Christoph Mayr, the Head or Risk & Portfolio at Allianz Real Estate of America, points to the sad irony that while buildings are main contributors of the climate crisis, they are also vulnerable to the effects of climate change: “There’s three trillion US Dollars [worth] of insured coastal property in New York State alone that´s vulnerable (…) major parts of Lower Manhattan will just be flooded if we can´t slow down climate change.”
Christopher Williams, Head of UN Habitat, urged those in attendance to think about climate change as one of the fallouts of mass urbanization, remarking: “People are moving to cities at a speed that is unprecedented.” Already by 2030, 43 megacities of the world will have populations exceeding 10 million people, and by 2050, 68% of the world population is expected to live in cities. This accelerated urbanization will create an increased demand for housing in an already challenged industry. As Freed observes: “There are big cities all over the world that can´t build as fast as they want to (…) and overpopulation keeps in fuelling all this demand.”
“How do we forecast what may or may not happen in the future and build to that is one question. But then, I think, how do we build past the immediate future to think about the long view?”
- Sean Anderson
So while the concept of sustainability isn’t new, the formation of green building and sustainable architecture as a distinct field can be dated to the early Nineties in the US. In that short time, the field has experienced strong development in moving from code minimum houses, to green buildings, to net zero buildings, to introducing a rating system for environmentally sound buildings called LEED (LEED - Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design).
Content, technology, terminology, objectives, and understanding of sustainable building have changed dramatically over the past thirty years, as green buildings have become a good business, and a vast ecosystem of green commerce has grown in tandem with LEED (and as LEED certification has increased building value). Mayr reports that while 80 percent of Allianz’s real estate portfolio in North America is already LEED-certified, LEED certification, or similar European standards, are only a starting point, albeit a good one: “Because we can create awareness, we can focus on sustainable buildings and, over time, achieve our zero net carbon emission portfolio.”
New standards and green building entities like the International Living Future Institute, are advocating for net positive, regenerative building practices, effectively calling for buildings to give more energy than they take. Building materials now not only include recycled material or lower volatile organic compounds, but also increased transparency around content and process. Active and passive green technologies like solar panelling, roof gardens, and bio-based insulation methods are becoming routine, attesting to a heightened awareness level. Even prefabrications, like the 3D printing of an entire building, is no longer a pie in the sky vision, but instead surfaces wholly new possibilities for the sector: “Things we would have thought unimaginable five years ago, are now being discussed in mainstream projects that we are working on today,” according to Freed.
Youssef Kalad, Program Director within the New York City Mayor´s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, agrees, pointing to the recently passed, sweeping building emissions legislation dubbed, “The Green New Deal,” which has already impressed city dwellers by showing them what´s possible and realistic and by paving the way for sustainable architecture to become a mass phenomenon. Williams seconded the importance of creating best practice precedents in this field, explaining, “The fact that it can be possible in one city, means that it's going to be understood by other municipal authorities in other cities.”.
Both in theory and in practice, sustainable architecture is very much alive. Though criticism of the practice and roadblock in development remain, advancements in the field have been made. Even still, given the severity of the climate situation, many question whether progress is moving fast enough. Williams agrees, citing the next decade and a half as crucial: “Most of the scientists I am in touch with on climate change are terrified. (…) They look at the next 15 years - as do most people in the United Nations and the international community - as pivotal.”
Against that backdrop, a paradigm shift seems necessary. One of the most prolific disruptors in the field of sustainable building, Eric Corey Freed, predicts, welcomes and works toward the possibility of changing the paradigm to grow what he calls living, breathing buildings. Making such thinking possible is the “revolution called synthetic biology, (…) essentially this idea that (…) we could manipulate the DNA to do what we wanted”. Pointing to the magnificent success of scientists in growing entire functioning organs, manipulating DNA to grow an entire structure could be the future of the building industry. Using “probably a hybrid of several different of nature´s technologies. Coral mixed with plant, mixed with mycelium, mixed with bacteria, for example. [These regenerative buildings] could absorb carbon, could absorb volatile organic compounds”.
“I'm very keen in making a stronger linkage between the aspects of inequality and environmental sustainability. I think the two should not be dealt with separately.”
- Christopher Williams
Most of the panel also agreed that equating sustainable architecture with green architecture isn’t enough. On this point, Freed spoke about the overall equity of buildings, raising the question of what makes a building truly sustainable: “Would you still call it a sustainable building if it´s built with the latest materials and the best systems, but [doesn’t] pay a liveable, fair wage to its employees?” Williams sees sustainable architecture as comprising several factors: the identity and content of a space, the business opportunity it creates, and its affordability.
The panel argued for a more holistic view of sustainable architecture, one that elevates the role of architect to problem solver, and embeds them in the community and ecosystem as part of the wider urban space. Similarly, Anderson sees sustainable architects as catalysts for intersections between community members and the environment, while Kalad feels sustainable architecture needs to be “part of the fabric of all of the social movements that we have in the city (…), part of a broader vision and a broader movement” in order to have true impact and become a mass phenomenon. Williams has seen this kind of dynamic collaboration between the stakeholders of urban ecosystems already at work at UN Habitat, where architects serve as important parts of a constituency of planners, community organizations, governments, private investors and wide cross-section of professional associations.