Sustainable Architecture – A personal essay

The Building Sector: “Adaptation and mitigation are not an either-or proposition”

– Jonathan Overpeck

A step to lessen global climate change

Buildings provide the foundation for our daily activities and are associated with many aspects and activities of our daily life such as housing, education, workplace, healthcare, entertainment and more others. It has been widely accepted that all these anthropocentric activities are contributing to climate change being by far the most influential factors (rising greenhouse gasses to 70% from 1970 to 2004) (Edward) and as a response to the concern different approaches have been taken towards halting climate change. However, among all potential anthropocentric causes little concern has been directed towards the importance of buildings and material of infrastructure. Would shifting the importance given to the building sector concerning global climate change make a difference?  
It is actually estimated that at present the building sector contributes as much as one third of total global greenhouse and accounts for 30% of annual greenhouse gases and consumes up to 40% of all energy. The effect of the building sector on climate change is becoming more predominant with time and they are being categorized as the main source of greenhouse gases emissions. The building sector is also considered as large energy consumer and large emitter of other CO2 greenhouse gases such as halocarbons (UNEP DTIE).

Source: www.Buildingreen.com
Graphic 1: CO2 Emissions by sector

On this regard, taking into consideration the ability of the building sector to significantly reduce GHGs, create mitigative and adaptive strategies could not only help to climate, but also create jobs, save money and even more important shape a society with long term positive environment results. Prioritizing the building sector could potentially help to adapt to climate change and mitigate GHG from buildings and bring several benefits not only to environment and climate change but also to economy and society.


One of the major concerns when talking about adaptive and mitigation strategies is its mere structure and its life cycle. The life-spam of a building is relatively long, accounting for about 50-100 years throughout which they produce and consume energy. From construction to the operation and dismantle, buildings consume enormous amounts of energy through their life cycle (Edward). This energy is consumed and produced during all the phases starting from the manufacturing of building materials (embedded energy), followed by the transportation of such materials from production to building place (grey energy), construction of the building (induced energy), operation of the building (operational material) and finally, the demolition of the building” (UNEP DTIE).

Source: Graham
Diagram 1: Life Cycle Phases of Building


Due to their long life-spam, buildings have the largest potential for delivering long term and cost efficient greenhouse gas emissions. What does it mean in terms of halting climate change? Indeed, that any sort of action taken to create a more environmental building sector could continue to affect green house emissions and energy consumption over a medium and long term period of time (UNEP DTIE). Their ability to reduce energy consumption and environmental impacts then bring more reasonable questions: how could the building sector be approached? What strategies could performed to decrease the negative effects that such structures are having on climate change? mitigative and adaptive strategies. Through them, it has been possible to identify a range of sustainable low-energy practices that have been/will be able to lessen the stress imposed by human kind on the climate change. 

Diagram 2: Adaptation, mitigation and no-action approaches
Diagram 2: Adaptation, mitigation and no-action approaches


On the way of trying both approaches, there has existed a knowledge gap in respect to how emission produced by built environments can be mitigated and/or how can these buildings and their habitants can adapt to shifts in global and local time (Altomonte). Despite the fact that over the past years climate changes have taken place so slowly that human kind has had enough time to adapt, innovation in the production and management of energy in built environments now has become a ‘must happen’ in order to successfully reduce humans’ climate forcing and succeed in mitigating GHG emissions nowadays. Here is where Integrative design comes to play an important role combining both approaches.
Integration and coordination of functions have been strategies that nature has exploited throughout time. Biomimicry – (from bios, life, and mimesis, to imitate) – has served as an inspiration to the building sector to study Nature’s best ideas and then use them to solve human problems. “Building on this ‘biomimetic’ metaphor – where the flexible cooperation of several constituents contributes to the metabolism and well-being of living creatures – has allowed developing a design method based on the integration of specialized and interconnected competences” (Altomonte).

An integrated design process does not mean adding new elements, but integrating “well-proven approaches into a systematic process” (UNEP DTIE). In the search of a more systematic process, Altomonte and Luther in 2006, in fact, propose a new integrated building design (characterized by a series of iterative activity loops throughout each design stage: from conceptual to schematic to detailed design and documentation for construction) based on the following principles:

1) Site & Climate Analysis such as analysis of site, exposure, climate, orientation, topographical factors, local constraints and the availability of natural resources and ecologically sustainable forms of energy.

2) Flexible & Adaptive Structural Systems investigating the characteristics of the structure and its composition with other structures.

3) Renewable & Environmental Building Materials, their efficiency, availability, cost, embodied energy, transport, life spam, among other characteristics.

4) Modular Building Systems to create a way of isolation for the different elements of the structure and treat them as single units which might allow for shorter times of construction, avoid complications for maintenance and replacement, reduce the amount of energy emitted and consumed and increase flexibility.

5) Building Envelope Systems to control energy flows and include considerations of orientation, seasonal variation and surrounding environment and function of the building, user requirements and façade typology.

6) Renewable & Non-conventional Energy Systems

7) Innovative Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning Systems to provide acceptable conditions for dwellers.

8) Water Collection & Storage Systems to be able to collect, store, distribute, use, recycle and re-use water resources (Altomonte).

Besides principles, certain measures, such as reducing energy consumption and embodied energy in buildings, switching to low-carbon fuels including a higher share of renewable energy, and Controlling the emissions of non-CO2 GHG gases (Altomonte) are needed to reduce GHG emissions from buildings. According to The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), measures like the previously mentioned can develop a hardware (strategies, technologies and practices), a software (experiences and know-how) and a org-ware (new technologies, including setting up of supporting policies) that, when is systematically approached, forms a foundation to nurture the heart-ware referring to “a sustainable lifestyles and behavior of the building occupants” and structures mitigation technologies from the most feasible to more sophisticated typologies.

Through integrative design and mitigation in the building sector there is a possibility to avoid around 30% of all building-related CO2 emissions at a net benefit by 2020 and as much as 80% of the operational cost could be also saved by integrated design principles at often no or little extra cost that the one already implemented to build the structure (Ürge-Vorsatz). The “design of the building rather than the mere application of advanced technology per se can result on being mainly what governs the balance amongst the factors determining the conditions of the building and its effects not only inside but outside the space (Altomonte).

Source: Cam, Wynn Chi-Nguyen
Appendix 4: Typologies of mitigation technologies and practices

Due to the fast pace of climate change and the speed at which we are facing new alterations, “long-term mitigation actions necessarily need to be coupled with short-term adaptive strategies” (Altomonte). Given the growth in new constructions and the inefficiencies of stock buildings, if not taking immediate action and targeting for reduction of greenhouse emissions, future emissions from buildings could more than double in 20 years. “Adaptation within the building sector includes changes in policies, technologies, infrastructures, and management. Older buildings, may present characteristics that make them more resilient to climate change and so adaptation might not be a large concern as much as for new buildings, where there is need of flexible designs with some sort of elasticity “concerning the arrangement, functionality and subdivision of internal spaces thus making the built organism more resilient to variations in environmental factors” (Altomonte). Many Experts agree that while we must continue to look for solutions to slowdown the consequences of climate change, we must also start to design adaptable buildings and structures that are able to cope with the current environment and changing climate (Wilson & Ward). According to Alex Wilson in Designing the Adaptation: Living in climate change “the implications are clear: no amount of mitigation will prevent potentially devastating impacts; it’s necessary for us to adapt (Wilson & Ward).
As previously mentioned, humans evolution has resulted in a behavioral response showing a spectacular ability to adapt to the most extreme climates. Steemers in Climate Change and Architecture: Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for a Sustainable Development (2003) mentions “there are broadly three categories in which behavioral adaptations of the inhabitants can directly influence the design and the operation of buildings, adjusting their requirements to dynamic environmental conditions”:

1) Spatial  (capacity of designing)

2) Personal (i.e. the capacity of building occupants to adapt needs and demands)

3) Control, i.e. the possibility given to the building users to have control over devices that might affect their environment)

There are plenty of strategies that could help adapt our daily life activities and the place where they take place. Main environmental consequences of climate change could be dimed thought-out adaptive strategies: Warmer temperatures through natural ventilation, higher cooling design temperature and provision of landscape to minimize cooling requirements; water shortage and droughts by harvesting rainfall and planting native vegetation and climatically appropriated trees; more intense storms, flooding and rising levels could be prevented by avoiding buildings in flood zone, extreme-wind buildings, raise buildings and select specific material; wildfire could be prevented by high-performance, tempered Windows, specific roof materials and vegetation around homes; and power interruptions could by decreased by Design buildings to maintain passive survivability, installing solar water-heating Systems, among more others.
In order to adapt our life to the constant changing climate many more other strategies can be also applied to buildings. Mitigation strategies, on one hand, can be more efficiently and successfully carried out in completely new infrastructure and while planning and designing buildings whereas adaptation mainly focuses on those old built design and those which cannot be easily destroyed and emit great amounts of GHG and other harmful gases to the environment. “The bottom line, -as Jonathan Overpeck Ph.D., co-director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Arizona and a co-author of the USGCRP report said-, is that you’ve got to adapt to what won’t get mitigated—and unfortunately that’s going to be a few degrees—and mitigate what you can’t adapt to.” He agrees: “Adaptation and mitigation are not an either-or proposition” (Wilson & Ward).

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