16 Nov 23 | Southeast Asia Building Magazine

Decarbonisation in the Built Environment – Insights from Architects

In part 2 of the article examining decarbonization in the built environment, we ask architects to share with us their thoughts on how design can help to meet carbon reduction targets and the challenges that they face.

Dr. Christopher Drew, PhD, Director of Sustainability, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture

SEAB: What does decarbonisation mean to architects and designers?

CD: For me, decarbonization means significantly reducing or entirely removing carbon emissions. It can apply to processes, places, objects, events – anything that has a carbon footprint associated with it. Decarbonization should be a transformative process, that would typically involve eliminating fossil fuel derived energy with renewable energy. Offsetting carbon emissions is not the same as decarbonization, nor is it part of the decarbonization process. Electrification of a building, or transit system, on the other hand, can be part of the decarbonization process. Likewise, saving energy is often part of the decarbonization approach.

SEAB: How can architects and designers embrace decarbonisation in their design?

CD: I think an easy way to think of decarbonization is that it is the evolution of energy-efficient design, where instead of kWh or Dollars as a metric, it is carbon. That means that throughout the design process designers need to constantly ask themselves how their design can help reduce operational and embodied carbon emissions, how the building can become regenerative, be an integral part of a blended infrastructure approach.

SEAB: What are the obstacles / challenges?

CD: This holistic approach requires more thought and sophistication in terms of simulation and modeling. You can’t blindly consider operational emissions. For instance, using insulation to reduce energy use. How far to push the envelope is a function of climate: embodied carbon of the insulation product, grid emissions factor, costs, etc. Not everyone has the skillset or experience to find the right balance. The additional upfront study work invariably adds to the cost, and potentially time, of early design phases. At the same time, the engineering team should be able to reduce equipment sizes that yield construction cost savings. Nevertheless, for some clients this adjustment to the typical cost model can be off-putting. Ultimately, though, I think that the level of awareness of the importance of decarbonization within our industry has reached a point that most of our clients are either asking us to meet carbon reduction targets or are supportive when we propose them.

The image to the right shows the cover of a book called “ResiDensity: A Carbon Analysis of Residential Typologies” that Dr. Christopher Drew co-authored in house. “RESIDENSITY: A Carbon Analysis of Residential Typologies” is the culmination of a seven-year study analyzing nine building typologies to understand the relationships between building densities and the amount of land and infrastructure required to support them. The book investigates how much embodied and consumed carbon is used in each typology and how it affects density and open space from the viewpoint of sustainability, carbon emissions, and carbon sequestration. The study determines which building typology is the most sustainable on a comparative basis. Nine prototypical buildings were designed – Megatall, Supertall, High-Rise, Mid- Rise, Low-rise, Courtyard, Three-Flat, Urban Single-Family, and Suburban Single-Family – set within nine prototypical communities. The study designates an archetypal residential community of 2,000 units with an average unit size of 150 square metres as a reasonable and representative cross section of different housing typologies.

(Image credit: Copyright AS+GG/Photo by Andrew Griffiths from Lensaloft Aerial Photography)