Cities and Urbanization

6 ways to improve the resilience of the built environment

Clouds are reflected in the Midi Tower, the headquarters of the National Pensions Office, in downtown Brussels in Belgium June 21, 2015. Picture taken June 21. REUTERS/Charles Platiau       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - GF10000135833

There is no greater impact we can have on a building’s overall performance than its design. Image: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Diane Hoskins
Co-Chief Executive Officer, Gensler
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One phenomenon we have seen over the past year is the movement to combat climate change has transitioned to one led by cities, states, and businesses. While national and multi-national leadership is needed in this important effort, it is actually a good sign that cities, states, and businesses are moving into an activist mode. If you look to the past, you find that it is often the case that “bottom-up” efforts actually supersede national policy. From a practical standpoint, these bottom-up initiatives can be implemented more quickly, and the variety of approaches can pave the way to establishing best practices.

In fact, bottom-up leadership impacts on broad existential challenges is nothing new to American progress. With our summer excursions and regular getaways, we typically associate speed limit laws with our federal interstate highways. However, it was actually cities and states who first led the charge to implement safety speed regulations.

At the turn of the twentieth century, car ownership growth outpaced infrastructure investment, including the installation of streetlights and road signs. To curb the growing amount of car accidents, New York City and the State of Connecticut passed the nation's first traffic codes in the early 1900s. During the next 30 years, most states passed similar speed control laws, paving the way for speed limits to be established for federal highways. This and many other examples of positive change have been brought about by innovative leaders at the city and state level.

Today, just as these bottom-up movements in the past helped shift the national conscious on how we think about automobile safety, we are currently seeing mayors, governors, and business leaders innovating to impact the issue of climate change. I am optimistic that this is the type of leadership that we need to make a difference. No doubt, national and multi-national policies will be based on what we learn from these leaders.

Just a few weeks ago, California governor Jerry Brown hosted the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, where states, cities, universities, and cities reiterated their pledge for the U.S. to achieve a low-carbon future. At the same event, government representatives from China and California signed a climate change partnership to identify ways China can work with California to collectively hit targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The partnership between China and California signals that state governments are increasingly becoming more influential in helping push previous slow movers, like China, on taking serious steps to address climate change.

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In fact, bottom-up initiatives like this are becoming more frequent. Last month, a group of 17 U.S. governors announced an alliance to combat climate change through green policies aimed to reduce emissions while pledging $1.4 million to build the infrastructure needed to support electric cars. This past summer, 19 global cities, representing 130 million urban residents, signed a declaration that all new buildings constructed by 2030 would be carbon neutral.

These are good steps.

These efforts emulate actions long taken by the business community, which has been the leaders in embracing the business case for resiliency and pushing for a carbon neutral future. The private sector has been busy making science-based emission targets to help reach goals spelled out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, in addition to making socially responsible investments in companies with green portfolios and retrofitting their operations and design to be more "green.”

At Gensler, we believe it is our global responsibility to set an example for our clients and peers while inspiring design students to imagine a more resilient built environment. In our third annual Impact by Design report, released today, we highlight our 1.25-billion square feet of project work that was designed to prevent nearly 11 million metric tons of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere each year. We make a case for more resilience planning, which includes both design strategies and the adoption of transformative practices that change how we approach climate change.

In our report, we discuss six key ways our leaders see having the most potential for helping us be resilient to the impacts of climate change.

1: Experiment with New Forms for Cities and Buildings

As designers, there is no greater impact we can have on a building’s overall performance than its design. To achieve the goal of resilient design, it will require openness to experimentation with technology, location, orientation, and other elements. Our design of the Harbin Bank Headquarters in Beijing couples a high-performance facade system with automatic blinds to better control cooling and sunlight, resulting in 50 percent summer energy savings and 32 percent less heat loss.

2: Select Low-Impact Materials for Buildings

More energy is expended during the manufacture, delivery, and assembly of materials than any other during a building’s life cycle. Our portfolio places emphasis on this point, as seen with First United Banks in Texas. Our design focuses on long-term impact by leveraging its renewable timber structure to help offset 190 tons of carbon dioxide, resulting in the building being 42 percent more efficient than code requirements.

3: Adapt Existing Buildings to Improve Performance

Just in the U.S., over 80 percent of the population currently lives in urban areas, so any opportunity for us to not tear down a building and optimize its energy performance is the ideal solution. One project that is emblematic of Gensler’s philosophy of balancing experience and performance is One Post Office Square in Boston. The conversion of this single-use commercial office building into a new mixed-use destination re-uses over 50 percent of the original building materials and is expected to yield a 32 percent energy reduction over Boston code.

4: Reduce and Procure Energy

Big picture paths to minimizing operational carbon footprint involve both energy reduction and energy creation, which happens both onsite and from energy grids. While there are still some markets without access to smart energy grids, designers can utilize onsite renewable technologies to help produce energy. The California State University, Northridge Sustainability Center’s rooftop uses a photovoltaic system and a “daylight autonomous” lighting design to offset energy requirements and eliminate the need for artificial light during the day.

5: Design Cities and Buildings with Water in Mind

It is critical that the designers of individual buildings in our coastal cities consider the use of durable materials capable of withstanding water damage. Also, urban planners should reimagine the design of their cities and how canals and dedicated wetlands can help combat the influxes of sea water. One such Gensler Sea Level Rise research proposal for Miami suggests a series of cut/fill canals that channel water into flood-proofed sites, which would help shift the mindset from keeping water out to flood management.

Image: Gensler- Impact by Design Report 2018

6: Use Real-Time Data to Improve Performance and Experience

When innovative technology systems respond to real-time conditions and allow building occupants to have more direct control, there is the potential to significantly reduce the amount of energy needed, while improving both performance and the human experience. Johnson Control’s Asia Pacific headquarters utilizes intelligent lighting systems with daylight dimming, occupancy sensors, and automated shades to help optimize performance and reduce water use by 42 percent and energy use by 44 percent.

By fully integrating these people-centric strategies, we can ensure that our projects are designed to make a positive impact on our world. We, at Gensler, must continue to serve as role models for business and city builders while continuing to work with local leaders. Whether it is a top-down or bottom-up approach, we know that design has a central role in helping create resilient and healthy communities for years to come.

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Related topics:
Cities and UrbanizationSustainable Development
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