A report signed by 270 scientists recently warned that countries’ efforts to address climate change were too “incremental” to be effective. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study called for “transformational” rather than piecemeal changes to reduce or offset carbon-emitting activities.
But it is not only world leaders who are being encouraged to rethink their approach to addressing climate change.
Jon Mohle, a senior product and market manager at Clark Pacific, a manufacturer of prefabricated building systems, said owners or architects are often presented with solutions that approach the sustainability of new projects in a similarly incremental fashion. As a result, they may adopt expensive solutions that are only partly effective in helping them meet their sustainability goals.
“With a building, you’ve got all these different pieces of your puzzle,” Mohle said. “You’ve got the structure, the HVAC system and the building envelope. Those are the three major components and they all have to work together.”
Frequently, he said, an owner will choose to address one component at a time. As a result, they might end up with a cutting-edge HVAC system that reduces their energy usage while keeping tenants comfortable, for example.
But they also could be left with a system that is not integrated well with other building components and, as a result, they are no closer to meeting their overall sustainability goals. Having focused completely on only one piece of the puzzle, they may have little left in the budget to address the building’s structural components or envelope in a similarly effective way.
“The only way this works is if you get creative and come up with a better way to do it,” Mohle said.
Building owners and architects need to find that better way soon if they hope to meet the Architecture 2030 Challenge. The program seeks to transform buildings from being emitters of 40% of greenhouse gasses into agents of change in the fight against climate change. To Mohle and Clark Pacific, one way to make that transformation is through an approach that addresses a whole building, versus one element at a time.
But, as Mohle said, this requires some creative thinking.
Clark Pacific’s approach doesn’t view an office building and its multiple floors as merely a place to put the workforce from 9 to 5. Instead, by paying equal attention to the relationship among HVAC, structure and facade systems, Mohle said the building can become a highly efficient “thermal energy storage mechanism.”
“We’re using that approach to enhance comfort but also reduce equipment sizes, such as by using smaller ductwork, and reducing energy demand,” he said. “Basically we’re turning all the elevated decks of the building into a big battery.”
Clark Pacific’s holistic solution is called the NetZERO building platform. It combines prefabricating the building frame off-site to reduce construction emissions with employing a thermally active concrete floor system to provide cost-effective heating and cooling and installing a thermally isolated building facade system to improve energy efficiency. The company said this approach reduces a building’s carbon footprint by 40%.
This strategy also allows developers to check off multiple items on their sustainability wish list. The NetZERO system uses 100% outside air to enhance tenant health and comfort, while also eliminating the use of greenhouse gas-emitting portland cement in its construction. Overall, the platform can reduce a building’s energy consumption by 30%.
“The concept is to combine the structure, the mechanical system and the facade in the building’s design and have them all work together toward a common goal: a sustainable, healthy and cost-effective building that continues to deliver on these goals throughout its life cycle,” Mohle said. “But I think the big story here is just the amazing amount of energy efficiency you get out of this system.”
Just as there will no doubt be more grim UN climate reports, developers will continue to struggle to reduce their buildings’ environmental impacts if they don’t look at the big picture, he said.
“We’ve got to look at this differently and we’ve got to take a holistic approach,” Mohle said. “We’ve developed a system to deliver a sustainable building at the same cost as a nonsustainable building. That’s the only way this is going to work because while we can’t change rising construction costs, we can change our approach to construction.”