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CRE Changed The Climate. Here's What It Can Do To Reverse That

The built environment bears much of the impacts from natural disasters like worsening wildfires, heat waves, storm surge from sea level rise and hail damage. It also plays a significant role in contributing to climate change.

Global design firm Gensler, one of several companies to pledge a net-zero carbon portfolio by 2030, released a report this month with strategies it says will achieve a more sustainable future.

Real estate losses in the U.S. due to climate-related disasters will amount to $360B per year if no action is taken, according to a statement from the Natural Resources Defense Council cited in the Gensler report. The necessary change involves CRE as much as other carbon-intensive sectors such as transportation and agriculture. 


Gensler's report comes as governments and companies push for more robust emission reduction targets. In April, the Biden administration announced a 50% to 52% reduction from 2005 levels in the U.S. economy's net greenhouse gas polution by 2030. The target followed an open letter from 408 businesses urging such action as a way to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Companies signatory to the letter include Ford Motor Co., General Motors, Lyft Inc., Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Walmart.

“Strong support from so many U.S. business leaders demonstrates now is the time to set an ambitious, achievable goal of cutting U.S. emissions by at least 50% by 2030," Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp said in a statement. 

Buildings account for nearly 40% of annual global greenhouse emissions, WoodWorks Regional Director Chelsea Drenick said. While buildings’ operational energy use gets much of the focus regarding a push toward greater reliance on renewable energy, raw materials used in building construction produce 11% of global carbon emissions and about 25% of annual building sector emissions, according to Gensler’s report. 

The core of Gensler’s climate strategy lies in energy-efficient designs paired with renewable technologies, choosing materials with a low carbon impact and embracing adaptive reuse

Buildings’ energy use accounts for 72% of greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment, Gensler Design Resilience principal Rives Taylor said at a Climate Action Through Design: Transforming the Built Environment for a Net Zero Future webinar on May 18.

“With the right balance of energy-efficient designs combined with the right energy sources, we can address these operational carbon issues and transform our built environment into not only a positive human experience and well-being focus but also creating a net-zero carbon operational future,” Taylor said.

The report outlined steps for a building to reach net-zero energy. The initial steps involve understanding a building’s current energy portfolio, identifying renewable energy sources for implementation and creating an energy budget for the building.

Intermediate steps include adding passive strategies within the building’s design to reduce the amount of energy required. For example, certain shade design elements can simultaneously reduce the need for cooling while creating naturally lit areas where they are needed.

Depending on the local climate, adding ventilation systems can also offset heating and cooling costs. Adding sensors and digital controls helps reduce usage in areas not being utilized, and closed-loop and recovery systems can harvest energy waste from one system and use it as an energy source in another.

Choices about what materials are used in building construction can have substantial carbon impacts, especially given that the global consumption of raw materials could double by 2060, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The report included a list of common building materials and their associated global warming potential and found that steel, concrete, insulation, furniture, generic metals and carpet have the highest carbon impacts, while wood, especially mass timber, has a much lower impact.

Mass timber has a 26.5% lower global warming potential compared to concrete, according to the Journal of Building Engineering. However, alternatives to previously high-carbon materials are being developed.

For example, carbon-neutral carpet options have emerged, such as a Smart City carpet plank from Mohawk Group, which is produced in collaboration with Gensler and is purportedly free of toxins.

“The bigger the carbon footprint, whether due to material type or the quantity you're specifying, the more important it is to seek low-carbon variations and alternatives,” Gensler Global Design Resilience Leader Kirsten Ritchie said.

Gensler is also pushing for the adaptive reuse of buildings and materials. Every square foot built in the U.S. creates 2 pounds of waste, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with 90% of construction debris produced by demolition of existing buildings.

“Far and away the best way to reduce carbon is to reuse existing buildings,” British Land Head of Sustainable Development Juliette Morgan said in a statement. “By recycling structure, we can save up to 40% of emissions. These targets are achievable now.”