconnected action points, the task may be more achievable. Every one of us can incorporate some, most, or all of these ideas into our practice. In fact, we must.
Written by Craig Applegath, DIALOG Partner