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Is Choosing the Right Building Materials Enough for Carbon-Neutral Architecture?

 

Addressing a carbon-neutral approach in architecture should not be limited to local materials and new technologies, because numerous factors influence the construction production chain. Without losing sight of our society’s context and economic system, the construction industry is responsible for a significant portion of the energy consumed globally, from design to construction. To intervene in this reality, it is necessary to broaden the fronts of action, questioning the role of construction in our society.

Climate change has been a persistent design issue for a few years now. Buildings consume roughly 60% of total energy and emit nearly half of it as embodied carbon dioxide (CO2) through cement production, the combustion of fossil fuels such as coal and gas, and so on. This CO2 traps solar energy in the atmosphere, raising our planet’s overall temperature.

Climate change raises some serious concerns, calling into question our current way of life and prompting people to look for new ways to combat it. One of the most important ways to mitigate climate change will be to seize carbon from the atmosphere.

Carbon-Neutral Architecture

Carbon neutrality is the concept of canceling or negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activities by reducing existing carbon dioxide emissions and implementing methods of absorbing these gases into the atmosphere. This concept has been incorporated into some architectural practices in recent years, primarily in large corporate projects located primarily in wealthier cities around the world, resulting in the development of technologies, tools, and knowledge that demonstrate carbon-neutral architecture.

A net exporter of zero energy is a building that generates energy in excess of its demand (a surplus of renewable or carbon-neutral energy) and exports the rest to another off-site to meet its energy demand. They consume atmospheric carbon for their construction in this style of architecture, absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere than it emits.

Despite the fact that it is a broad debate, carbon-neutral architecture tends to emerge primarily from two fronts in architectural practice discussion: design strategies and construction technology. It aims to reduce its environmental impact by consuming as little as possible of its surroundings and producing as little waste as possible. To that end, projects typically include strategies that address this dynamic, such as reducing the need for air conditioning through passive design solutions that make use of natural cross ventilation and material thermal inertia. In addition to passive design strategies, technologies such as energy self-sufficiency, which consists of producing what is required from wind or solar equipment, or even the retention and use of rainwater, are being widely investigated in carbon-neutral projects.

Since there are many factors that impact the construction production chain, discussing carbon neutrality in architecture should not be limited to local materials and new technologies. The construction industry is responsible for a significant portion of the energy consumed globally, from design to construction, without losing sight of the context and economic system of our society. It is necessary to broaden the fronts of action in order to intervene in this reality, while also questioning the role of construction in our society.

Under the right circumstances, carbon can be considered a long-term resource. Climeworks’ newly discovered technology, dubbed Direct Air Capture Devices (DAC), suckers carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into useful materials. This also assists us in achieving net-zero emissions. The carbon released into the atmosphere can be used to make cement and other building materials.

Since there are many factors that impact the construction production chain, discussing carbon neutrality in architecture should not be limited to local materials and new technologies. The construction industry is responsible for a significant portion of the energy consumed globally, from design to construction, without losing sight of the context and economic system of our society. It is necessary to broaden the fronts of action in order to intervene in this reality, while also questioning the role of construction in our society.

While these strategies focus on the upkeep and useful life of buildings, it’s worth noting that 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption is related to the processing, production, and transportation of construction materials. This means that, in addition to resource reuse and energy efficiency, an important neutral architecture strategy is to map the construction production chain with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and proposing alternative solutions within the scales available, such as changing the construction technique, prioritizing local materials and vernacular techniques, or local consumption, seeking suppliers and workers from nearby locations.

However, it is important to note that construction is one of the world’s most important economic activities, playing an important role in the employment of people and the movement of resources, and has at various times represented an important ally in the economic recovery in the midst of crises. Simultaneously, following the industrial revolution, the construction industry incorporated a logic that transformed the entire production chain in the pursuit of efficiency and speed, not only on construction sites but also in the way natural materials were extracted and transformed, to the detriment of the environment and labor relations.

Despite many efforts and research, it is becoming increasingly clear that this production logic is incompatible with a carbon-neutral production chain, as well as the continuation of life on the planet as we know it today.

The Flipside

An architect has a huge responsibility in combating the alarming issue of climate change. One way is to reduce the use of energy-intensive and carbon-intensive technology like lighting and air conditioning and replace it with passive ventilation. Buildings can now be constructed using renewable energy resources and emit fewer pollutants thanks to technological advancements.

As a result, discussions on carbon-neutral architecture must include, in addition to technology and design themes, debates on the civil construction supply chain and how the context influences acceptance and incorporation of these solutions into projects, in order to broaden the debate and, as a result, its performance.

Following the UK government’s new policy for carbon-neutral homes, many architecture firms are submitting carbon-neutral project proposals in order to meet the country’s housing standards. This will soon start to appear in other countries, paving the way for a new era in architecture.

As the sustainability movement gains traction, many people are stepping forward to do their part to help Mother Nature. Carbon is important to the architecture industry in terms of goods and materials, while also encouraging people to choose a path that leads to a better future.

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