What Comes After the “Green” Building?

The era of efficient “green” buildings is over. What will take its place?

In mid-June, NYRA hosted a panel discussion at the offices of Snøhetta on Pine Street, prompted by the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Assessment Report 6. Spearheaded by historian Daniel A. Barber and featuring reflections from designer/educator Elisa Iturbe and researcher Elise Misao Hunchuck, the Mitigation event centered on a very specific section of the Technical Summary of the AR6 Working Group on Mitigation, “TS 4.5-E.” An edited excerpt of the conversation is reproduced here.

DANIEL BARBER: To start, I want to draw out a distinction that’s made in the language used by the IPCC between efficiency and sufficiency. Many, but not all, contemporary buildings work much more efficiently than their older counterparts. But the energy-saving innovations that go into these buildings—perfectly tuned glass panels, solar arrays, induced ventilation—are outpaced by the sheer amount of square footage going up in our cities daily. So in a sense, we’re back at zero. It’s interesting, then, that in AR6, the IPCC proposes a shift to focusing on sufficiency. To quote from the report, “Sufficiency is about long-term action driven by nontechnical solutions, which consume less energy in absolute terms.” The report lists a number of sufficiency interventions, including bioclimatic design and circular materials, as well as lifestyle changes that emphasize usership rather than ownership of appliances. What that really means is less heating and cooling, less concrete, less electricity, but also less square footage and less demand for resources across the board. The bottom line: we have to do more with less.

The other piece to this is the alarm bell the report raises regarding energy production. This is something the International Energy Agency (IEA), through its own reports, is trying to bring to the notice of governments. Among the IEA’s suggestions is putting a full stop to new fossil-based energy installations by 2025. But then, as of a couple months ago, the IEA suggested that the time for this full stop has already passed and that construction on fossil fuel and coal electricity-generating plants should end now. We might take these warnings as an opportunity to reframe our understanding of our work and effect on the world. Buildings, we can say, are tiny fuel plants to the extent that most are utterly dependent on the fossil-fuel industry and the flow of energy materials. Look around Lower Manhattan—all these cranes are going up, and think of all the glass-and-steel skyscrapers that will rise in their wake. These are what the AR6 refers to as “lock-in” buildings, meaning that they, and all new buildings, lock in carbon emissions and pollution for decades into the future and lock in the damaging effects of climate disruptions.

At the end of Technical Summary, the report’s authors—they number in the hundreds—suggest that the present decade will need to see a reskilling or upskilling across the building industry relevant to climate strategies. That means architecture, but also contractors, suppliers, and stewards of the supply chain. I take that as a very clear directive, an agenda item to carry into every classroom, faculty meeting, and studio crit going forward. Architects could lead the cultural arm of this technical shift and encourage retraining at every stage of a building’s construction or, hopefully, retrofitting.

ELISA ITURBE: When Daniel invited me to join the panel, he asked how we could look at the IPCC report and discuss its impact on architecture. I thought that maybe I could split his prompt in two, asking what might architectural thought and architectural labor contribute to this conversation?

In asking this question, I don’t mean to reproduce the disciplinary siloing that we all want to avoid; rather, I only want to recognize that as architects we engage in forms of spatial thinking that are directly relevant to climate change. I was surprised to see this explicitly called out in the IPCC report. The authors use the term “spatial form,” which I would never have expected to read in a document like this. I want to call out that quote, as it connects to the panel theme. They write: “The potential and sequencing of mitigation strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will vary depending on the city’s land use, spatial form, development level and state of organization.” And in the same section, the authors advise planners to co-locate jobs and housing to achieve compact reform. So, really, they’re bringing up questions that have long been in the tradition of architecture and urban design. They’re saying, “We need to do planning differently. We need to do this better.”

This made me reflect on the skill set of architects—we are not just people who build, but also people who study the built environment and how it came to be this way. Remembering that, we might respond to the authors of this report not with solutions but with further questions. So when the IPCC says that we have to bring living and working closer together, we might think through the reasons they were separated in the first place. In doing so, we take nothing for granted while also chipping away at the inertia that’s behind conventional ways of making space, which emerged from the 20th-century models and discourses of industrialized development. To undo that kind of thinking requires a lot more than just proposing mixed-use zoning.

Here, I want to turn to the question of architectural labor I mentioned earlier. If we look at our own livelihoods, we quickly grasp the extent to which we are entangled in the fossil economy. Your average architect is as compromised in the climate disaster as coal miners and other energy workers. We spend all our working life creating commodifiable space, and we are obliged by our paychecks to do so. Never once are we asked to entertain the questions that the IPCC report is forcing us to contemplate. For this reason, I think it would be helpful for us to speculate on ways to restructure our institutions, by which I mean schools, firms, cultural organizations, research initiatives, etc. How can we create the conditions that would enable us to address what’s being asked of us?

ELISE MISAO HUNCHUCK: My training is in landscape architecture, philosophy, and geography, and I’ve been grappling with what to say tonight. I’m certainly not here to talk to you about this or that particular technical aspect of architecture as a profession, which most of you know better than myself. But I hope to pick up on what Daniel and Elisa have just said and to provoke more fundamental questions about how we live and work together. The IPCC report, for all its complexity and contradictions, does the difficult work of trying to establish a shared language that runs across knowledge-based (disciplinary) boundaries, spanning earth sciences, architecture, and planning, to name a few. Trandisciplinarity, most of us can agree, is something worth pushing for. With that in mind, I want to encourage a move away from disciplinary exceptionalism, which says architects are uniquely responsible for this thing or uniquely positioned to do that thing, and instead, to move toward thinking about spatial practice as complementary to non-spatial practices. How can we develop agile, but hopeful methods of practice—in all areas—to instill a desire to make the changes prescribed by the IPCC? (Or, perhaps, to move beyond them.)

And so I want to quote three people. The first came to me via Daniel, with whom I was on another panel yesterday at Columbia GSAPP as part of the Arguments series. In his closing remarks, he quoted a few words from the late literary theorist Lauren Berlant before asking, “How do we develop new desires?” He was referring not only to architecture and design, but also to comfort and resistance to the business-as-usual model.

So, how do we imagine new futures to resist the present? How do we develop a hopeful optimism, in all our diverse practices, so that they can be connected?

The second person I’d like to reference is Mariame Kaba, an American activist and grassroots organizer advocating for the abolition of the prison-industrial complex who says that: “hope is a discipline.” This is not unrelated to the hopeful optimism Berlant talks about. Because the IPCC report and all its authors have given us the scale and the frequency at which change needs to happen. So maybe we can spend part of tonight keeping in mind the prescient words of another architecture historian Dubravka Sekulic, who, somehow enjoined both Berlant and Kaba—though I’m not sure it was purposeful!—when she recently tweeted: “Hope is a discipline, and our strength is in our relation.” To which I would add “Hope is a discipline, and our strength is in our relation, our labor, and our practices.”

DB: With that we’ll open the conversation up for questions from the audience. Please state your name beforehand.

QUESTION: Thanks for this. I’m Emily, and I’m a writer and editor. I liked the first quote, “How can we develop new desires?” Can you go into more detail about how to do that? For example, how can we create a desire beyond the single-family home?

EI: I really like that question. It’s so easy to think of architecture as only reapplying conventional models because you depend on structures of employment, the client, etc. How much can you really do to convince a client not to do that luxury condo? That will depend on a lot of factors, but most likely you’ll be ineffective in making that case. At the same time, it is very much in the tradition of architecture to propose different ways of living. So in my research, I study the relationship between our dominant energy paradigm and its spatial expression, trying to look at that reciprocity between energy and form. I’ve turned to a lot of the seminal texts of the 20th century, and what I find really interesting are the proposals of Soviet architects and planners to restructure the city and the way people lived. In these proposals, they would say explicitly, “We need to reinvent society. We need to reorganize our social order. And we need an architecture that will enable that change.” Of course, these figures were fighting to bring a new social and industrial order into being. From my perspective, the justification for their proposals is not all that different from what ours would be in proposing an architecture for carbon modernity. That’s ultimately where I think we need to go.

EH: I want to add on to this because there is another possible formulation of that quote, which is about how we acknowledge and make space for existing desires. To put it differently, how do we make space for alternative ways of living that already exist? You could say we’re starting to play with language here, but I think in some ways it is actually foundational to how we normally frame these conversations among ourselves. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s how we might frame conversations with people outside the discipline who are already living with these desires and in these realities. They are not especially recognized by developer architecture or architecture or architects. So, how do we acknowledge and make space for them in our practices?

Q: Hi, I’m Patrick. Daniel, I thought it was notable when you were summarizing the IPCC report because it seems to fall into two “scales” of action. There’s the micro scale, which is reinforced by the talk of changing personal desires, and there’s the macro scale of the IEA, whose recommendations we are just supposed to accept. It seems like the IPCC skips over the political scale.

DB: That’s an interesting observation. The authors of these reports tend to claim that their findings are apolitical, that they’re just science, right? But the language they use is increasingly agitated—there’s an urgency to it. From that, we might see an opening for a different set of politics to inform policy initiatives. We could call this the policy scale. Part of this is about the potential of reskilling, which in our case would be retraining those in the design professions to engage with policy making. (My colleague Billy Fleming has been tooting this horn relative to landscape architecture.) The other part is rethinking the social value of what it is we do. Our work can have a negative effect, possibly in cultivating dangerous desires, but it can also have a positive one, as in helping to steer policy analysis or advocacy initiatives. We can see this in the recent, desperately heated election in Australia, which is still very much a coal economy. But now there are two architects in the legislature! It shows what we can offer.

Q: Hello, I’m Guillermo and a PhD candidate in history and theory for architecture at Princeton. To go back to the terms “efficiency” and “sufficiency” that Daniel brought up, it seems obvious that efficiency has been readily picked up by real estate developers and capital. But adopting the perspective of sufficiency is much more difficult. Can we have sufficiency without structural change? I also wanted to ask about the split Elisa makes. Is it more helpful to think about architectural thought as labor?

EI: In my work, I talk a lot about “spatial configuration,” which is a way of saying that architecture gives form to economies. That’s what the modern project was all about, right? The modern project was a response to the chaotic mess of industrial society and how best to give it form and efficiency. To me, it isn’t about moving things around as if they were on a chessboard and putting them closer together, which, by the way, is basically what the IPCC report prescribes. Rearranging things in space is never a passive or apolitical act. Every time you reconfigure space, you create or maintain hierarchies or allow access to some and disallow access to others. It’s always about power.

To your question about architectural thought as labor, I think that’s a great way to put it, actually. In my notes, I had originally written “the discipline versus the profession,” but then thought it was a bit limiting. As an educator, I’m always thinking about how to prepare students for the profession. At the same time, I have the inverse thought—that we’re preparing architects in school to ask all these questions that don’t get an airing in the profession. How, then, do we reshape the profession? Where in the building industry can our labor be brought to bear? That’s what architectural thought tries to work through.

Q: I’m Louis and am also a PhD student in architectural history at Princeton, though in the art history department. Due to the overlapping crises we face, efficiency seems a lot better at involving architects to participate in mitigating the problem of climate or resolving the housing shortage in this country. By contrast, a sufficiency paradigm would seem to say no to building anything. It’s a kind of degrowth paradigm. How do you avoid drawing a false distinction between these crises or privileging one over the other? As a nonarchitect, I’m curious how you do that while balancing the day-to-day demands of your job.

DB: We’ve been hearing a lot from historians and PhD candidates tonight, so with the idea of reskilling in mind, I wonder if designers in the audience—those of you in the trenches, so to speak—might respond to that.

Q: Hi, I’m Dan, and I work as a designer and writer/editor. The previous comment brought to mind the work I’m currently doing on the Russia-Ukraine War. I heard recently that in response to all the destruction in Ukraine an institution in Paris is calling for reconstruction to have nEI zero as a priority. A lot of Ukrainian architects agreed that while this is a fantastic thing to aspire to, the country needs to build housing now. I thought that that illustrates the point about balancing priorities. Do you work to pacify the housing crisis by putting urgency above environmental concerns?

EI: That makes me think about Naomi Klein paraphrasing Milton Friedman: “When there’s a crisis, you work with the ideas that are lying around.” So, can you address housing and climate together? I think it depends on which ideas we have lying around. Unfortunately, due to a failure of architectural thought, we haven’t been very creative about proposing alternatives to the present way of doing things. Soon, we’re going to be having more climate-related migration. What happens when an entire city has to be resettled because it’s underwater? It puts us in a position of constantly having to rehouse people. If we don’t start making proposals to challenge the status quo, we will default to it. And the work of making proposals is architectural labor.

Q: I’m a recent Columbia MArch grad. I just wanted to give the example of Beirut, which is facing a huge energy crisis because of the stopping of fossil fuel shipments due to the war in Ukraine. It’s led to a kind of decentralization of the power supply. Many people decided to put solar panels on their roof and they would share the costs with other people in their apartment building. That is to say, these priorities aren’t always conflicting with one another. Sometimes, the sustainable or more efficient solution coincides with the more immediate concern.

DB: It’s an interesting thing to think about. Across the US, everyone is preparing themselves for the three-month-long heat wave. Right now, we’re in Lower Manhattan, and we’re relying on the steady provision of electricity to power air-conditioning. We’re part of a global culture and also a building culture that takes the provision of fuel and electricity as givens. But behind these is a huge project that involves endless economic inequities and geopolitical confrontations. Maintaining the status quo is, in itself, a massive political, economic, and energetic project.

Q: To add to what’s been shared, there are already many people in New York organizing around decommissioning prisons and power plants and adapting those sites for much-needed purposes. I wonder if reuse can be part of spatial reconfiguration. How do we work with the infrastructure we have but use them differently?

EH: To reiterate what was said earlier, in moments of stress or crisis, we turn to see what’s lying at hand. We saw a lot of that during Covid and we are seeing it in other situations, such as in Ukraine. Though in the case of Ukraine and elsewhere, I would say that it is not just about ideas but also resources and material. We can help identify those materials and suggest how they might be reused or repurposed. By the way, when I say “we” I mean those of us who wear many hats—designers, editors, researchers. But I also mean “we” in a privileged sense of those of us who have the luxury to pause, to take stock, to try, and to fail.

We have so many skills already at hand. A first question, depending on the urgency of the moment might be: how do you put them in the service of what you think is best? But another question, and one that I think more and more with is: how do we use our skills or tools in the service of persuasion? It may be the case that something is proposed and doesn’t work. But there’s an agency in that process.

Daniel A. Barber is professor of architecture and environment at the University of Technology Sydney and a Guggenheim Fellow. He was recently an inaugural research fellow at the Centre for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies at Universität Heidelberg, where he explored conceptual and practical challenges to designing for high heat scenarios.

Elisa Iturbe is assistant professor at The Cooper Union and co-founder of Outside Development, a design and research practice.

Elise Misao Hunchuck is trained as a philosopher and landscape architect yet practices neither. She likes trees and buildings, but not trees on buildings.