A global conversation about greener buildings

“If everyone says that this is the low-hanging fruit, why the hell aren’t we there?”

The lament of Sandrine Dixson-Declève, director of the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group, voiced a frustration common to many of her fellow attendees at COP21’s Buildings Day in December. The outsized contribution of buildings to global warming is well understood in the design community, as is the relative simplicity of the technical solutions involved. It’s therefore often difficult to understand why the necessary change has proven so elusive.

In some ways, the answer lies in the novelty of the gathering itself. Historically, there have been few global forums for representatives from the nonprofit, design, real estate, and government sectors to share knowledge and ideas about reducing building emissions. To their great credit, the organizers of COP21 recognized this gap and dedicated a day of the talks to bringing these parties together.

Continuing these conversations is critical. The extraordinary complexity of the building industry — the broad range of decision makers involved, each with a unique set of motivations and constraints — means that the evolution needed to make a real difference to the planet can only occur if everyone works together. Reducing building energy use, and thereby reducing carbon emissions, requires careful, creative coordination at all levels.

Reducing building energy use, and thereby reducing carbon emissions, requires careful, creative coordination at all levels.

Thankfully, we can start anywhere in the chain. Design professionals and building operators can push for better energy performance for individual facilities. Nongovernmental organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council can create robust rating systems that popularize technical knowledge and raise performance aspirations. Building occupants can insist on greener homes and workplaces. Policymakers and voters can fight for codes that raise minimum performance standards and demand public reporting of energy and water impacts. Building owners can seek market differentiation by aiming for and communicating lofty goals.

Each of these perspectives was represented at Buildings Day, as well as in the COP21 negotiating halls and side events. Architecture 2030’s Ed Mazria described how designers are committing to low-carbon building goals — and beginning to get results. Ontario government official Glen Murray discussed the so-called split incentive, a common dilemma resulting from the fact that cost savings resulting from the installation of more expensive systems during construction are realized by downstream occupants or owners rather than the investors. IFC (International Finance Corporation) / World Bank Group Climate Business Department head of strategy Marcene Broadwater presented EDGE, a highly focused rating system aimed at buildings in developing nations but applicable everywhere.

Here’s to hoping that the first Buildings Day is followed by many, many more.


Questions or comments for Fiona Cousins? Email fiona.cousins@arup.com.

To see more COP21 coverage, click here.

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