Can Carbon-Neutral Architecture Be the Building of the Future?
To truly heal our earth from the effects of climate change, we must make a global effort that confronts all aspects of our lives–from our food industry to our clothing to our buildings. And everything else too.
Carbon-neutral architecture is emerging as a vital component in this global effort and stands to inspire a significant shift in the construction industry’s approach to sustainability.
Carbon-neutral architecture is an architectural and design movement that aims to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings. It involves creating structures that either produce zero net carbon emissions or offset their emissions through renewable energy and other sustainable practices.
How Do Buildings Emit Carbon?
Buildings are not what we often think of when we talk about big carbon emitters. With the International Energy Agency reporting that 40% of global emissions stem from the built environment, understanding how buildings contribute to carbon emissions is important for addressing the problem. It turns out that buildings contribute to carbon emissions on multiple levels: in how we construct buildings, how we use them, and where they’re located.
We generally measure building emissions in a combination of two things. There are the operational carbon emissions, which is the day-to-day energy usage that comes from lighting, heating and cooling, and handling of waste. The second is the embodied carbon of a building. This is the carbon that the construction process creates through manufacturing materials, transporting those materials to sites, and the construction process itself. Operational carbon emissions account for 28 percent of emissions and embodied carbon accounts for 11 percent of emissions.
Once we recognize all the ways that our constructed world emits carbon, we can begin to address these emissions with more sustainable practices.
Carbon-neutral architecture empowers us to design and construct buildings and structures with the goal of minimizing or offsetting their carbon emissions. The goal is ultimately to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint.
What Makes Architecture Carbon-Neutral?
There are a variety of ways that we can decrease carbon emissions of buildings. Here are some of the top ideas.
Energy Use: Efficiency & Renewability
One fundamental aspect of carbon-neutral architecture is designing or updating buildings to use less energy. This can be through enhancing efficiency or implementing renewable sources–or even better, a combination of both.
To improve energy efficiency, building owners can install advanced insulation, energy-efficient windows, and employ passive design principles to reduce dependency on artificial heating, cooling, and lighting.
Incorporating renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind turbines, or geothermal systems helps to generate clean energy on-site, reducing reliance on traditional energy sources that contribute to carbon emissions.
Choose Materials Wisely
Choosing environmentally friendly and low-carbon materials is crucial. This involves considering the entire life cycle of materials, from extraction and production to transportation and eventual disposal. It is best to use materials with low embodied carbon.
This might also look like adaptive reuse and recycling. What does this mean? Instead of constructing entirely new buildings, we can find ways to reuse existing structures so they can become more sustainable. Or it may be possible to reuse and recycle materials that would otherwise become waste for new buildings. Additionally, designing buildings with the intention of easy disassembly and recycling at the end of their life cycle can further reduce environmental impact.
Let’s make our buildings smart! We now have constant innovations in technology that can help optimize energy use and overall building performance. Choosing materials wisely includes incorporating technologies like sensors, automation, and monitoring systems to adjust environmental conditions and occupancy.
Community & Transportation Planning
Carbon-neutral architecture includes more than just looking at individual buildings. Ideally, we can consider entire communities and cities. Imagine holistic designs that promote walking and biking or center public transit. Creating walkable cities with more green spaces could significantly decrease individual vehicle usage and the CO2 emissions they cause. If we design our cities to reduce our dependence on cars, everyone wins. Walking and biking as modes of transportation are better for human and environmental health.
Taking Green Building Literally
Creating carbon-neutral buildings could mean literally making them green. Many new buildings are experimenting with using moss, grasses, and other plants as part of the facade or construction of buildings. Moss and lichens grow well on concrete and their root systems are not destructive. These living walls turn buildings into air purifiers, as well as decreasing carbon emissions and even absorbing carbon.
Another benefit is that green moss, grass or leafy areas have a calming effect on people. Nearly every choice we make that is good for the environment, is also beneficial for our health–which actually should come as no surprise.
In cases where it is too challenging to eliminate all carbon emissions associated with a building, building owners can at least try carbon offsetting. involves investing in projects that reduce or capture an equivalent amount of carbon to compensate for the emissions produced by the building. This could include supporting reforestation efforts or investing in renewable energy projects.
The best approach to creating healthier buildings and communities through carbon-neutral architecture is an integrated approach. We have a far greater chance at success when we make small, varied, and connected updates that lead to long-term change.
The architecture industry has a significant role in addressing climate change by adopting sustainable practices and reducing the environmental impact of buildings. Achieving meaningful results with carbon-neutral architecture requires a comprehensive approach that considers the entire life cycle of a building and involves collaboration between architects, engineers, builders, and city planners to create environmentally responsible and sustainable structures.