Climate change – are architects the problem, or the solution?

By Devanshi Jagota

Devanshi Jagota is a 4th-year Architectural Science student at Ryerson University.

In 2020, my home of Newfoundland experienced a snowstorm and was hit hard by an avalanche which followed, leaving the entire province shut down within 2 days. People were left buried under 93 cm of snow in a state of emergency, with no food or electricity for 8 days. Environment and Climate Change Canada reported that the increasing frequency of stormy weather is not a traditional aspect of Newfoundland’s climate and the province is not yet prepared to experience the possibility of such storms becoming more frequent with the rising seas and sinking coastlines caused by global warming. 

It is this event which motivated me as a student of Architectural Science to learn more deeply into the phenomenon of climate change. Whilst Newfoundland was suffering a record breaking winter, in other corners of the world fires in the Amazon and the Australian bush were simultaneously creating havoc as resources, ecosystems, economic systems and animal habitats were damaged beyond repair. Scientists confirmed in the New York Times article that a 30% increase in wildfires can be directly attributed to human activity related climate change. There is a dire need for serious change in this world and everyone has a part to play. Naturally as an aspiring architect, I am looking towards possible architectural mitigations to this end.

How can sustainable design impact humans on a larger scale?

As cities become more dense, we continue to face issues such as affordability, health, living and food crises. With increasing global temperatures, the availability of natural resources like water, trees and animals decrease, resulting in an increased cost of water, electricity, food and living. 

Sustainable futures call for sustainable lifestyles. We must each of us commit to ways of living our day to day lives without further contributing to climate change. The prospect of a sustainable lifestyle is an important habit to get into. But where architecture is concerned, why not let our buildings do the work for a better future? 

MITIGATING CLIMATE CHANGE CRISIS THROUGH A CIRCULAR ECONOMY

The architecture and construction industries are the largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions today. Like many other industries, these are based on a linear economy model where natural raw materials used for the built environment end up in landfills after use, making the process inefficient, costly and unsustainable. It’s time to change this! 

The “Cradle to Cradle” certification system started by architect William Mcdonough and biologist Michael Braungart, which represents a circular economy, aims to lower the amount of waste produced by buildings. Based on “3Rs” – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, a concept we have all heard of, this system promotes materials to be used again after their end of life and provides long-term economic capital by reducing CO2, energy. and costs of construction. With high construction needs in growing cities, the consumption of natural resources is faster than its production. As such, if materials from one building are reused by another, this can reduce the annual CO2 production and the cost of building materials and housing.

SOLUTION TO THE HOUSING CRISIS

In addition to reusing building materials for cost efficiency, architecture school has taught me other ways to mitigate the increasing rent and housing costs. Passive house and Net-Zero design strategies can be the solution to creating equal access to shelter.

Passive house is an integration of high quality passive (no energy) systems and low quality power systems. Heating and cooling a building requires intense energy and resources, resulting in high electricity bills. However, by maximizing air tightness to prevent any leakage of heating or cooling in a building and designing well performing windows to naturally cool in the summer or heat in the winter through solar energy, the cost required to maintain a comfortable environment can be reduced. 

But what about other costs such as hydro or electricity? To reduce water costs, design elements such as rainwater management systems and greenroofs that filter and reuse rainwater into the building as drinking or shower water, heating, and providing fresh cool air can reduce water consumption and the cost of the building. The cost and consumption of electricity can also be reduced by implementing renewable energy on site. By orienting the building for maximum sun exposure, solar panels can produce enough energy to significantly reduce the cost of energy consumption. These passive strategies are not only efficient, but also provide solutions to adapt to extreme weather conditions such as flooding through rain water management, extreme heat, or loss of electricity. 

Lastly, sourcing sustainable materials that require minimal chemical treatment or maintenance over time can reduce the amount of energy, cost, and time used in constructing and manufacturing, resulting in lower levels of CO2. The Living, Nerri Oxman and 3XN/GXN architectural firms have taken a biological approach to architecture by using mushrooms and algae to create building elements to reduce waste, toxins and to increase affordability. Ryerson’s Architectural Science professor Cheryl Atkinson has based her research and design on net-zero housing as a response to affordable housing in Toronto. 

The Living re-designs bricks using mushroom mycelium. 100% compostable for community gardens. 

Ryerson professor Cheryl Atkinson’s Net-Zero passive house as a response to affordable housing. Sequesters 25 tonne of CO2.

REDUCING FOOD INSECURITY 

When at a grocery store, have you ever noticed how much of your food is imported? With an increase in population the demand for food has increased. But, the fluctuations in weather events such as extreme snow storms, frost, rain or droughts can make it difficult to produce fresh food at a fast rate. As a result, food is being imported and large amounts of forests are being cleared in certain areas for food production, increasing the cost and CO2 emissions. 

As architects and planners, we have the power to solve this problem by designing resilient cities which respond and adapt to climate impacts. Rather than destroying more of our forests, we can turn to rooftop gardens, urban farms, and balcony gardening, allowing people to have equal access to fresh and affordable food. Urban food production also can help prevent flooding by absorbing extensive rain water, balancing the ecosystem and providing habitats for animals on the verge of extinction such as bees and birds in cities. 

Examples of urban farms in Toronto include the parkdale community garden and Ryerson’s rooftop urban farm which feeds many low-income community members in Toronto who might not have access to fresh produce and healthy life.  

Ryerson’s Urban Farm – a quarter acre farm which produces 10,000 pounds of produce annually. 

HEALTH BENEFITS

Let’s talk about how buildings make us feel! After all, we spend most of our time indoors, whether it’s working, studying, relaxing or shopping. It is only fair to recognize that these buildings expose us to many toxic materials like plastics, sprays, glues, textiles and trapped dust. This often results in health issues related to our respiratory system, circadian rhythm, cognitive performance, and psychological health. While the physical problems associated with our built environment can be often ignored. However, biophilic properties like visual and non-visual connections to nature through rooftop gardens, natural light, fresh air and natural building materials aim to improve the quality of life of occupants. Access to areas for gardening provides an opportunity for physical activity, fresh air, and fresh food that are free of chemicals and toxins from artificial fertilizers, resulting in improved health.

Having a healthy environment with natural light throughout the day, operable windows for fresh air, and views or sounds of nature can improve our cognitive performance, sleep quality, mood, and mental health. Minimum exposure to artificial blue light also balances our body’s circadian rhythm (body’s clock), allowing for better sleep.

Dusty and toxic indoor environments can cause uncomfortable breathing, therefore switching to naturally and sustainably derived building elements like wood and household products improve respiratory systems and decrease allergic reactions. 

Soul Garden House incorporates biophilia to bring outside – in as a healing property. 

We are all in this together!

So what can we do?

Climate change does not end at large scale projects, but is the responsibility of every individual on a smaller scale as well. Small deeds can go a long way. Here are some simple ways I try to implement the idea of circular sustainability in my everyday life through:

  • Reading the small print or label – does a particular brand practice sustainably?
  • Re-use carrier bags, glass jars and plastic containers to reduce waste
  • Purchasing naturally derived, plant based products that can be composted
  • New isn’t always better – only “spend on things which will bring value to your life”. Thrift stores are good places for rehoming desirable items. 
  • Get creative – for example, I have been growing my own herbs and creating DIY self-watering plant pots using plastic water bottles.
  • Turn off lights. Turn down the heating. Time your showers. It saves you money and helps the environment!
  • Have a movie day! Educate by watching documentaries on Netflix. Chasing Corals provides powerful insight on the effects of climate change
  • Spread the word!

Final Intake

It is not the responsibility of one industry to bring about change. While the built environment can have a significant impact, sustainability is a holistic approach to living a better and healthier life. Our current situation regarding climate change is akin to the “frog in the saucepan” analogy. We may not perceive the danger of our current habits now, but if we are not careful, we will find ourselves at the point of no return. But we do have the opportunity to stop this by making small changes in our lives and our surroundings. As architects it is our responsibility to design with the community and the environment for its greater good. As humans, it is our responsibility to take care of the world around us that continues to provide us with resources and beautiful experiences.

Sources: 

Snow Storm NL: https://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/we-re-not-really-prepared-scientists-say-n-l-blizzard-a-sign-of-what-s-to-come-1.4793962 

Climate Change increasing wildfires: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/04/climate/australia-wildfires-climate-change.html

Velux – Toxic Indoor environment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygHU0mQGuJU

14 Patterns of Biophilia for health: https://www.terrapinbrightgreen.com/reports/14-patterns/?utm_medium=website&utm_source=archdaily.com

Circular Sustainability: http://www.buildingacircularfuture.com/book.

Cradle to Cradle: https://mcdonough.com/cradle-to-cradle/

Growing Cities:https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html

Soul Garden House: https://www.archdaily.com/921998/soul-garden-house-spacefiction-studio

Biophilia: https://www.archdaily.com/935258/biophilia-bringing-nature-into-interior-design

Net Zero house by Cheryl Atkinson: https://www.sustainable.to/blog/2019/5/15/net-zero-house-tackles-affordability-and-sustainability-cheryl-atkinson 

The Living, mushroom bricks: http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/ 

Ryerson Urban Farm https://www.ryerson.ca/foodsecurity/projects/activity_ryerson_urban_farm/

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