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Net zero building design starts with industry climate pledges

April 18, 2024

By Beth Tomlinson

Joining industry climate pledges supports sustainability initiatives and decarbonization

The globe is full of buildings. From ancient ruins like the Parthenon in Athens, Greece, to modern skyscrapers, these buildings are part of our daily lives. But buildings need to change.

In the face of climate change, the global building industry must act. We need to cut our 2015 baseline greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in half by 2030. This is crucial to limit the worst impacts of climate change. Already across the globe, climate change is causing more frequent natural disasters, leading to economic and community losses. GHGs are a primary contributor to climate change. And the building and construction industry is responsible for 37 percent of annual global CO2 emissions. 

The building and construction industry is responsible for 37 percent of annual global CO2 emissions. Following climate pledges is a way to start making changes.

Net zero building design is no longer simply nice to have. It is where we are heading.

I said earlier that the building industry must act. At Stantec, we are committed to doing it. In the past few years, we have committed to three leading climate pledges.

They support our sustainability initiatives. And they will reduce GHG emissions in the buildings we design. The three commitments are the AIA 2030 Commitment, SE 2050 Commitment, and MEP 2040 Commitment. Each targets specific aspects of decarbonizing buildings.

Let’s look at each of them. What they mean to our collective future. And to net zero building design. 

AIA 2030: Reducing operational emissions

Based on Architecture 2030’s Challenge, the American Institute of Architects established the AIA 2030 Commitment. The goal? To reach net zero emissions in the building industry by 2030. We are a signatory firm. That means we prioritize efficient building design, which reduces operational emissions. We know that each project has environmental impacts. As designers, we inform our clients about these. And we offer more sustainable long-term solutions.

The Denver Water Administration Building in Colorado embraced sustainable features. These include onsite solar, radiant slab powered by the central utility plant, a high-efficiency triple pane-glazed window system, and biophilic design.

We are making progress. Last year, we predicted 47 percent energy savings in the over 36 million square feet of our projects reported for the AIA 2030 Commitment.

More clients are setting ambitious sustainability goals. It’s what we want to see. Our team’s design of Denver Water’s new 190,000-square-foot Administration Building achieved LEED Platinum certification and net zero energy. To get to net zero, we had to use several strategies. And it’s an example of how we need to design today and in the future.

For Denver Water, we looked at highly efficient building design, an innovative heating/cooling central plant, water reuse, and 1.3 megawatt on-site solar array. Many of these tactics can work on other projects.

SE 2050: Reducing emissions in structural design

Cutting embodied carbon is key to fighting climate change. It contributes about 11 percent of global CO2 emissions. In 2019, the Structural Engineering Institute introduced the SE 2050 Commitment. Its goal is to eliminate embodied carbon in structural systems by 2050. Some structural systems use a lot of carbon. These include concrete, masonry, and steel. To support SE 2050, we annually report emissions from structural engineering analysis. It helps support the industry’s need for benchmarks and to track progress over time. 

UCSF Mission Bay Block 34 in San Francisco, California, used building energy modeling throughout the design to identify effective sustainability strategies.

But how do we build without concrete, masonry, and steel? New sustainable materials are entering the marketplace. We are seeing alternative cements that have lower emissions but are still structurally sound and safe. US and Canadian manufacturers are creating steel that is up to 93 percent recycled content. Mass timber and cross-laminated timber are lighter weight, sustainable, renewable, and help store carbon. But how do we make the needed changes? Through procurement, efficient use of materials, availability, and innovative design.

Here's an example of putting some of these decisions into action. As part of the design for the new UCSF Mission Bay Block 34, our team did a whole building life-cycle assessment. We found 36 percent savings in embodied carbon. Structural design strategies included alternative concrete mixes and steel profiles. We also proposed local material resources, which leads to less environmental impact from transportation. The project’s parking garage is open; the clinic is set to open in August.

MEP 2040: Reducing emissions in MEP design

To reduce carbon, it’s important to look at every part of the building. That includes the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) systems. In 2021, the Carbon Leadership Forum established the MEP 2040 Commitment. It calls for all MEP systems in projects to target zero operational and embodied emissions by 2040.

For our MEP engineers, it means they are exploring innovative design solutions, low-carbon materials, low global warming potential refrigerants, and energy-efficient technologies. These will help reduce the carbon footprint of building systems. When we think of MEP, we’re talking about heating, cooling, lighting, and so much more. We are collaborating with industry peers to develop benchmarking and reporting methods for MEP specification. This helps us make informed choices in the solutions we design for our clients.

Net zero building design is no longer simply nice to have. It is where we are heading.

Progressing to net zero building design  

We can meet climate commitments and achieve carbon-neutral building design. How? Start by thanking policy and regulations. In addition, we have technological progress, global energy transitions, and industry collaboration.

Climate pledges like AIA 2030, SE 2050, and MEP 2040 are affecting the building industry’s standard design practices. Remember, the globe is covered in buildings. The structures of Ancient Greece may be standing the test of time but for the buildings we’re designing today, we must act with urgency. We can’t wait to address the operational and embodied carbon emissions.

As a team of design professionals, we are up to the challenge. Dedication to sustainability is at the heart of how we operate and the solutions we deliver to our clients and communities. We are proud to be part of the journey to reaching net zero building design.

  • Beth Tomlinson

    Beth has 20 years of experience in research and building design, resiliency, commissioning, and energy auditing. She is currently focused on integrating climate change mitigation and adaptation, commissioning, and energy transitions within projects.

    Contact Beth
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