With buildings accounting for 39 percent of CO2 emissions in the United States, the commercial building industry has much to do in terms of mitigating future risks and adapting to changes in the environment already taking place. Populations are further densifying in urban areas, compounding the need for the industry to act in the face of climate change.
With heat waves, wildfires, fierce tornadic activity, flooding and severe storms becoming a regular part of the news cycle, the commercial building industry needs to adapt for both safety reasons and the lifecycle of the structure. Buildings need to be made both resilient, like building above the anticipated floodplain, and sustainable, ie: solar panels and graywater reuse, in order to reach their potential. The specifics change greatly across the country as climates, and their extreme capabilities, differ from state to state. This often means designing buildings that not just meet, but exceed building code requirements.
Construction is one area that is bound to be affected as temperatures rise. Per Architect Magazine:
Architects should note that as temperatures rise construction will be hit particularly hard, because so much of it occurs in the open air. Keep burning CO2 like there’s no tomorrow, and by 2050 the 48 contiguous states will experience an average of 20 to 30 more days than now above 90 F. Any day hotter than 90 F cuts outdoor daily labor supply by up to 14 percent, because workers simply aren’t able to show up on site as regularly due to fatigue and illness.
Architects and material specifiers can help mitigate some of the harms commercial buildings commit, through the careful selection of building materials. As Gensler co-CEO Diane Hoskins writes for Building Design + Construction:
Energy efficiency is just one piece of the puzzle. It is also important to understand the energy it takes to manufacture, transport and dispose of common building materials. Taken together, iron and steel production are responsible for 31% of industrial CO2 emissions every year. Concrete is the second most consumed substance on earth after water, and its production is responsible for 8.6% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year. The use and disposal of these materials makes up a building’s embodied energy footprint, and this is one of the reasons why recycling unused building materials and construction waste is so important.
Building re-use and restoration is also a hot topic, being one of the lowest embodied CO2 options available. The best way to reduce the embodied energy in a new building is to not build it and instead adapt and renovate an existing building. This can net huge benefits for cost savings and save construction materials from landfill. The ever-diminishing inventory of commercial real estate in urban centers also benefits, as older buildings can be transformed for new purposes while maintaining much of their distinctive character.