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courtesy of Gensler
Walmart Campus in Bentonville, Ark., By Gensler

With the conclusion of the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change in Glasgow last week, the global supply chain remains in turmoil. Unprecedented bottlenecks in ports are causing material shortages, construction delays, rising costs and other damaging disruption across industries. But in this time of chaos and climate crisis, we also find an opportunity to redefine the construction industry. By focusing on sustainable building materials and products, we can make a big difference in reducing carbon emissions, improving the resilience of global supply chains and creating a more sustainable future.

Every country and every sector has a role to play in climate action. The construction industry, in particular, today has the opportunity to take on a leadership role and quickly start implementing positive change. Buildings generate 40% of all emissions each year, with incorporated carbon, i.e. CO2 released from the harvesting, manufacturing and transportation of raw materials used in construction, accounting for approximately 11% of total emissions annually. This proportion increases as construction operations become more efficient and, by 2050, embodied carbon could account for half of all building emissions.

Andy cohen
courtesy of Gensler
Andy cohen

By focusing our energies on reducing the intrinsic carbon of the built environment, we have the potential to have a huge and lasting impact on the health of our world.

Better building materials

Where to start The materials that make up the structure of a building are among the biggest offenders. Cement, a component of concrete, represents nearly 10% of global emissions. Steel, widely used in building structures, is almost as carbon intensive. But other relatively low embodied energy materials are also available. The carbon footprint of wood, for example, is up to five times smaller than that of steel.

State-of-the-art design strategies now allow the use of less of these high-emitting materials; make the traditional structural materials we use more carbon-friendly; source materials locally, streamlining transport and reducing supply chain congestion; and to use alternative materials in a way that adds both aesthetic and commercial value to the projects.

An example of this strategy is the use of solid wood. This sturdy building material is made by gluing pieces of wood together to form thick structural elements such as cross-laminated timber panels. Like concrete, the material is fire resistant, but it has a much lower embodied energy, since wood sequesters large amounts of carbon. Solid timber elements can also be installed quickly on site, with additional benefits such as reduced construction time, traffic and noise, as well as minimal waste.

Walmart Campus in Bentonville, Ark., By Gensler
courtesy of Gensler
Walmart Campus in Bentonville, Ark., By Gensler

In Bentonville, Ark., Gensler’s design for Walmart’s new 350-acre campus illustrates the potential of this material. The project will use more than 1.7 million cubic feet of solid timber grown and produced in Arkansas on more than 2.4 million square feet of office space, making it the largest solid timber business campus currently under construction. in the USA. With ambitious sustainable development goals – efforts put people and the planet first by aiming to source responsibly, eliminate waste and emissions, sell sustainable products and protect and restore nature – the design approach will create a winning and inspiring work environment that fosters a healthy mind and body for associates, allowing Walmart to continue to attract top talent as it looks to the future.

Another example is 3855 Watseka, an urban infill site in downtown Culver City, California. With a striking jagged roof that draws in sunlight and natural ventilation deep into the building, the project will be the first in Culver City to use CLT timber framing on the top floor of an office. This design movement not only improves the user experience and elevates the aesthetic value of the building; this means that the building requires less steel and concrete, which reduces its overall carbon footprint.

3855 Watseka in Culver City, CA, by Gensler
courtesy of Gensler
3855 Watseka in Culver City, CA, by Gensler

Healthier finishes and furniture

Another possibility of reducing emissions is inside buildings. While structural materials have the greatest initial impact on embodied carbon, interior components, which are often replaced every few years, can quickly build up. This repeated rolling of materials over the life of a project can ultimately result in an equal or greater share of the lifetime carbon footprint than structural materials.

To rectify this cycle, designers must consider the materiality and lifespan of furniture and interior finishes. What is a product made of? How much space will it take during shipping or transportation? Can it be easily disassembled and recycled once its maintenance is complete? Or can it be reused or reused? Environmental product claims (reports that summarize a product’s environmental information) are a useful tool for making smart design choices.

Arper Mixu seating collection
Salva Lopez
Arper Mixu seating collection

This forward-looking approach to product design guided Gensler’s development of the Mixu seating collection for the Arper furniture brand. Originally commissioned to design a new plastic chair, our team drew on the knowledge and experience of Gensler’s design directors around the world, learning what designers and customers want most in terms of design. furnishing is the possibility of personalizing. The three-part chair fulfills this need while also achieving sustainability goals through ‘design for teardown’. The discreet components (seat, back and base) use post-industrial recycled plastic, 100% recyclable plastics, recycled steel and FSC certified wood. The upholstery can be zipped and changed, extending its use. And, there are no adhesives, staples, or plastic-metal co-molding, allowing for complete disassembly – useful both in transit (smaller boxes mean a lower environmental footprint. for shipping) and at the end of the chair’s life, when the components can be recycled.

The way to go

Envisioning a more resilient future for the entire building materials supply chain, Gensler is taking the lead with a green materials initiative which focuses on reducing high carbon materials, using the most efficient structural solutions to reduce material quantities, sourcing locally mined and manufactured materials and minimizing waste. Having launched this effort in early 2022, we will prioritize working with partners (engineers and contractors, engineers, general contractors and beyond) who meet these standards and use materials that significantly reduce emissions related to pollution. construction. Not only will this initiative help ensure that our clients’ properties meet new sustainability mandates, building codes, tenant requirements and health requirements, but this shift in the demand for sustainable materials will have a knock-on effect. powerful and lasting drive across the entire building and supply sector. chain — and across our world.


The opinions and conclusions of this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or the American Institute of Architects.

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