Conquering Climate Change Through Innovation
By Gunnar Hubbard, FAIA, LEED Fellow, Thornton Tomasetti
When it comes to carbon emissions, it is no secret that buildings are among the biggest offenders. It is estimated that building construction, materials and operations are responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that an ever-increasing number of architects, engineers and others in the building industry recognize the impact our designs have on the environment and are taking action.
In addition to certification programs, such as LEED and Passive House, design professionals are turning to new and innovative ways for creating higher-performing buildings. At Thornton Tomasetti, we are rethinking the way we design buildings with the help of some high-tech tools and alternative material choices. Here are some of them:
- Design teams can make more informed decisions about the impact their buildings have on the environment, thanks to tools like the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), for which we are a sponsor and serve as technical advisor, and Beacon, an open-source embodied carbon measurement tool. Developed by Thornton Tomasetti’s CORE studio, Beacon is an Autodesk Revit plugin that allows project teams to assess how various materials can contribute to a building’s carbon footprint. It provides a clear visualization of a project’s embodied carbon quantities by type of structural material, building element and floor levels and benchmarks the model against the Carbon Leadership Forum’s database by building type.
Beacon is an open-source Revit plug-in that provides quick, high-level feedback and clear data visualization of a structural system's embodied carbon performance. Courtesy Thornton Tomasetti
- Thread is a web application that enables the user to evaluate various sustainable design strategies. The flexible data exploration and visualization platform, also from CORE studio, has been used to conduct studies for 120,000 combinations of roof, wall and window insulation values, heat recovery options, fan power and solar heat gain coefficients. We used Thread to help the City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development create a guidebook for Zero Emissions Buildings, setting the groundwork for affordable housing design standards that support the city’s green building initiatives.
City of Boston Department of Neighborhood Development, in consultation with Thornton Tomasetti, Placetailor, Elton Hampton Architects and Bensonwood, as well as the Boston Planning and Development Agency and Boston Environment Department, created the city’s first-ever guidebook for zero emissions buildings. We used Thread to analyze a range of strategies and performance criteria. Courtesy Placetailor.
- An eco-friendly alternative to traditional materials, mass-timber products are making their way into more building projects, including many of ours. Unlike the massive carbon footprints of concrete, steel and glass, sustainably sourced timber is a carbon sink. It’s also lighter, more cost-effective and can help to reduce construction time. Studies show that timber products, such as cross- and glue-laminated timber, are highly resilient during fire, earthquakes and other disasters. Project teams also appreciate how it can broaden the possibilities for architecturally expressive and biophilic designs. When it comes to wood construction, universities and cultural centers are leading the charge, but tall timber towers, like Ascent in Milwaukee, are rising on city skylines.
The use of sustainable mass timber enables the 493,000-square-foot Ascent tower to exceed Milwaukee’s energy conservation code requirements. Courtesy KORB + ASSOCIATES ARCHITECTS
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we currently face and reducing carbon emissions in the built environment must be a priority. The AIA 2030 Commitment and AIA’s Climate Action Plan will help bring us closer to our goal. With strong commitments, smart strategies and innovative tools, healthy and sustainable spaces are absolutely achievable. Not only are they good for the environment, they provide financial benefits to tenants, owners and operators It’s a win-win. But to realize an envisioned future of net-zero buildings, we need to make good choices today.
Gunnar Hubbard is the Sustainability practice leader at Thornton Tomasetti. He oversees a team of green building experts, who have performed more than 400 LEED and BREEAM certifications. Gunnar specializes in creating high-performance, low-energy, healthy buildings. He focuses on advancing the firm’s building analytics capabilities and expertise in the Passive House, Living Building Challenge and WELL certification systems. Gunnar has more than two decades of experience as a licensed architect, consultant, educator and sustainability advocate. A recognized leader in the green building industry in the U.S., Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Gunnar was inducted into the U.S. Green Building Council as a LEED Fellow in 2012 and as an American Institute of Architects Fellow in 2015.