What We Build Is as Important as What We Build Out Of

CC BY 2.0. From left: Elsa Lam, Alan Orgaschi, Do Janne Vermeulen, Andrew Waugh, Richard Witt/ Photo Lloyd Alter

Architects at a Mass Timber round table note that we have to build great urban spaces at reasonable densities.

There was a fascinating panel discussion in Toronto recently, an international round table on Mass Timber. We have covered the work of Andrew Waugh, and toured Richard Witt's 80 Atlantic Avenue, but Alan Organschi of Gray Organschi Architecture first made the point that what we build is as important as what we build it out of, suggesting that we need higher densities.

The point was really driven home by Do Janne Vermeulen of Team V Architecture in Amsterdam. She reiterated that if we are serious about reducing our carbon emissions, we have to think about how we live and how our urban spaces are designed before we even start to think about buildings.

We have to think about how we get around before we start building, and then we have to build tall, to get the kind of densities we need to accommodate our growing urban populations. (I would rather she said "build dense" because, as Andrew Waugh has noted, you really don't have to build tall.)

emissions from building

Alan Organaschi slide/CC BY 2.0

This is a point that I have tried to make before. Alan Organschi showed this slide that says the building sector is 49 percent of GHG emissions, but what is the building sector and where does it end? When I went to University, architecture and urban planning were taught under the same roof. Some of the best urban designers and planners are in fact trained as architects. Architecture doesn't stop at the front door and urban planning or urban design take over; they are interrelated. Or as Jarrett Walker has tweeted,

Jarrett Walker Tweet

Jarrett Walker Tweet/Screen capture

Years ago in an important Worldchanging article, Alex Steffen wrote, "What We Build Dictates How We Get Around":

We know that density reduces driving. We know that we're capable of building really dense new neighborhoods and even of using good design, infill development and infrastructure investments to transform existing medium-low density neighborhoods into walkable compact communities. Creating communities dense enough to save those 85 million metric tons of tailpipe emissions is (politics aside) easy. It is within our power to go much farther: to build whole metropolitan regions where the vast majority of residents live in communities that eliminate the need for daily driving, and make it possible for many people to live without private cars altogether.
Emissions by sector

Emissions by sector/ Architecture 2030/CC BY 2.0

If you look at the Architecture 2030 pie chart of emissions by sector, they put buildings at around 40 percent, and transportation at 23 percent. But what is transportation? The majority of it is from cars, which are mostly driving between buildings. The next biggest transport item is trucking, because trains worked between dense transport nodes but we all now want overnight delivery to our front porches in the suburbs. Steffen was right; how we built out our cities determined how we and our stuff gets around. It's all about planning and urban design.

Emissions from transportation

Emissions from transportation/EPA/Public Domain

And what are the biggest items in the Industry sector? Most of it is likely supporting transportation, making cars and highways and bridges. I don't think it is a stretch to claim that architecture and urban planning together are responsible for 75 or 80 percent of our carbon emissions.

Slide re urban space

Do Janne Vermeulen slide/CC BY 2.0

I have said much of this before (see Why our cities should be wood, walkable, resilient, and sort of dense), but thought it wonderful to see prominent architects at a Mass Timber discussion talking about planning and density being such an important part of the discussion. I was particularly taken with Do Janne Vermeulen's emphasis on urban space. Because, to reiterate, what and where we build is as important as what we build it out of.