Achieving Net Zero

Imagine a world where climate change goes unchecked, a chilling and apocalyptic vision emerges, painting a stark and grim depiction of our planet’s fate. The once-vibrant landscapes have been transformed into desolate wastelands, where scorching temperatures render the Earth’s surface inhospitable.

Cities that once bustled with life now stand as decaying ruins, consumed by rising seas and ravaged by relentless storms. Coastal areas have become submerged, and what remains of once-thriving communities cling desperately to the few remaining patches of higher ground.

As the planet continues to warm, ancient ice sheets crumble into the sea, causing a catastrophic rise in sea levels. Coastal megacities are submerged, their towering skyscrapers now underwater tombs. The relentless expansion of the deserts engulfs once-fertile regions, leaving behind a barren expanse of sand and dust.

The purpose of this grim depiction is not to instill fear, but to underscore the urgency of our actions. It is a call to rally together, to recognize our responsibility to the planet and to each other. As we shall see, design professionals can play a critical role in mitigating carbon emissions through their design decisions and practices.

According to the EPA, the earth’s climate is changing. Multiple lines of evidence show changes in our weather, oceans, and ecosystems. Factors include:

• Changing temperature and precipitation patterns

• Increases in ocean temperatures, sea level, and acidity

• Melting of glaciers and sea ice

• Changes in the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme weather events

• Shifts in ecosystem characteristics, like the length of the growing season, timing of flower blooms, and migration of birds

Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas contributing to recent climate change. Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels, solid waste, trees, and other biological materials, and as a result of certain chemical reactions, such as cement manufacturing. Carbon dioxide is absorbed and emitted naturally as part of the carbon cycle, through plant and animal respiration, volcanic eruptions, and ocean-atmosphere exchange.

What occurs when we elevate the mission of minimizing buildings’ environmental footprint to a higher plane? Over the course of more than twenty years, LEED has furnished a blueprint for exceptional performance in buildings and spaces, curbing greenhouse gas emissions by implementing strategies that influence land use, energy consumption, transportation, water efficiency, waste management, and material choices. Expanding upon these accomplishments, the USGBC has introduced LEED Zero, an extension of LEED that validates the attainment of net-zero objectives in existing buildings.

There are 4 LEED Zero programs:

LEED Zero Carbon recognizes net zero carbon emissions from energy consumption through carbon emissions avoided or offset over a period of 12 months.

LEED Zero Energy recognizes a source energy use balance of zero over a period of 12 months.

LEED Zero Water recognizes a potable water use balance of zero over a period of 12 months.

LEED Zero Waste recognizes buildings that achieve GBCI’s TRUE certification at the Platinum level.

LEED Zero represents a new level of achievement in green building that is not just attainable but is the goal of LEED certified projects around the world.

LEED Zero encourages a holistic approach for buildings and places to enhance the health and well-being of building occupants and the natural environment. This work is even more important in light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report from October 2018, describing the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C to 2°C above pre-industrial levels on environmental, human health and economic systems. In sum, climate change requires fundamental shifts to the structure and consumption habits of human society as well as adaptive and integrated carbon reduction, sustainable development and resilience strategies deployed at all scales.

Design Professionals play a critical role in mitigating carbon emissions through their design decisions and practices. Here’s how project teams can contribute to reducing carbon emissions:

Sustainable Design Philosophy:
Embrace a sustainability-focused design philosophy that prioritizes minimizing environmental impact and carbon emissions in every project.

Passive Design Strategies:
Incorporate passive design principles that optimize natural lighting, ventilation, and thermal comfort, reducing the need for energy-intensive heating, cooling, and lighting systems.

Energy-Efficient Building Systems:
Integrate energy-efficient HVAC, lighting, and renewable energy systems to reduce operational carbon emissions. Specify high-performance building envelopes with proper insulation and glazing to minimize energy losses.

Material Selection:
Choose low-carbon and sustainable materials with a reduced carbon footprint, considering both embodied carbon (from production) and operational carbon (during use).
Prioritize recycled and locally sourced materials to minimize transportation emissions.

Lifecycle Assessment (LCA):
Conduct lifecycle assessments to understand the full environmental impact of design choices, including carbon emissions, from material extraction to construction and operation.

Adaptability and Flexibility:
Design buildings that are adaptable to changing needs and technologies to prevent premature demolition and associated carbon emissions.

Green Space Integration:
Incorporate green spaces, such as gardens and living walls, to absorb carbon dioxide and provide a natural cooling effect.

Collaboration and Education:
Collaborate closely with engineers, contractors, and clients to ensure sustainable design strategies are effectively implemented. Educate clients and stakeholders about the benefits of sustainable design and the potential for carbon emissions reduction.

Renewable Energy Integration:
Integrate renewable energy sources like solar panels, wind turbines, or geothermal systems into building design to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Building Performance Monitoring:
Advocate for post-occupancy evaluations to monitor the actual performance of designed buildings and make necessary adjustments for optimal energy efficiency.

Sustainable Urban Planning:
Participate in urban planning projects that promote compact, mixed-use developments, reducing the carbon footprint associated with transportation.

Green Certifications:
Work towards green building certifications like LEED to ensure designs adhere to rigorous sustainability standards.

Advocacy and Policy Engagement:
Advocate for policies and regulations that encourage sustainable design and construction practices at local, regional, and national levels. By implementing these strategies, architects can contribute significantly to reducing carbon emissions, creating more sustainable and resilient built environments for current and future generations.

Project teams wanting to know more about the LEED Zero Programs should download the free guide at the USGBC website. The guide discusses the program requirements, calculations, documentation, and provides examples for project teams.

With each blueprint we draw, each structure we create, we hold within our hands the ability to curate a symphony of innovation and eco-consciousness, turning the tide against climate adversity. Let our buildings be monuments to ingenuity, embracing renewable resources, maximizing efficiency, and inviting nature’s grace into every corner. Let our designs be imbued with purpose, and our structures echo the sentiment that through mindful design, we bridge the chasm between humanity’s aspirations and the planet’s preservation.

Design professionals wanting to learn more should check out this new USGBC course.

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