The Construction Industry Is Climate-Unfriendly—But It's Complicated

The Economist lists three reasons for this. We list a few more.

View toward empire state building
The JP Morgan Chase headquarters in New York City.

Foster + Partners

Embodied carbon—or upfront carbon as I prefer to call it—has long been studiously ignored by much of the development and construction industry. If you want to build tall, you need lots of concrete and steel, both of which are carbon-intensive. Now, The Economist notes the contradictions in an article, titled "The Construction Industry Remains Horribly Climate-Unfriendly."

They start off with our poster child for unsustainable design, the JP Morgan Chase tower where a LEED Platinum modernist icon was knocked down to make a bigger tower. They then note some of the problems in actually addressing the issues saying "three obstacles make it harder to build sustainably."

Obstacle 1

According to The Economist, the first obstacle is that "the property industry has focused almost entirely on making buildings more efficient to run at the expense of embodied carbon emissions." It adds, "As a result, little progress has been made on monitoring and restricting embodied carbon. Britain, for example, has passed legislation requiring new homes to produce at least 75% less carbon from 2025. Yet it places no limits on the upfront carbon emissions needed to build or dispose of them."

Obstacle 2

The second obstacle is what they call "the indestructible appeal of the wrecking ball," noting: "The building sector would sooner knock down a structure than reuse it, resulting in a carbon-intensive cycle of demolition and construction."

There are so many reasons for this, including the tax structures. In the United Kingdom, renovations and repairs are subject to 20% VAT and new buildings are not. In North America, building values are depreciated over time, generating big tax deductions; it can pay to knock down a building and replace it once it is written off, starting the whole cycle over again.

Obstacle 3

The third obstacle is "the chronically underwhelming productivity of the construction sector as a whole." The Economist states: "Global productivity growth in the industry has long lagged behind that of the wider economy. Building methods for new homes have barely evolved in over a century." 

The Economist

If the world is to reach net-zero emissions, the construction sector will need to make enormous strides—and fast

The problem with this article is there are significantly more than three obstacles. It starts with the question: What exactly is the construction industry? In a recent post, architect Michael Eliason expanded it, calling it the AEC (architectural, engineering, and construction) industry, but even that is not inclusive enough. 

The Obstacle of the Planning Industry

The suburban sprawl.

Steve Proehl / Getty Images

There is the planning establishment that determines what can be built and where. As planner and author M. Nolan Gray writes in his new book "Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It," excerpted in Planetizen:

"For better or worse, local governments now determine most zoning policy in the U.S. While states and the federal government have an important role to play, local governments are nonetheless best positioned to reform zoning today. There are at least four zoning reforms that cities and suburbs must embrace: ending single-family zoning, abolishing minimum parking requirements, eliminating or lowering minimum floor area and minimum lot size requirements, and decriminalizing inherently affordable housing typologies."

These are the rules that determine how much concrete is poured for parking garages, and why most of North America and the U.K. are stick-framed by hand much the same way they have been for a century. And it was not always thus, as this example from Toronto demonstrates.

Dundas Sherbourne Toronto
Dundas-Sherbourne Housing/ Diamond and Myers 1976.

Barton Myers papers / UC Santa Barbara

Back in the '60s, neighborhoods in Toronto would be flattened and replaced with high-rise towers. In the '70s, there was a backlash against this and some wonderful alternatives, like the Dundas-Sherbourne housing project by Diamond and Myers, where new housing was built behind the existing houses on top of what was the back lane. Architect Bruce Kuwabara described it to me as "a high-rise on its side." 

It is hard to do this kind of thing today. The vast majority of the city is frozen in amber by single-family homeowners, who suggest apartments should be built next to highways.

Toronto continues to get 60- and 80-story residential towers on industrial lands or on busy main arterial roads because they can't build high-rises on their sides behind houses as Barton Myers did 50 years ago.

The Obstacle of the Transportation Industry

Jarrett Walker Tweet

Jarrett Walker via Twitter

As transportation consultant Jarrett Walker noted in one of my favorite tweets of the decade, what we build and how we get around are not two separate issues but two sides of the same coin. What we build is determined by how we get around and vice versa. Accepting the continued proliferation of cars, whether gas or electric, means accepting the carbon emissions from sprawl, from the concrete used to build and expand highways and parking garages.

The Obstacle of the Financial Industry

This brings us back full circle to JP Morgan Chase, its CEO Jamie Dimon, and the money they control. There is an old saying that developers don't borrow money to build; they build to borrow money. The hope and prayer is they will be able to sell for more money than they have to pay back. Just watch "The Big Short" and see how the entire building and real estate industry was a financial construct rather than a physical construct.

See also Eliason's recent post where he notes we need funding for social housing and different forms of tenure like his beloved Baugruppen ("building groups" in German). The system promotes private ownership because that is where the money is, not because that is what is needed for housing.

This is why it's shortsighted to blame the construction industry for being "horribly climate-unfriendly" without looking at the bigger picture. They build what financiers will give them money to build, what and where they are allowed to under the zoning, according to codes written before anyone knew about embodied carbon, often pouring more concrete to accommodate cars than people. It is honestly surprising that there is any innovation or progress at all.