The New Carbon Architecture

The built environment can switch from being an ecological problem to a solution. It begins with moving past “green buildings. 

We’ve got good news, and we’ve got bad news.   

First, the bad: buildings have been major climate villains, responsible for 40 per cent of global warming emissions. And it gets worse: Net Zero buildings are all the rage in green building, but are not doing so much for the climate. They don’t fully address climate disruption because they actually often increase carbon emissions by loading the front end—the embodied carbon attributable to construction and especially materials. That embodied carbon has a time value, much like money, because it goes to work right away and keeps on working—against us. A truly green or climate-friendly architecture must account for and work with embodied carbon, not ignore it as if materials and buildings appeared in the world by magic.   

But now the good news: buildings are poised to be climate heroes—and much nicer to live in—by becoming climate sponges, absorbing huge amounts of carbon from the air in the materials of architecture. Wood from sustainably-managed forests and agricultural by-products from farmers will increasingly be available in a variety of products on the shelves of every supplier. Both concrete and cement will be reinvented as an array of low-carbon, affordable alternatives, and plastic refuse will be cleaned from the oceans and turned into blocks, panels and insulation. We can soon get “beyond zero” by making things nature’s way rather than “heating, beating and treating” with fossil fuels. The result will be less stressful to the climate, but also just better buildings. 

carbon architecture, Brock Commons
Phase 1 construction at UBC Brock Commons Student Residence. Photography by KK Law

 For example, just imagine: you walk into a brand new building and immediately sense something different. The structure is all exposed wood—columns, beams, even floor and roof are all great curving slabs of timber elegantly joined together from smaller pieces. The skin and insulation, which you can also see, are straw bound into shapes that shed rain and insulate walls. The foundation is soil from the site transformed by invisible microbes into strong concrete to hold everything up, and warm, leather-like floors that need no additional covering. It seems like it should look and smell like a barn, yet it feels more like an inviting bedroom or an elegant museum. It’s nicer than any structure you’ve ever been in before. 

And it’s not a handmade house in the woods: it’s a new downtown office building, nine stories high and filling half a city block. It gathers all the power and water it needs, and processes all of its own wastes into soil for the courtyard gardens. And, though you can’t see this, compared to what might have been built a few decades earlier, its construction put thousands of tonnes less carbon into the air, and pulled hundreds more out of the air to serve as walls, floors, insulation and roof. 

For the first time in history, we can build pretty much anything out of carbon. We can structure any architectural style with wood, we can insulate with straw and mushrooms, and we can make concrete with clay, industrial wastes, and microbes. All of these emerging technologies and more arrive in tandem with the growing understanding that the so-called embodied carbon of building materials matters a great deal more than anyone thought in the fight to halt and reverse climate disruption.  

Back up a bit 

We’ve been developing the art and science of building for thousands of years, mostly learning from mistakes, but as of the last few centuries also learning and developing via science. We know an awful lot more about how things work than we ever did, but can also dimly see how much we still don’t know, such as what most of the universe is made of. 

Speaking of what things are made of, in many ways the history of architecture follows the development of materials, and follows the history of people messing around with things they found in the landscape to get bricks, columns, toilets and building-integrated photovoltaic panels. People learned to fire clay to make pottery and bricks, and when the kilns were made of limestone they discovered that the intense heat also changed the rocks: lime plaster, concrete, Pantheon. In some places the potters saw shiny metal come oozing out of certain heated rocks: copper, bronze, iron, Golden Gate Bridge. 200 years ago the predecessors of modern structural engineers in England placed iron bars in the newly-invented Portland cement concrete, and architects went wild like they never could before: the Sydney Opera House and every downtown skyline in the world with lights, plumbing and comfort hundreds of feet in the air. In some places people saw oil oozing out of the ground, then drying to tar: vinyl siding and the Interstate highway system, not to mention plywood and air conditioning.  

carbon architecture, Brock Commons
Close-up of wood construction at Brock Commons. Photography by KK Law.

And so on. Seems like the party would never stop, but of late the many large and hidden costs are come due, and we have to change not just the way we build, but what we build with.  

Some of us who design and build have been noticing that Nature builds all sorts of things, and has been doing so for the nearly four billion years of life on Earth without waste, pollution, or a whole lot of fuss. She has a hell of a head start on the trial-and-error path, and as such maybe we can and should peek over her shoulder and see if we can’t cheat a bit. How does a mussel build its shell? How do spiders spin their webs? How does a redwood tree stand and remain very much alive at 400 feet (and why doesn’t it grow higher)? How do birds stay warm and dry?  

Questions like these are leading to breakthroughs in cements, binders, insulation and other building products. Some of those breakthroughs are already entering the marketplace, such as Ecovative insulation made from grown-in-place mycellia, BioMason bricks grown from enzymes, or Blue Planet’s limestone aggregate made from industrial emissions. Some are simply refinements and modernization of ancient building techniques, like taking traditional timber framing and applying it to glulam and cross-laminated timbers to get taller, larger and far more elaborate wooden structures than was ever before possible, or using straw and other agricultural by-products to make sheathing and insulation. The list goes on, and is rapidly growing as we flesh out ways to coax carbon back out of the air and durably returned to earth as buildings made of sky.  

Right now, the appeal is a matter of aesthetics (such as: most people like wood more than concrete) or oddity (mushroom insulation!), but as governments around the world at every level begin to put a price on carbon, it is becoming a matter of economics. This is where the industry is heading.   

How soon? We’re fairly clever creatures, technologically. It took less than two and a half years between Franklin Roosevelt authorizing the Manhattan Project and the first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert. It took only eight years between John Kennedy’s proclamation and Neil Armstrong’s footprint on the Moon’s surface. And both of those projects were designed and executed by people using slide rules, unreliable wire telephony, and computers far less powerful than the average cellphone of today. When we collectively set ourselves to do something, for better or worse, we tend to get it done.  

The challenge before us, as an industry and as a global species, is to execute a sort of jiu-jitsu flip from climate villains to climate heroes.  It is indeed a whole new and lovely ball game. 

Bruce King, a structural engineer for 35 years, is Founder and Director of the Ecological Building Network (EBNet). The preceding is excerpted from the book of the same name. © 2018 Bruce King and New Society Publishers.

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