CarbonPostive Conference

CarbonPositive’20 Conference: Key Takeaways for Architects, Engineers and Designers

We recently sat down with our attendees of the Architect & Architecture 2030’s CarbonPositive’20 conference to get their key takeaways, impressions and inspirations.

At the conference, Tom Knittel, design director for sustainability, presented on mass timber project delivery and Kate Diamond, civic design director, participated in a panel presentation on carbon sequestering concrete in LA. Jeff Wurmlinger, mechanical discipline leader, and Jill Edelman, new to HDR as a senior project designer, also joined in on the conference. They were unanimous in feeling that this was one of the best conferences they had ever attended and their enthusiasm was palpable as a result. Here’s what they had to say about what they learned and how those takeaways will translate into actions.

The Importance and Impact of Embodied Carbon

Jill: If I were to focus on a single takeaway, I’d have to say the outsized impact of embodied carbon in the next 10 years that we have to turn things around. This is not to dismiss operational carbon in any way, addressing operational carbon is a more mature practice and people — clients and practitioners alike — are increasingly comfortable with this. Right now we’re still wrapping our heads around how to understand embodied carbon.

Jeff: The takeaway that really stands out to me as a mechanical engineer is that we can make a difference. From a big-picture standpoint, about 51% of carbon is operational carbon, while 49% of a building’s carbon footprint is in the materials alone, we must also focus more on the embodied energy, because we are ‘paying for this’ up-front. This is more than sustainability, it’s actually understanding what it means to have a carbon impact. It’s not just this person or that person — everybody needs to get on-board and understand the importance of it.

Tom: For the last seven years, I’ve been trying to understand the impact of embodied carbon portion and am excited to see others working on it in their own ways. Through collective action, it’s where we can make the biggest change with at-scale. Period. Embodied carbon has been the elephant in the room, it’s finally coming to light.

A Sense of Urgency is Needed

Kate: I left this conference feeling an even greater sense of urgency to address these challenges and make sure that we don’t heat the climate past the tipping point. If we’re not doing everything in both embodied carbon and operational carbon – there is no way that the profession as a whole will get to carbon positive in time. I feel like I’m behind Tom on my focus on embodied carbon, since I’ve been far more focused on getting to net-zero operational energy consumption and net-zero carbon and operational carbon, but there is no time to be separating those two things. We need to find ways to do everything we can and hold ourselves accountable on every HDR project and with every HDR process. We have a massive carbon footprint, but that also means we have an amazing opportunity to change for the better.

Translating Urgency into Action

Jeff: When they grouped the U.S. in the ‘largest climate offenders in the world’ category with some of the countries that aren’t onboard yet, that was incredibly disappointing. However, it was a much brighter picture when they showed states, cities, mayors, congress people, and universities reinforcing the issue — so it was encouraging to see that this has a foothold in the U.S. It’s a positive thing to know that all of the smaller voices here, albeit not one large singular voice, are still saying ‘yes, this is something that’s important and we’re going to do our part.’

Tom: I was really inspired by Farhana Yamin’s presentation at the conference — the fact that as an environmental lawyer and activist, she succeeded, with a dedicated team of ‘lionesses’ in getting the 2050 net-zero emissions goals into the 2015 Paris Agreement. Because at the end of the day, without having action at the policy level, we’ll never fully get there. The policy that’s behind the changes that need to happen are being seen in Washington State, California, and in New York, so far and hopefully other states will join in and help make this happen. There were also a number of young people attending the conference, showing dedicated interest in this issue, and that really gives us hope. So I think between those two things, we have a chance of bringing about change.

Innovation and New Technologies are Crucial

Kate: I worry about the time it takes to take innovation to get to market. Clearly, we are going to need a lot of innovation in materials and processes to really get to net-zero carbon or carbon positive in all of our different building types. I am optimistic about the range of new technologies that are coming out. I think really and truly, the challenge of how we get those to market and approved by the relevant authorities having jurisdiction is a critical part of the thinking that we need. While it is important to make sure that the environmental claims are legitimate and the materials are safe, we have to learn how to move faster to make change happen. There was such energy at the conference, so many people who were going to go back out there and do things. We all have a long way to go, but the people and the energy at the conference made me feel optimistic.

The Power of Specifications

Jill: I think about the impact of materials and the power of specifications – which are under our control to a large extent. That – in addition to collaborating with engineers and being able to work through the outsized carbon contribution from structures – made me feel optimistic about an actionable way forward. As I’m just arriving to HDR, I want to investigate what specification writing mechanisms we use here – I think there is a great opportunity in specs to raise performance by the entire firm when it comes to embodied carbon.

AIA’s Critical Role in Pushing Carbon Issues Forward

Kate: I was really happy to know the American Institute of Architects, or AIA, is making significant moves to address our carbon impact and to make it a critical part of the ethics of our profession. It’s important to remind everyone that the AIA has redefined the Committee on the Environment’s 10 focus areas as the definition of Design Excellence for ALL AIA Design Award programs.

Tom: When they pulled up a slide with the logos of all the large firms signed up for the AIA 2030 challenge and HDR’s logo was displayed big, it was certainly a proud moment. It’s important to remember that the large firm roundtable represents 51% of AIA members, 245,000 employees worldwide, 56% of all the fees -- so large firms really can make a difference. This really reinforces HDR’s responsibility to meet the 2030 Challenge.

Collective Conversations Can Move the Profession Forward

Tom: I’ve already begun using AIA’s Design Excellence framework as an internal tool to build on what Colin Rohlfing, HDR’s director of sustainable development, and the rest of sustainability team have been working on. This call to action underscores the need to address each of the AIA Top 10 measures along the way in our design process  and thinking how to frame our project stories accordingly.

Jeff: I’m starting with a local approach. My idea is to get the entire office together to have a conversation about this – mostly to share a lot of the presentations from the conference, to share my takeaways and lessons learned, and to really work on getting everyone onboard.

Jill:  I plan on distributing the “Countdown on Carbon” document when I arrive. There are so many great resources in that document, and I hope it’ll serve as a jumping off point for conversations with people. To give people an opportunity to engage is key. Everybody, from the newest intern to more senior staff, can take part in the conversation and better understand how they can contribute to solving the problem.

Kate: Continuing to focus on a collective approach is key. It’s not just architects that can address these issues, it’s not just engineers — it’s all of us doing this together. All of these elements have to be done together in order to create the biggest change. We have to figure out ways to take the extraordinary opportunity we have as an integrated architecture and engineering practice and the experts that we have here at HDR to bring them together even more and to do this faster and with more urgency.