Sustainable Design - Journey to Net Zero - Glotman Simpson

In the last few years, several ominous phrases have crept into our daily lexicon including “atmospheric rivers”, “quarantining”, “social distancing”, and “air-quality index.” Oxymorons are also taking over our headlines such as “stormy California” and “rainy Arizona.” Spurred by the pandemic and climate crisis, the world is changing faster than ever before – and our vocabulary is changing with it.

When the pandemic struck, we drastically changed our behaviour. The compromises we made were enormous. Businesses shut, and many spent the better part of two years in the confines of their home. We felt pangs of guilt if we had friends or family over for dinner. If there is one lesson we can glean from this turbulent time, it is that the world and people are capable of swiftly moving to evade immediate threats.

Climate change is happening – just open your phone’s news app and skip to the weather section

I ran often in the pandemic. One day this past summer, as I hesitantly went for a run after recognizing Vancouver’s Air-Quality Health Index (AQHI) was the worst in the world, and the sky was covered in a shroud of hazy smoke portending a strange apocalyptic world, I wondered, “when did we become ok with this?” Scientists point to climate change and biodiversity loss as two of the most serious issues of our time. Although we quickly adapted to reduce the impact of the pandemic, we still, for the most part, haven’t made radical sacrifices in the everyday behaviours that contribute to climate change. We’d rather stay indoors when the air quality is bad, than find ways to prevent the fires in the first place.

Climate change is slow and subtle. We have a cognitive bias to respond to immediate threats, pushing any thoughts about long-term challenges to the back of our minds.  Even as a Structural Engineer, I must admit that I chose to live in an older, dilapidated concrete building. The location and price was just too good. An earthquake won’t happen while I’m home. This is how we all generally think. It won’t happen to us. But it’s already happening – just open your phone’s news app and skip to the weather section. We need to make changes fast or “by mid-century, climate change could be just as deadly as COVID-19, and by 2100 it could be five times as deadly.”

At a policy level, the landscape is shifting quite quickly. We’ve eliminated straws and plastic bags, offered rebates on electric cars, and encouraged eating vegetarian. We are amidst a revolution of renewables – as these alternatives become less expensive, more reliable and more portable than ever before. And most relevant to myself and all those reading this, there are many emerging trends and policies addressing the built environment.

The world emits approximately 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year. The built environment accounts for nearly 40% of this; 27% of which is from building operations and 13% of which is locked up in embodied carbon, the portion we have the most influence over. Since we can’t stop building – in fact, we plan to add the equivalent of a New York City in built space to the world every month to meet the rapidly growing population – how can we possibly reach this lofty net zero goal?

It felt like a pipedream to achieve net zero embodied carbon in structural systems by 2050.

When Glotman•Simpson joined SE2050,it felt like a pipedream to achieve net-zero embodied carbon in structural systems by 2050. But now, as we’ve spent the last two years digging into it and understanding the facts, we realized it can be done collectively. Extremely challenging, but certainly achievable.

We are thrilled by our projects in mass timber and the opportunities we’ve had to repurpose existing structures such as on 843 N. Spring Street in Los Angeles and 365 Railway in Vancouver.  We know that reusing existing concrete or building with biogenic materials go a long way, but these project opportunities are few and far in between. Unfortunately, not every building can be built out of mass timber or on top of an existing one –  nor should it be.

We need to take a close hard look at antiquated construction and industry practices to determine when and where we can realistically drive the most impact. Steel and cement are still the primary contributors to embodied carbon, and they are ubiquitous. Concrete is the second-most-consumed product on the planet, after clean water. There are many innovative products and production methods emerging that will lower the impact of these materials, either by replacing harmful ingredients in the production process or by carbon capture. We are tracking these breakthrough technologies closely and will be quick to drive adoption when ready. In the meantime, significant changes can be made through close collaboration with all stakeholders – architects, contractors and developers – and creative design.

Even if the buildings we work on account for only a small part of the global emissions, my hope is that we can lead the way with novel practices and be an example to the rest of the world.

We have already achieved large reductions in embodied carbon through careful planning in the early stages of a project. Can we eliminate a transfer with a few small tweaks to architecture? We took another look at our general notes and material specifications to make improvements. What can we change at little cost to the owner or contractor? Why do certain mixes have a 28-day strength requirement when they can be 56-day with higher cement replacement content and no delay to the schedule? We’ve started reporting the embodied carbon on the front of our drawing sheets and introduced embodied carbon calculations in all our spreadsheets to optimize structural elements. What happens if we use high-strength concrete vs. low-strength concrete or increase the rebar ratio?  What if we introduce post-tensioning? These are the types of questions that are seemingly simple, but significant.

It’s easy to feel powerless in the fight against climate change. Reducing my meat consumption, recycling, and biking to work makes me feel good, but when expressed as a percentage of the 51 billion tons emitted, it isn’t overly encouraging. We must think beyond what we can do individually, rather what we can do as a community and an industry. I am excited by the opportunity we have at Glotman•Simpson to affect meaningful change through the buildings we design. Even if the buildings we work on account for only a small part of the global emissions, my hope is that we can lead the way with novel practices and be an example to the rest of the world.

Written by Harrison Glotman