U.S. industry groups have set a goal of achieving net-zero emissions in the building sector by 2040: But how? With growing environmental challenges, it’s crucial to rethink the way we design and operate our buildings. In a recent article for ThomasNet, co-founder Sander Van de Rijdt of PlanRadar shares insights on this topic.” Here are four key areas where designers can make a difference.

1. Build for Hyper-Local Conditions

New research shows that when it comes to creating buildings that are resilient against climate change impacts, U.S. designers are leaning into localization, as well as respecting and reflecting the local environment when designing and constructing projects. 

Virtually every building design accounts for regional and site-specific characteristics, such as regional weather patterns, infrastructure, or architectural vernacular. But to prepare buildings for a warming planet with more extreme weather, architects should plan for weather and environmental conditions at a hyper-local scale. 

That could mean recognizing that a given street corner could become a heat island and therefore using heat-reflective finishes or lush landscaping to mitigate the problem. Or it could mean noticing that local infrastructure will bring increased flood risks for a given block in coming years and therefore creating better drainage and elevation solutions. 

The key is to plan for current and future conditions on a micro-scale: if net-zero is a systemic solution, local impacts of the changing climate need to be addressed.

2. Design for Urban Livability 

Many designers are prioritizing reducing urban sprawl by building denser cities. That’s an important strategy when it comes to reducing transport emissions and increasing energy efficiency, but it brings challenges.

With 80% of the global population expected to live in urban areas by 2050, is there a path forward that provides real livability, rather than simply packing more high-rise construction into a given space?

The key is to think about each new urban project as part of an organic whole and to work with urban planners to ensure that transit links, walking and biking trails, pedestrian areas, and natural spaces such as pocket parks, are incorporated into new urban neighborhoods. Local resources such as grocery stores, entertainment facilities, and office spaces also need to be easily accessible to make the future of urban living as streamlined, equitable, and sustainable as possible.

3. Leverage Local Materials

In the U.S., designers are talented in using locally sourced materials to create low-impact new construction that’s more resilient and sustainable over the long haul. In some cases, the benefits are as simple as cutting down shipping-related emissions by using copper or granite from U.S. rather than Chinese suppliers, or by using green steel from innovative local foundries. 

In other cases, local traditions can drive innovative green-design practices that look and feel like they’re part of the community. Adobe, for instance, has been used in the Americas for thousands of years, but it remains one of the most sustainable building materials employed. 

By sourcing locally, builders can also boost local climate change mitigation efforts. Using smaller trees can support sustainable forest management strategies in wildfire-prone regions, for instance. 

4. Promote Sustainable Supply-Chain Practices 

Supply chain innovation is a strength for U.S. construction experts and architects, with increased transparency and use of new technologies to track materials from factory to worksite. Ethical labor and manufacturing practices are top priorities for many construction customers, so transforming the supply chain from end to end is the key to creating the buildings of tomorrow.

Many firms are also using circular supply chain principles to reduce waste and unlock new efficiencies. Using recycled and repurposed materials when building projects is just the first step: companies can also unlock environmental gains by building with end-of-lifecycle priorities in mind. 

Today’s best green designers create structures that can be easily dismantled, repurposed, or separated into component parts for easy recycling decades in the future.  

Building Towards a Greener Future

Climate impacts are already being felt by construction businesses all over the world, with extreme heat shrinking the outdoor labor force due to fatigue and illness among workers. The UN estimates that cities will add about 230 billion square meters over the next 40 years — a Paris-sized expansion per week — so developing a more resilient and sustainable construction industry has never been more important.

To maximize architecture’s potential and propel the burgeoning green construction movement forward, firms will need to work hand-in-hand and incorporate lessons from all corners of the world — while also working with respect for the needs and opportunities inherent in the local communities they serve.