When we talk about decarbonization, we talk not only about the building industry, but the future of our planet. The reality of climate change has been laid before us and as architects and designers, we have a responsibility to act quickly to shift our industry away from carbon as a source of energy and from carbon-intensive materials. The construction industry accounts for 39% of carbon emissions globally and building operations a whopping 28%, leaving 11% to the construction process itself! Architecture 2030 estimates that 80% of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from construction will come from embodied carbon within the first ten years of new buildings lifecycles. This 10-year window is crucial in the fight to mitigate severe climate change. Supporting renewable energy infrastructure is not only an environmentally sound thing to do, but also has serious economic benefits. The notion that renewable energy is extremely expensive is an outdated concept; in fact, the cost of building and operating new solar and wind power has fallen below the cost of operating existing coal-powered utilities. According to E3, gas rates could increase from $1.50 per therm today to $19 per therm by 2050, so as the cost of renewables continues to fall, carbonized sources of energy will only grow exponentially more expensive.

Decarbonization supports human health and safety as well.  According to new World Health Organization (WHO) estimates, air pollution accounts for one in eight deaths worldwide. In fact, WHO has called indoor air pollution “the world’s largest single environmental health risk.” This shocking statistic can be attributed to the fact that indoor air, which people are exposed to 90% of their day on average, is often more polluted than outdoor air.  Some of this pollution results from material off-gassing and deterioration, but the main culprits are fuel-burning combustion appliances, which release harmful and sometimes fatal gases such as Nitrogen Oxide and Carbon Monoxide. Scientists have also linked these pollutants to chronic health issues such as asthma.  Thus, the elimination of fossil fuel combustion removes a prime source of toxicity in indoor environments.

Considering how detrimental greenhouse gas is environmentally, financially, and human health-wise, it is no surprise that Lionakis has begun shifting away from gas as a viable source of energy and is working to incorporate renewable energy when feasible for the project scope and budget. Claire Lilienthal Elementary is an excellent example of a cost-efficient and holistic approach to decarbonization.  The project’s overall goal was to reach Net Zero Energy. Though NZE is not inherently carbon-neutral, the reduction of building energy use is the important first step in decarbonization.  The project team achieved a significant reduction in lighting load by conducting daylighting studies and incorporating passive design strategies such as solar tubes, light shelves, and lighting controls.  Building energy use was further reduced through dual pane insulated glazing and natural ventilation strategies.  Though the project did not initially have the budget for on-site renewables, Lionakis designed electrical systems and rooftop MEP in anticipation of this infrastructure.  This foresight allowed on-site PVs to be installed shortly after construction, leading to a Carbon Neutral and Net-Zero building.

Over 100 countries have pledged carbon neutrality by 2050 to meet the 2-degree Celsius threshold laid before us by the scientific community. To reach this paramount goal, we must cut CO2 emissions in half by 2030.  Our actions over the course of the next decade will decide the environmental reality for generations to come.  As members of the building industry, when we continue to invest in fossil fuels and gas-powered infrastructure, we are effectively “locking in” continued CO2 emissions through the continued operation of our buildings.  As the building industry accounts for 38% of all global greenhouse gas emissions, the largest single contributing industry, we will not reach the environmental goals laid before us without all of our commitment. As an early signer of the AIA 2030 Commitment, Lionakis supports decarbonization for the future.