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‘There’s No Vaccine For Climate Change’: Here's What CRE Can Do To Help Save The Planet

In the wake of COVID-19, architects and their clients have all understandably been focused on air quality and cleanliness. But as massive as the pandemic has been in both scope and scale, it barely registers as a crisis when contrasted with climate change, experts say.

“It is a blip compared to the bigger issues of resiliency, sea-level rise and energy conservation,” said Bernardo Fort-Brescia, co-founder of the international architectural firm Arquitectonica, during an Oct. 16 Bisnow webinar on the future of development and design.

Fort-Brescia called upon architects, developers and government leaders to increasingly make that the driving force in all aspects of development. “There's no vaccine for climate change,” he said.


Architects have been making headway on this front already.

Lawrence Kline, managing director of Perkins & Will in Miami, said that his team has been working on understanding the science of storms. That may help develop resilient building materials and design for hurricanes and 500-year floods, which are likely to become more frequent with climate change. The firm even has a research lab to study materials.

“We are designing buildings with computational design that acts to actually reduce wind pressures on the buildings ... [and] specifying materials that are not off-gassing and materials that are renewable and sustainable,” Kline said.

He added that advances could be applicable across the spectrum of education, office and healthcare. “We're looking at clients who are saying, ‘We want buildings that are flexible, that are agile, that are transformable,' so that a corporate office today could be a multifamily residential tomorrow,” Kline said.

Anticipating a less car-dependent society in the future, Perkins  & Will is designing a corporate headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, with structured garages designed to be transformed into habitable space 15 years from now. The firm advises clients against certain materials that aren't renewable, not sustainable or not safe for the environment, Kline said.

“And those are challenging conversations with the client because sometimes they are more costly [but] long-term [it's] much healthier [to use] material to be a part of a building that will last for 75 or 100 years,” he said.

Michael Wolf, chairman and creative director of Michael's Design Associates, said that although part of his job is to oversee furnishings and interior specifications, it increasingly includes air filtration. “These things were already a part of the design in terms of wellness,” he said. “[But] it's accelerated with COVID.”

Garcia Stromberg CEO Jorge Garcia said his firm is increasingly focused on the entire life cycle of buildings, including the destruction at the end, and how they might be recycled. “There has to be an advancement of that kind of thinking,” he said.

Architects have long focused on buildings that are wonderful for a certain period of time but deteriorate very quickly, he said, adding that governments should work with more input from responsible architects

“We've got to play with the broader brush," Garcia said. "We’ve got to get involved with the governmental processes if we want to achieve anything, because just the government saying, ‘Over every 100 units you build, you're gonna build up one unit of social interest housing in that building.’ That's a joke."  

Across the board, energy management is the key to tackling climate change via the built environment. Brian Koles, brand and marketing director of Property Markets Group, said it remains top of the list for most architects.

“Over the last 20 years, a lot of the less sexy and sophisticated energy management solutions have been implemented, and by that, I mostly mean lightbulbs and insulation,” he said.

Clockwise from top left: Sage Glass National Healthcare Business Development Manager Monique Salas; Garcia Stromberg CEO Jorge Garcia; Perkins & Will Managing Director Lawrence Kline; Arquitectonica founder Bernardo Fort-Brescia; PMG Brand & Marketing Director Brian Koles; Michael Wolk Design Chairman and Creative Director Michael Wolk.

Going forward, Koles predicts that companies will focus much more on systems for energy management.

"Which is good for everyone, right? It's lower bills for buildings; real estate’s worth more; it's good for the environment. Everyone wins," Koles said. "We're now demanding a bit more green tech and energy management built into the building from the core than we were years ago.”

On a separate webinar last week, Florida Power & Light’s Director of Major & Governmental Accounts Andy Marin said that HVAC units accounted for roughly 40% to 70% of a commercial property’s energy bill.

“Our business customers get an energy usage bill, and they're also charged for energy demand,” he said, with demand calculated around what the business uses at its peak. To minimize peak demand, he said, avoid turning on equipment all at the same time and stagger the start times of A/C units. FPL has an online tool, called the Business Energy Manager, that customers can use to assess their usage.

Ana-Mara Codina Barlick, CEO of Codina Partners, said that her business has more than 50 accounts with FPL across its operating properties. She said the coronavirus has provided a chance to assess energy needs across the portfolio, and finding savings of $1,500 just in one building.

“[The energy manager]'s insights have been very helpful analyzing our highest usage days and really knowing, you know, where the consumption is coming from and being able to work with individual tenants and individual schedules,” she said.

Bernardo Fort Brescia, founder of international architectural firm Arquitectonica, said that his profession is well-suited to lead for the challenges that lie ahead.

“Architects automatically are optimists," he said. "They are always thinking that the future is better, and we were educated to create a better future for society.”