It's Time to Put Our Buildings on a Plant-Based Diet

Architect Joe Giddings says our buildings should be like our food and go veg.

Dalston Lane under Construction
Dalston Lane under Construction.

Waugh Thistleton Architects/ Photo Daniel Shearing

Joe Giddings is an architect and activist in the United Kingdom and the campaign coordinator at Architects Climate Action Network (ACAN), a role that introduced him to Treehugger readers earlier. With all the dire and pessimistic stories that have been published since the United Nation's recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, he remains cautiously optimistic.

Giddings wrote an article for the Architects Journal titled "Make mine a plant-based building please." He taps into the current zeitgeist with food and clothing:

"Plant-based options proliferate in supermarkets. The vegan sausage roll has been a sensation for Greggs [a UK chain]. Meat-free Mondays and Veganuary tempt the uninitiated into temporary abstinence. When it comes to culinary preferences and, increasingly, sartorial too, there is widespread understanding that ‘plant-based’ tends to mean better for the environment.
The science is broadly similar for architectural decisions; plant-based products and materials usually have lower associated carbon emissions and sequester carbon too, meaning they can have a positive impact on our climate. However, the concept of a ‘plant-based building’ is yet to become mainstream."

Here on the appropriately named Treehugger, we have been espousing plant-based building for years, going back almost a decade to when we tried to rewrite Michael Pollan's book "Food Rules into Building Rules," mostly to avoid the chemicals in foam insulation; these were the days before we worried about embodied carbon, the emissions released when making things rather than operating them. We have since explained why our building materials should be almost edible, noting that "Cork, straw and mushrooms can keep you warm and be a healthy, high-fiber part of a balanced building diet." I have written that high fiber diets are good for buildings, too. These were all written somewhat tongue-in-cheek before the climate crisis became so dire and immediate.

These days, it is hard to be frivolous about climate and to be an optimist. But it is not impossible, because as Giddings writes, "Despite this gloom, the message I gleaned from the IPCC conference on Monday morning was clear, surprisingly hopeful, and instantly applicable: we can still avoid drifting far beyond this target, and we can certainly limit warming to 2ºC this century. But we must act fast."

There is a reason for that optimism. The report is clear that if we cut emissions quickly and significantly and don't blow the 300 to 400 million metric ton carbon budget, then we are likely to keep warming to about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). As I noted in my previous post on the carbon budget, it's cumulative, and every ounce or gram counts. It's tough, but it's not impossible.

That's where plant-based building materials come into play: They can actually help increase the carbon budget by absorbing carbon dioxide, rather than counting against it.

Andrew Waugh in front of wood Project in London
Andrew Waugh in front of wood Project in London.

Lloyd Alter

Giddings writes:

"Let’s start with the biggies – sub- and super-structure. If it is difficult to imagine a plant-based foundation, because it simply doesn’t yet exist. But what you do above ground has a substantial impact on how deep your foundations need to be, and here we turn to the tree. In their 2017 Dalston Lane project, Waugh Thistleton demonstrated that a lighter timber structure can lead to more efficient foundation design."
Materials palette
Low carbon materials, mostly plants.

Lloyd Alter

Giddings also lists many low-carbon materials we have covered before, including hemp, straw, fiber-based insulations, and even my favorite flooring, linoleum. He notes also that building out of plants is one thing, but growing them is another, reminding us of the work of WoodKnowledge Wales to improve and sustainably harvest their forests. He concludes:

"For me this all adds up, forming a coherent strategy for decarbonising construction and reforesting the land. That’s why I believe ‘plant-based buildings’ should sit alongside ‘no demolition’ as a go-to rule-of-thumb for architects and designers."

Giddings is not the only one putting an optimistic spin on the IPCC report, and he sets a good example of how to write about the issue: Every article since the IPCC report came out has included the words "dire" or "grim," but they might also point out that it clearly tells us what we have to do. Giddings tells architects to learn from it and get down to business, whether it is building less or building simpler or building out of plants. And of course, starting right now.