A Carbon-Neutral Architecture Goes Beyond Construction Materials: Planning, Logistics and Context

It is not enough to talk about carbon neutrality in architecture. There are many factors that affect the construction production chain. The construction industry accounts for a significant portion of global energy consumption. This includes design and construction. However, it is important to keep in mind the economic context and economic system. To alter this reality, it is important to open up new avenues of action and question the role of construction in society.

Carbon neutrality refers to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from human activities and applying techniques for absorbing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This concept has been integrated into some architectural practices over the past few years. These are mainly large corporate projects located in wealthy cities around the globe. This has led to the development of tools, technologies and knowledge that makes carbon-neutral architecture possible.

Jardim Botânico VanDusen / Perkins+Will . Image Cortesia de Perkins & Will

Although it is a wide topic, carbon-neutral architecture tends not to be discussed on a single front. It involves design strategies and construction technology. It is about minimizing the environmental impact by consuming as little as possible and generating as much waste as possible. Projects often include strategies to address this dynamic. These solutions can include passive design solutions that use natural cross ventilation or the thermal inertia. Projects aiming at carbon neutrality often include passive design strategies. These technologies can also be used to produce what is required from solar or wind equipment or the retention and use rainwater.

Edifício 78 Corlett Drive / Daffonchio and Associates . Image © Adam Letch

These strategies are focused on maintaining buildings and their useful lives. However, 40% of global energy consumption is linked to construction. 80% of that energy comes from the production, transport, and processing of construction materials. It is important to map the construction production chain with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and proposing alternatives. This could be done by changing construction techniques, prioritizing local materials, seeking out suppliers and workers close to the territory, and saving on fossil fuels.

Hotel Xiangshawan Desert Lotus / PLaT Architects. Image Cortesia de PLaT Architects

However, it is important to note that construction is a major economic activity in the world. It plays an important role both in the employment of people as well as in the movement and distribution of resources. At times, it has also been an important ally during economic recovery. The construction industry was also transformed by the industrial revolution. It sought efficiency and speed in all aspects of production, including at construction sites. However, this logic led to labor relations and environmental damage. It is becoming increasingly clear that this production logic, despite all the research and efforts, is not compatible with a carbon neutral production chain, nor with maintaining life on Earth as it exists today.

Colapso da represa de minério de ferro de Brumadinho, Janeiro de 2019. Imagem via Daily Overview. . Image © Maxar Technologies – Westminster, Colorado

The key elements of neutral architecture lie in design and planning. They seek to use solutions that are low in energy consumption and emit low greenhouse gasses in their production chain. This includes all stages from extraction of raw material to work. However, these interventions are limited by the social contexts of each construction activity. Standardization of production chains, which is tied to materials or techniques that have a high environmental impact, makes it difficult for people to find alternatives. This could be due to high costs, labor difficulties, or logistical incompatibilities such as lack access to materials and technologies.

Therefore, carbon-neutral architecture discussions must include, in addition technology and design themes debates, the discussion on civil construction production chains and how context influences the acceptance and incorporation these solutions into projects. This will help to broaden the debate, and improve its performance.