The built environment is often highlighted as one of the sectors that could help the world cut emissions by 50% this decade. In the short term, strategies like ramping up the use of sustainable materials and relying more on renewable energy in the industrial process will make the biggest difference. But even more so, in the longer term, creating a built environment that thinks many decades ahead in terms of building resilience, sufficiency and circularity will not only eliminate negative impacts but create positive changes in our climate and natural environment.
The good news is that more than 60% of building emissions could be cut by 2050 using technologies that are already available today, according to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
And yet, the same reports point out that the buildings sector needs to drastically speed up climate initiatives to meet short- and long-term climate targets.
So if available technologies only provide part of the puzzle, what pieces are missing?
While there is no perfect answer, a partial blueprint may be offered by one of the great success stories of sustainable transformation, namely electric vehicles.
When the first Tesla rolled off the manufacturing belt in sunny California, in 2008, few would have believed that all-electric cars would pose any real threat to combustion vehicles in the foreseeable future. Fast-forward to today, and virtually every major car manufacturer has made commitments to pivot to an all-electric fleet within the coming decade.
So, do we need to convince Elon Musk to pursue a new career in architecture?
Perhaps not. Because while individual leaders can make a great difference in pushing through meaningful change, lasting progress tends to spring from communal efforts.
In the case of electric vehicles, what got the industry to a tipping point (with EVs reaching 26% of global sales in 2021) was the joint effort of manufacturers, governments as well as the public. On the governmental level — both international and local — signals were sent to the industry by setting emissions targets and rolling out financial incentives; in the private sphere, research and development departments made possible more rapid implementation through new battery technologies, both driving down prices while upping the range capabilities of vehicles. Meanwhile, as the public made their climate demands known, the private and public sectors collaborated in building out infrastructure that facilitated the transition to EV transport, such as multiplying charging stations throughout Europe.
The lesson here is that single incentives have a reinforcing effect on each other, building momentum until reaching a critical mass for standards and affordability.
What makes the EV sector an apt example is the fact that it shares a common feature with the built environment, namely international and complex supply chains where no one player can create a green or sustainable building in its entirety without the help of hundreds of others.
As such, as architects continue to think hard between the scenes about how to meet the growing demand for urban housing and infrastructure, their success hinges on a joint commitment from every other stakeholder to restore the equilibrium of our planet, and a joint understanding that the climate is everyone’s business.
The responsibilities of governments and companies are one of the topics we discuss in our latest episode of WICONA Meets, featuring Phil Sedge, Head of Facades at Mace Group. Kicking off his career in the late 1980s, Phil has spent over three decades working in facades building prestigious projects across London while working with the industry’s leading façade contractors. At Mace, Phil leads the way on innovations and industry drivers like productivity, quality and carbon initiatives.