Beyond Net Zero

Ethical engagement and proper planning for the environment and the community in building and construction

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The United Nations’ Integrated Panel and Climate Change (IPCC)’s Summary for Policy Makers released in October 2018 outlines the immediate measures required to limit global warming to 1.5 °C by 2100. To achieve this target, global action would require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities,” to cut the net emissions of CO2 by half of current levels by 2030, and reaching “net zero” by 2050. This announcement is a call to collective action unlike any in human history. It inherently requires global cooperation for an issue that has no borders, and whose constituency is absolute. The complexity of this challenge is immense—an overwhelming problem too large and interconnected for any one entity to grapple with.

For us in the construction industry—whose work cuts across these six sectors: land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities—this complexity is further compounded by a systemic illiteracy of the direct and indirect impacts our decisions and specifications have from cradle to gate. Our focus on “sustainability” and operational energy has exacerbated this issue via the unintended consequence of both delaying our investments into reducing embodied energy and, arguably worse, building a globalized supply chain to enable energy efficiency. While we now have a firm grasp on the U-Value of a casement window, we know little to nothing about how that window was made, by whom, from what, and from where.

This is the dilemma—how do we choose between two windows? Assuming both perform and cost the same, does either contain minerals and materials that were sustainably sourced, processed and transported? Was either window sourced and made with fair labourlabor? Does either window have half the carbon footprint of the industry norm? Worse of all—what is the norm?

We have one decade to cut our emissions by one half while still providing the houses, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure required to meet the global population growth.

We have one decade to halve the emissions related to the operation and maintenance of the building stock and infrastructure we’ve inherited. We have much less than a decade to establish, globally, benchmarks for everything that goes into our buildings, our infrastructure, our landscapes to enable us to make informed decisions, and measure our progress. We have no time to not act, to not demand, and to not engage.

Installation of locally sourced timber beams in Rwanda keeps the CO2 emissions low.
Installation of locally sourced timber beams at the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, MASS Design Group. Photo © MASS Design Group

At MASS our approach to sustainability goes beyond just low-energy operation and performance. We consider sustainability over a project’s full life span: from material production to disposal and beyond. Key to our approach is emphasis on Local Fabrication (Lo-Fab) that uses locally sourced materials and labourlabor. This generates economic stimuli, cultural capital, and user investment that stay with the building and its community and radically lowers CO2 and energy emissions. This in turn makes it more likely that these low-carbon, high-impact solutions are carried forward during the building’s lifespan and on future projects.

Before designing a project, we engage in an immersion process to identify the products and processes being used in the context of our site. These are incorporated into design and construction from the outset. This drastically lowers emissions from transportation, as well as from production of materials associated with the global construction industry, which accounts for nearly 40% of global emissions.

Designing for passive ventilation, heating, natural lighting, and more, decrease both the emissions and the costs associated with installation, operation, and maintenance. Investing in staff, tools and collaborators, to ensure that these low-tech systems have high-end performance allows to strike an important and sensitive balance to minimize operational emissions without sacrificing affordability. Unlike high-tech systems, passive solutions are possible in even the most resource limited contexts. Given the scale of the environmental crisis we are dealing with, scalability and resilience are critical. While the focus on local materials and passive design ensure each project emits radically low CO2 during construction and use, architects and other players in the construction industry must consider a structure’s full life cycle.

The focus on local materials and passive design ensures each project emits radically low CO2 during construction and use
The Ilima primary school was built using aAdobe earth blocks made from clay and sand sourced within 5 km of the project site, MASS Design Group. . Photo © MASS Design Group

While we are all in agreement that we need clarity on how to define the ultimate success in the construction industry in order to limit global warming, currently we are not having the right conversations and worse, we might be looking at this from a single lens instead of fully engaging the systems we operate in. We are fairly convinced that we have to act, but we are yet to:

1) Learn enough about the challenge beyond global statistics to understand deeply what’s particularly relevant to the construction industry as well as associated ones (manufacturing, labourlabor supply, equipment, materials processing etc.).

2) Frame convincing arguments and a comprehensive philosophy to talk openly about this issue amongst ourselves, our partners, our clients, policy makers, educators in a way that it is not a value proposition offered as a service that only a select few can afford to pay for, but the right thing to do for each and every project.

3) Equip ourselves with skills to negotiate with systems external to our projects to get the most outcome from each project we engage in.

4) Set the criteria and processes to decide what constitutes “unethical practices” now that we have this knowledge.
All of this is in the context of understanding a building as the confluence of many systems: environmental, social, economic, and emotional with sustainability as a balance between those systems. It is our responsibility as designers to negotiate a just, beneficial, and replicable exchange.

Main image: The materials palette used for the construction of Ruhehe primary school include locally sourced volcanic stones and brick masonry, clay tiles roofing and concrete pavers, MASS Design Group. Photo © MASS Design Group

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