I was invited to speak at the Project Drawdown: Research to Action conference last week and had a wonderful time discussing how the built environment can contribute to Drawdown. At the conference, I shared about the modeling work that I did with Project Drawdown to evaluate how different solutions within the built environment can contribute to reversing global warming. I like the term “drawdown” as it refers to a nice tangible goal as we tackle the climate crisis. While “drawdown” is often used as a verb, its origin is actually a noun and is defined as the point in time when at which concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begin to steadily decline, ultimately reversing global warming.
As part of a panel (if you’re interested, you can watch the recording here), we had a good discussion of how different climate solutions can be effective and scalable within buildings. We also identified the strong connections between buildings and other sectors (notable Electricity Generation and Materials and Waste). In reflecting upon this and other discussions at the conference, I have started to think about how we define ourselves within the building design industry and how that can hinder our progress towards drawdown.
As building designers we are too often siloed into “architect” or “structural engineer” or “lighting designer”. While a structural engineer needs to be the master of the structural system of a building, they must not forget the many other systems which interact with it and lose sight of them. And yet these individual building systems, are part of even larger, more complicated systems when looked at the building level. And to make it even more interesting, a single building interacts with even larger systems at the city or urban scale.
Now when we think about how the built environment can move towards drawdown, we must consider the complexities of each and every one of these systems. Often, these solutions are at the individual building or system scale, but when trying to model their impact, all other systems must also be considered. For example, if we start using more wood instead of steel and concrete for our structural systems at scale, are there enough forests (that are sustainably managed I might add) to supply the vast quantities of timber that might be needed? This is one of those questions that don’t quite have an answer right now.
While these are important questions that need answering, we can’t let them halt or stall our progress of implementing solutions at the small scale. By all means, avoid as much concrete production as possible, use LEDs instead of CFLs, etc. Yet when when we as building designers forget that buildings are part of many other complex systems we might create unintended effects.
This is just one of the questions which I hope to work on a bit while in Edinburgh. I’ll be sharing my progress and my insights from my research as they come.