For most architectural design and consulting firms today, expertise in sustainability has become an essential element for success. Woods Bagot, like many of our competitors, trains our staff in LEED and BREAM requirements, and principles of sustainable design are integrated early into every project. We’ve won our share of “green” awards—and even achieved a number of “sustainability” firsts.
A year ago, it became clear to me that for Woods Bagot—and the rest of our industry—this incremental approach is radically inadequate. At the 2009 World Knowledge Forum in Seoul, I met Tom Burke, one of the world’s leading environmental policy experts, who presented the problem of climate change in starkly simple terms: To avoid a dangerous climate change tipping point of a two-degree Celsius increase in the earth’s temperature, we need a zero-carbon economy by 2050.
The implications of this fact are not insignificant and include, for instance, the end of the internal combustible engine in all vehicles. The reality is that climate change is not a linear proposition; because the build-up of carbon in the atmosphere is cumulative, we cannot leave action to the last minute. And it’s not like our current economic crisis, which is stubborn but presumably will pass. With climate change, once we are there, we’ll live with the consequences.
Buildings: One-Third of the Problem
The strategy for achieving zero carbon is roughly distributed as follows:
Energy generation: 33%
So, as architects and designers, we can make a major contribution to solving one-third of the climate change problem. In context of the magnitude of the issue, it could be argued that our industry currently makes little material contribution to such a task, even though we collectively have designed some exceptionally high-achieving sustainable structures. Our profession is disproportionately responsible for what ultimately gets built across the world—and how it gets built. So it stands to reason that we also can significantly influence the outcome if we undertake such an effort.
Radical Transition: “Less Bad” to Good
To make a measurable contribution, I believe we need to dramatically alter the scale of our thinking. We must move from our current approach of doing “less bad” to doing good, from doing less damage to actually healing the environment.
Within our own company, we began to ask the question: how quickly can we create a model for zero emissions architecture—and what will it take for us to achieve that goal?
The Proposition: Zero-E
In partnership with global engineering consultancy Buro Happold, we invested in significant, proprietary research to create Zero-E, a model that delivers on the promise of zero carbon and zero emissions for large-scale development projects. Driven by the expertise of a multidisciplinary team, Zero-E is designed to go beyond reducing the negative impacts of new growth, to create buildings that reverse the damage to compromised ecological systems. Our model envisions off-the-grid infrastructure independence that creates more energy that it requires annually, releases cleaner air than it takes in, and processes its own waste to release beneficial output.
Together with Buro Happold, we developed advanced computational and parametric technologies that can evaluate many of a building’s characteristics simultaneously at a conceptual level. For example, we can look at how a building sits on a site, its size and shape, what type of windows it has, and how each of these design ideas works with the others to reduce energy demand—all in real time. We carry out an integrated and holistic site infrastructure analysis that ensures that all waste products are either reused or recycled, and then integrate renewable systems into the overall site master plan to achieve zero emissions.
As our virtual prototype, we examined the development potential of an existing industrial site on the Yangtze River in Chongqing, China. The study scheme proposes a 450,000-sq.-m. mixed-use development, featuring an 82-story office and hotel tower, which will continually monitor and react to internal and external climatic conditions for maximum performance. A holistic resource system integrates photovoltaics, solar thermal panels, absorption chillers, a biogas fuel cell, and an anaerobic waste digester into a closed-loop system that greatly improves the building’s operational performance while minimizing resource consumption and waste production.
Our Collective Contribution
We are not alone in this pursuit—a fact we find to be more than encouraging. At its core, our dedication to this effort is driven by the belief that architects and designers are in a prime position to bring together the essential players for a truly integrated approach to addressing climate change in the built environment. Today, sustainable development needs more than rigorous analytical design. It requires open collaboration at the earliest stage, the highest shared goals, and the commitment that we all bring to our work.
For me, there’s no doubt. It’s time.
Click to read the continuation of this Green Essay with Bill Valentine's "HOK’s Net Zero Co2urt may be the first-generation Prius of zero emissions office buildings."